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Monaco preview - Mercedes win far from certain

21 May 2014

Monaco has long been a place on which to bet the farm, and all of Mercedes’ rivals head here praying that their numbers come up on a track that might just neutralise the Silver Arrows’ perceived advantage of very high top speed.

One thing is for sure, and that is that the tightness of the corners, the closeness of the barriers, the chicanes, surface bumps and white lines make this one of the hardest tracks of the season. All of which makes the form much harder to predict than elsewhere.

Red Bull and Ferrari arrive firmly believing that Monaco will offset their poor straight-line speed, and the cornering performance of the former’s RB10 car has long been recognised as standard-setting by trackside observers.

"Monaco is one of my favourite tracks, it's an absolute challenge," admits Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who comes here ready to fight for his first win since Brazil last year. "You cannot afford to make one single mistake, because you would easily crash into the railings. Overtaking is only possible with taking an extreme risk. The best place to overtake is before the harbour chicane when we exit the narrow tunnel at 300 km/h and race towards the first-gear chicane. Other than that, it’s all about patience in Monaco and hoping for complete reliability as the suspension and drive are massively in demand around this extreme, uneven rollercoaster of a circuit - it’s immense.

"In the perfect situation, you would have had a good quali and start from the front. Monaco offers some really great memories with the team, especially when everyone ended up jumping in the pool and one year Mark and I even ended up in the harbour. It’s very special in Monaco and it’s the race where we have our Energy Station with its larger outside area floating in the harbour; it’s a great, great event."

Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso also hopes that Mercedes could be vulnerable here, and that Red Bull will challenge strongly.

"I think Monte Carlo will be one of the few possibilities to challenge Mercedes, especially for Red Bull," he says. "In the corners they [Red Bull] are very fast but on the straights they seem to lose a lot of lap time. In Monte Carlo there are no straights so Red Bull could challenge Mercedes."

He also stresses that Ferrari are not aiming merely for a podium finish here. "It’s true the world championship is in their [Mercedes'] hands. They have a big advantage, but I think it's not any different to any sport, or any racing over the years - we can fight. We need to have a strong weekend and get some good points."

So what about Mercedes?

Championship leader Lewis Hamilton arrives in Monaco Grand Prix on the back of four straight wins. Only six drivers (Michael Schumacher, Nigel Mansell, Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, Alberto Ascari and Sebastian Vettel) have won five or more consecutive Grands Prix in one season - and ominously for Hamilton’s rivals, all went on to win the championship in those same seasons.

Hamilton has been saying recently that he needs to study team mate Nico Rosberg’s data to see why he was the faster of the two here last year, and in Bahrain and Barcelona this season, when he feels he should be dominating the German. Rosberg, meanwhile, has been saying he needs to improve his starts and sort his F1 W05 Hybrid out better under braking. How the psychological battle between the two pans out will be just one of the fascinating aspects of the weekend.

"It's been a busy few weeks for me, both on track and away from it, but I'm pleased to be getting back to racing again," Hamilton says. "And what a place to get back to it! Monaco is just incredible to drive and any driver will tell you that's the race they want to win. So many great names become legends around this circuit. It's an honour to fight for your place amongst them and a real test of your skills behind the wheel.

"The last few races have been just incredible. I honestly never expected I'd win four consecutive Grands Prix in my career and I'd love to continue that run here. I've had some work to do in terms of getting the car exactly as I want it after the weekend in Spain: it was so close between our cars at the end and I need to keep pushing to find any extra edge I can. The car has been strong at every race so far and I'm sure it'll be the same in Monaco, so we should be set for an entertaining weekend."

Meanwhile, Rosberg says: "Monaco: my home town! Obviously, I associate many wonderful memories with this place. It's where I grew up and where I now live as an adult. But in sporting terms too, I have had some great moments here: in particular last year when I won here for the first time in my Formula One career. That was an absolutely incredible feeling. Driving a Formula One car here is simply fantastic and it's an event every driver looks forward to each year.

"Overall I was quite pleased with the last race weekend in Barcelona. Disappointed, of course, not to have taken the win but happy that the team achieved another one-two finish. The championship battle is very close and to regain the advantage at my home race would be fantastic, so I'll be pushing harder than ever to make that happen. I had a productive day of testing in Barcelona where we made some good progress with braking and starts: two areas that I feel are costing me time at the moment. Hopefully that will give me the extra edge."

Tyre wear and degradation will still be factors here this year, despite the lower speeds, because of the phenomenal torque of the latest hybrid engines will place huge loads on the rubber.

Drivers make more than 130 steering inputs every lap at Monaco, and change gear on average every 50 metres. That means an awful lot of work for the tyres. The Grand Hotel hairpin is the slowest corner of the season, taken at around just 47 km/h, and that means that there isn’t any aerodynamic downforce being generated, so with full steering lock the front-right tyre is doing the work in changing direction.

Once again Pirelli will opt for its two softest compounds, which means the red-marked supersoft making its first appearance of 2014 alongside the yellow-marked softs.

With Monaco having the lowest average lap speed of the year, as well as the slowest corners of the season, the cars rely much more on mechanical rather than aerodynamic grip - which is generated only by the tyres. A quick tyre warm-up is essential, to allow the compounds to deliver maximum adhesion as quickly as possible. A slippery surface, with the usual furniture found on a street circuit - such as painted lines, manhole covers and bumps - only adds to the challenge.

"Monaco is obviously a showcase event for everyone involved in Formula One, with a unique atmosphere and a special challenge that you just don’t see anywhere else," says Paul Hembery, Pirelli’s motorsport director. "The supersoft tyres make their debut in Monaco, which like all our 2014 slick tyres have new compounds and constructions this year, designed to improve their durability. Wear and degradation is traditionally very low in Monaco, so it’s possible to do the race with just one pit stop. However, that’s not always the quickest way, therefore strategy will as always play an important part: particularly with Monaco being such a difficult track to overtake on. This also increases the importance of qualifying.

"Any race strategy has to be flexible as there is a high probability of safety cars on the narrow circuit, so reading the race to make use of any potential opportunities exactly as they happen will once more be key to success."

Early weekend weather forecasts suggest the possibility of showers, particularly for Thursday - when the opening two practice sessions are by tradition run in Monte Carlo - and Sunday, with ambient temperatures in the range of 22 to 25 degrees Celsius.

Apart from some resurfacing work the track is largely unchanged since 2013, with its single DRS zone located along the start-finish straight, commencing 18 metres after the final Turn 19 and with its detection point 80 metres after Turn 16.

Sunday’s race will run over 78 laps or 260.520 kilometres (161.887 miles) and starts at 14.00 hours local time, which is two hours ahead of GMT.