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Street-fighting men - drivers ready to do battle in Monte Carlo 22 May 2008

(L to R): Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren with team mate Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) McLaren and their Steinmetz diamond encrusted helmets.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 6, Monaco Grand Prix, Preparations, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Wednesday, 21 May 2008 Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 6, Monaco Grand Prix, Preparations, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Wednesday, 21 May 2008 Honda RA108 nose.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 6, Monaco Grand Prix, Preparations, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Wednesday, 21 May 2008 Sebastien Bourdais (FRA) Scuderia Toro Rosso.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 6, Monaco Grand Prix, Preparations, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Wednesday, 21 May 2008 Boats in the harbour.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 6, Monaco Grand Prix, Preparations, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Wednesday, 21 May 2008

The Principality of Monaco is en fete, all ready for the first day of practice. This is often when there can be drama, as drivers explore the limits on a track that is still ‘green’ and which has yet to become ‘rubbered in’ and grippy. As we all know, Monaco can exact a high price even for the smallest error. What might result in a harmless off-course moment almost anywhere else can mean a suspension-crunching trip into the wall here. That’s part of the reason why the Monaco Grand Prix is rightly regarded as the jewel in Formula One’s crown.

“Overtaking on the street circuit at Monaco is virtually impossible even if the other car is much slower,” says McLaren star Heikki Kovalainen, who would like nothing more than to put his Spanish Grand Prix accident and his Turkish misfortune firmly behind him by breaking his F1 duck with a win here on Sunday.

“That means qualifying is even more important than on any of the other tracks. You have to be near the front of the grid, otherwise you can’t run your own pace. You end up stuck behind the slower cars and that costs you huge amounts of time. During the qualifying session, the priority is track position, to allow you to do your own lap and avoid other cars, but it is very difficult. Everybody tries to slow down at the last hairpin to get a gap to the next car, so when you are on your flying lap one lap later you arrive wanting to complete your fastest time and everyone is waiting there again to pull their gap out. So timing is what we are focused on, and luck! Set-up, balance and getting the most out of the car is of course very important, but timing is crucial.”

The drivers all love the track. Some observers believe it is easier because it is slower, but Kovalainen disagrees. “It is not very forgiving and you have to focus every single moment and be the maximum on each lap, you can’t relax anywhere. It also has unique characteristics, such as the sound is very different. It is louder even in the car because of the buildings surrounding the track. All the drivers like it because it is a challenge, and we like our challenges! It is a very special race and it is very difficult to win, that is why everybody is very motivated to do just that.

“It can be very frustrating, the biggest reason is being stuck behind the slower cars, but the challenges far outweigh that. It is possible to overtake; probably the easiest place is the exit of the tunnel down into the chicane. But even that is reasonably easy to defend, you just go to the inside line. You really need the guy in front to make a mistake, which when you know you have a faster car can be annoying. Like I said, the simple answer is to make sure you qualify near the front!”

The key to a quick lap here is to be brave. You have to attack the brakes and the fast corners, and to be very aggressive as you drive as close to the walls as possible without actually hitting them. Because of the tight, twisting nature of the course and the lack of any real straights in the accepted sense, everyone runs the maximum levels of downforce because the associated drag penalty is irrelevant here. Grip and traction are paramount.

That is why, this time, Bridgestone have brought their soft and supersoft tyres for the first time this season. The lack of traction control this season will make itself felt more in Monaco than anywhere else, especially if it is wet. Ferrari’s Felipe Massa believes that it will turn every corner into a potential danger area.

“For sure, maybe here it was already quite difficult with traction control,” the Brazilian says. “Without traction control it will be a lottery. Who is driving very carefully will maybe have a chance to win the race, but the problem is that you start learning all the corners in the wet without traction control but then you start to go every lap more and more to see the limit. And sometimes if you pass that limit a little bit you are already in the wall. It was like that with traction control. Without I don't know how it is going to be but it will be very tough.”

Ferrari are feeling very confident for this race, after their testing in Paul Ricard last week, and one of the reasons, Massa added, is their set-up.

“We always in the past two years, maybe even more, had some idea on the set-up and always brought a similar set-up here. I think last year after this race we were working very hard with different strategies on the set-up and how to improve the mechanical grip on the car because downforce is very important but also mechanical grip and traction. It is so important to maybe gain lightly in every corner, so at the end of the lap you can gain a lot. We have worked a bit differently, so hopefully we can have a good result, but it is also true that we could have some rain. The rain here becomes a lottery for everybody, so you cannot predict anything.”

David Tremayne