RACE DEBRIEF

    If you had picked a race ahead of the season that would give Ferrari and Red Bull their best opportunity for victory, chances are you would have chosen this weekend’s race in Monaco. Mercedes have been off the pace in the Principality in the last couple of years, allowing Ferrari and Red Bull to take a win apiece. And with Mercedes having won all five races with one-twos so far in 2019, it’s no surprise that the subject of a potentially different winner was a hot topic in the Monte Carlo…

    The F1 paddock was in mourning on Wednesday, following the news Niki Lauda, a three-time world champion, had passed away. The Austrian was an F1 favourite who was great company. His efforts at Mercedes, where he served as non-executive chairman, were a key part in the Silver Arrows achieving the level of dominance they have enjoyed over the last five seasons.

    READ MORE: 'Quite simply irreplaceable' - F1 pays tribute to Niki Lauda

    Lauda twice won in Monaco, the Austrian taming the tight and twisty streets in his Ferrari to triumph in 1975 and 1976. On paper, his Mercedes team face their sternest challenge of the campaign to repeat that feat, with the Silver Arrows having struggled to challenge at the sharp end in each of the last two years. Last year, the fight for victory was between Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, the former holding off the German while nursing an engine issue to come out on top.

    2019 Monaco GP
    Mercedes' subtle tribute to Niki Lauda

    Max Verstappen will fancy his chances, of course. Had he not crashed in final practice last year, and missed qualifying as a result, the Dutchman would have very likely won the race – with Red Bull probably scoring a one-two. This year, though, he was playing down his chances. “We get into this weekend seeing Mercedes clearly as the favourite,” he said. “I don’t think we are as good as we were last year. But we will find out. I’m confident that we can fight for a podium, but we have to find out what step of the podium.”

    His team mate Pierre Gasly echoed his team mate’s cautious take on the state of play. “Based on previous races, the team here has been pretty much stronger than at any other track,” he said. “It’s a track that suits the car well. I would not say we are the favourites but we should have a better performance than at other tracks.”

    Red Bull will know this is their best chance of victory since last year’s Mexican Grand Prix, but they are also aware Mercedes will likely be more of a threat this year on the Monte Carlo streets. Why? Well in Barcelona, the Silver Arrows were brilliantly quick in the third sector – which is packed full of low-speed corners. Gasly described their pace there as “pretty scary”. Yes, Monaco and the third sector of Spain are very different challenges still, but according to our data simulations, Mercedes look like they will have the best package this year, with Red Bull and Ferrari closely matched and not too far behind.

    2019 Monaco GP
    “Coming here, anything can happen, but certainly going forward we know we are not quick enough to beat Mercedes” – Sebastian Vettel

    We shouldn’t be surprised, really. Mercedes have been brutally efficient this year and taken every single opportunity afforded to them. Reliability has been impressive and they are operating on a level not seen in the history of F1. Lewis Hamilton has also described the W10 as the best the team have ever produced

    Ferrari have struggled to get the tyres to work consistently in 2019, the type of track surface having a big impact on their level of competiveness. Whether or not they can contend for victory in Monaco will depend partially on whether they understand their car better. Ferrari chief Mattia Binotto suggested their pain could be caused by the overall design concept, and admitted earlier today that the team are “already working in Maranello on evaluating new concepts, as well as bringing some initial further updates” to Monaco. It will take time for them to define what changes are needed – and even longer for them to be introduced.

    But Vettel, winner in 2017, does not believe that rules out hope of victory here, and is open-minded about the team’s chances. “Obviously this track is unique and anything can happen this weekend, so it’s probably irrelevant what the paper might say or the form of the last four or five races might suggest,” he said. “Coming here, anything can happen, but certainly going forward we know we are not quick enough to beat Mercedes. But we are working very hard to make a difference to do so as soon as we can.”

    2019 Monaco GP
    Leclerc would dearly love to take his first F1 win at home

    His team mate Charles Leclerc, racing on home soil for Ferrari for the first time, also tried to remain positive. “The low-speed corners weren’t great in Barcelona, but normally Monaco is pretty different,” he said. “We will try to turn things round. It’s not going to be easy but we will give it everything.”

    Crucially for Ferrari, they are not letting their heads drop despite the drubbing they have received at the hands of Mercedes. Get everything right in qualifying – when the hard work for the race win is done given the lack of overtaking opportunity – and they could finally get some light relief come Sunday.

    Red Bull, too, will be thinking this is their time to shine, the impressive amount of downforce the RB15 can generate a real plus point in Monte Carlo. But much will depend on what Mercedes do. If they get everything right, as they have done all season, the driver on the top step may well be bedecked in silver. Given the circumstances, that would be a fitting way to end what will be a very sombre weekend.