The fifth round of this year’s Formula One Championship sees drivers return to the Principality of Monaco. Can Max Verstappen and Red Bull halt Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton’s charge?
After playing host to motor racing for over a century, the streets of Monaco were left deserted in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the race getting cancelled for the first time since its inception in 1950, but after a hiatus of just one year the action returns to the Principality.
Apart from being the most glamorous race in the Formula 1 calendar, the Circuit de Monaco is also the shortest track with the lowest average speed. To counter that, teams usually rely on the usage of high downforce levels, which most teams balance by opting for higher front wings and longer rear wings.
Being a street circuit, the track tends to be very green and slippery at the beginning but rapidly evolves as the weekend progresses. The race weekend, itself, is different from the other race weekends in this year’s calendar. After running the first two practice sessions on Thursday, teams enjoy a nice 24-hour mid-week break, with the track open to normal traffic in the evenings and most of the Friday. By the time drivers hit the track again on Saturday, the track often resets itself to its greener and slippery version.
Because of the lower levels of macro roughness of the tarmac and the low energy loads going through the tyres, Monaco has traditionally been a one-stop race, with the pit window wider than any other track on the calendar. In 2019, Lewis Hamilton won the race on a one-stop softs-mediums strategy when he pitted on Lap 11 under the safety car. It was the same with the other podium finishers, though they pitted for the hard compound tyres.
A cork in the bottle
When the season ends in Abu Dhabi by mid-December, many experts might look back at this weekend’s Monaco GP as the title decider. Mercedes had the upper hand in Portugal and Spain, both of which are similar tracks with medium and high-speed corners – a stronghold of Mercedes – though Red Bull was stronger in the more technical and twisty parts of the tracks, which bodes well for them coming into Monaco.
Monaco is the sort of track that is rewarding for good mechanical grip and a light chassis, while aerodynamic grip, “high-rake vs low-rake”, and the curvy front wings are arguments for another weekend. This is a track where you want to throw in as much downforce as you can and pray that the car has sufficient mechanical grip to utilise that downforce.
It will be a crucial weekend for Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez, for the Mexican has failed to back up his teammate in each of the first four races this season. If he can get in on the mix, Red Bull can stop Mercedes from pulling out any tricks, like their tyre gamble in Barcelona.
A challenge for the drivers
Yes, it is the shortest track on the calendar, with the shortest race distance at 260 kilometres – some 45 kilometres less than the 305-marker mandated by FIA. But the interminable twists, turns, slow corners, and the lack of straight line makes it one of the most difficult tracks to compete in. Drivers need every bit of concentration, focus, mental grit and skill to complete this 78-lap-long race.
With no apparent run-off area and a track that is cramped everywhere, drivers seemingly feel the encroaching barriers closing in around them as the race wears on and fatigue sets in. After two breath-taking starts by Max Verstappen in the last three races, one can expect Lewis to get the elbows out eventually.
The pair of them collided in the latter stages of the 2019 Monaco GP, though without any damage to both of their cars. A similar situation can arise in this weekend’s Grand Prix. As witnessed in the previous seasons, a clash of the titans is on the cards, sooner or later. The run-up to St. Devote could be the point where this battle takes a turn.
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McLaren’s one-off livery
In other bit of news, the McLaren team will be running a one-off livery for this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix. The Woking-based team have decided to return a legendary livery for their Sponsor Gulf. Since their announcement, the idea has been mooted elsewhere to nominate Monaco GP as a “retro-livery” throwback weekend. Although it is difficult to work with the sponsors, if the weekend gets picked specifically in advance, it might make the existing sponsors willing to associate with such a throwback.
With all the ingredients in place for the race weekend, now we just need to hold back and wait for the food to be served as the drivers take to the track on Thursday afternoon.