This weekend, Formula One heads to the streets of Monte-Carlo, the golden ribbon event of the season: the Monaco Grand Prix. There is nothing quite like Monaco. It is the most glamorous and richest race on the calendar.
It is also the oldest race on the F1 calendar, and has existed since 1929. The race was the brain wave of Anthony Noghes, who was president of the Monegasque car club at the time, and has since witnessed some of the most dramatic races in the history of motorsport.
Fierce braking and acceleration are a major feature, and suit a lighter car, but the race distance is about 40 kilometres shorter than most, so drivers have less chance to capitalise.
More pertinently, it’s essential to qualify well because overtaking borders on the impossible, no matter how quick your car might be.
A little flexibility is required, Safety Cars are a tradition, but two-stop strategies are the norm. In 2008, though, Felipe Massa attempted a one-stopper...and would have won had the fluctuating weather not forced him to make a supplementary tyre change.
For the drivers it is the most challenging circuit on the calendar. The slow twisty streets of Monte-Carlo are extremely narrow, and surrounded by armco barriers throughout. There is absolutely nowhere on the track where the drivers can relax.
Mistakes here are punished very heavily. Any small error could mean contact with the barrier, which could result in retirement. To set a fast-lap time the drivers need to take risks, going as close to the walls as they dare, but without losing part of their car. Fortune favours the brave.
The drivers can make a decisive difference to the lap times, as opposed to circuits like Catalunya where it’s all about the car. Monaco separates the great drivers from the world class drivers. Some drivers say that winning the Monaco GP is equivalent to half a world championship. Ayrton Senna won the race an unprecedented 6 times.
Overtaking at Monaco is practically impossible, and the 2009 aero regulations won’t change that. The only half chance is coming out of the tunnel and into the tight chicane. Strategy plays a pivotal role in the race. The strategists on the pit wall will be worked very hard.
Therefore qualifying is absolutely critical. To have any chance of winning, starting at the front is essential. Four of out of the last five Monaco GP’s have been won from pole position.
Qualifying at Monaco under the current knockout system is challenging, as overcoming traffic is more difficult than at any other track. Due to the tightness of the current grid it will be harder still. We have already seen some major casualties in Q1 this season.
The likelihood is that this trend will continue, and you can bet we will see a couple of blocking penalties too. Qualifying could be quite dramatic.
Traffic will also play a major factor in the race itself. Lapping back markers in Monaco is notoriously tough. If the leaders are too cautious or nervous they could lose vital time.
Another feature of races at Monaco is the appearance of the Safety Car. Due to the tight confines of the track, the Safety Car is normally needed to clear the track if a car hits the wall. In fact it is a rare occurrence when a Safety Car is not needed during the race.
In terms of the cars, they are setup with as much down force as possible. However, a car lacking in aero efficiency isn’t a huge drawback, as there aren’t any quick corners.
Brawn GP survived the first set of major upgrades in Spain, and still look to be the team on top in F1 2009. But the question is can they be beaten?
Along with Red Bull, they have been the most consistent teams so far in 2009. They are the main challengers for victory this weekend. Brawn GP in particular will be strong yet again. Monaco’s characteristics should really suit their car.
The car has extremely good traction/exit speeds coming out of the slower corners. The car was quick through the third sector in Catalunya. This sector is made of slow and twisty corners similar to the whole of the Monaco lap.
Red Bull Racing on the other hand is best suited to the faster circuits. This is why the car was very fast in China. The car should also fare very well at tracks like Istanbul and Silverstone, which are coming up in the very near future.
Monaco may not be as strong for them, but their high level of mechanical grip should serve them well on the twisty track.
Red Bull’s victory chances this weekend perhaps depend on whether they can get their double diffuser ready in time. If they can, they could be right up there in the mix with Brawn GP.
Sebastien Vettel will be really desperate to beat Jenson Button this weekend. The gap in the championship between them is currently 18 points. He knows that potentially two big chances were lost in the last two races due to being stuck behind KERs cars, and losing too much time.
The more Button extends his gap the tougher he will become to catch. Button has simply driven faultlessly so far this season. He has a great car underneath him, from which he has extracted the maximum from it. Forty-one out of 45 points is incredible form, only just falling short of Schumacher’s start to the season in 2004 and Mansell’s in 1992.
Rubens Barrichello is another man who will be desperate to beat Button. Spain was his biggest chance so far to register a victory in 2009 but it fell away from him. He needs to start closing the gap to his team mate immediately, otherwise the team will be forced to focus more on the Englishman in terms of the championship.
The next two races are perhaps the crossroads in Barrichalleo's championship. If he can beat Button in Monaco, and again in Turkey it’s game on. On the other hand if he loses out to Button again in the next two rounds then his challenge could be over already.
However, in Monaco there is always a surprise due to the uniqueness of the circuit and Brawn GP's dominance is by no means a given. Who could cause an upset this weekend?
Lewis Hamilton has declared his "love" of Monaco, and has always excelled here. He could mix it near the front. Although repeating his win last season remains unlikely, a podium is possible.
Mclaren Mercedes should be much stronger than they were in Spain. Catalunya always shows up the cars that have major weaknesses, and that’s why Mclaren fell backwards. Monaco often hides the major issues that a poor car has. Even the dreadful 2007 Honda ran reasonably well in Monaco.
Ferrari made a very impressive step forward in Spain. It was practically a new car. They will fancy their chances of being reviving their season after the blunders in Barcelona. Although the team’s recent form at the principality has been woeful. They have only won one Monaco GP this decade, in 2001.
Toyota looked to have slipped back in Spain after the first round of upgrades. They will be looking to get back on track. Jarno Trulli has gone very well in Monte-Carlo in the past. He took a brilliant pole to flag victory in 2004 (his only F1 win so far) and put a Jordan on the front row in 2000
The nature of Monaco is such that there will be surprises come Sunday. Could among these be that: Nico Rosberg finally scores a decent result? Adrian Sutil, a Monaco specialist if there ever was one, repeat his antics of last year without Kimi Raikkonen interfering with his destiny?
And what if rain decides to unload on the principality? Plenty to look forward to this weekend so let the partying begin...
My top eight prediction
1. Jenson Button
2. Sebastien Vettel
3. Rubens Barrichello
4. Lewis Hamilton
5. Jarno Trulli
6. Mark Webber
7. Kimi Raikkonen
8. Nico Rosberg