It's finally here; F1's return to the streets of Monaco, arguably the most anticipated weekend on the Formula One calendar and one with added spice this year. The V6 generation cars have proved themselves to be a handful to drive at times, and around F1's most unforgiving circuit the consequences for a driver error are high. As if you needed any other reason to watch F1's most famous race, it is also fair to say Mercedes will not enjoy the walk in the park it did in Spain. They are still the team to beat, but the chasing pack will be hoping to add another upset to Monaco's famous history.
If the word form had a picture caption alongside it in the Oxford Dictionary at the moment it would almost certainly be one of Lewis Hamilton. Since a retirement outside of his control in Australia the Brit has been more or less untouchable, and heads to Monaco looking to make it five race wins on the bounce. It will not be lost on Hamilton that the last time he tasted victory in Monte Carlo he went on to win the 2008 title.
Red Bull confirmed in Spain what many of us suspected; the world champions are now the best of the rest, and at the moment the most likely to seriously threaten Mercedes' position in front. Being the closest to Mercedes and actually challenging Mercedes are very different things though, and Red Bull's concern in Monaco will surely be to chip away at this lead with another strong finish behind the Silver Arrows. That said, "anything is possible at Monaco" has been the mantra at Red Bull since Barcelona.
Sebastian Vettel showed signs he may be over the worst of his early jitters behind the RB10 in Spain with a super drive through the field, but the in-form man in the Red Bull garage remains Daniel Ricciardo, who claimed his first official podium in Spain. The battle between the fearless rookie riding high and the wounded multiple champion looking to reassert his authority should be as compelling as the one between the two Mercedes drivers out in front.
Out of form
There is a narrative at the moment that Monaco represents some sort of win-or-bust situation for Nico Rosberg. It is worth noting he is only 'out of form' compared to his team-mate but when that also happens to be your main rival for the title it is significant. But it should not be doom and gloom for Rosberg at this stage, and a defeat here certainly would not spell the end of his title chances.
The German is still just three points behind Hamilton and, as we saw in Australia, there are big gains to be made if a title rival suffers a slice of bad luck at any point this season. Rosberg is on the back foot but he is far from dead and buried. It is true he desperately needs a victory over Hamilton for the psychological battle but Monaco represents the best chance he's had to put that right since the circus left Albert Park in March.
McLaren and Sauber both still remain thoroughly in this column after failing to show signs of improvement in Spain, though McLaren will be encouraged that the Monte Carlo streets may disguise some of its aerodynamic shortcomings compared to previous races.
One to watch
Unlike in Barcelona, there is less aerodynamic emphasis placed on proceedings at Monaco. This means the battle of the engines will be crucial. Renault is confident it will be nearly be at its maximum at the weekend but the Mercedes customer teams may well smell an opportunity to get back in front of Ferrari and Red Bull. Both Williams and Force India clearly have a bit of unrealised potential this year and a good lap or two on Saturday could well put them in the mix for big points during the race.
We also saw a serious step forward from Lotus in Spain, which sets up what could be an almighty scrap behind Mercedes amongst that growing group of chasing teams.
Fernando is faster than you?
It usually takes a brave man to predict the emotions of Kimi Raikkonen but you did not need a psychology degree to work out he was upset by Ferrari's strategy in Spain. Despite leading Fernando Alonso on track, Ferrari decided to pit the Spaniard before Raikkonen, which ultimately meant he jumped the Finn after his final stop. Raikkonen vented his frustration on the radio after the race and walked away from TV interviews when asked about the issue.
Raikkonen did not suggest there was any priority being given to his team-mate but, given the season Ferrari has had so far in 2014, it was the last headline the team needed. The reported interest from Ferrari in Adrian Newey suggests Luca di Montezemolo has realised he effectively needs to steal F1's crown jewels to keep Alonso at Maranello. But if another decision seems to go against Raikkonen in Monaco it is hard to imagine the Finn will show that much sympathy to Ferrari's fears of losing the Spaniard.
Noise debate getting quieter
What a difference a few months makes. At the post-race test in Barcelona Mercedes tested what looked like a foghorn but was actually a microphone to improve that pesky sound issue F1 has with the new V6 turbocharged engines. The exhaust was fairly emphatically written off as a failure after the test, but anyone expecting the same sort of outrage which followed the Australian GP would have been disappointed.
Either people are becoming bored about reading articles about engine noise or they are beginning to realise there is more to F1 than leaving a grand prix with a ringing sound in the ears. The lack of noise is noticeable, of course, and lacks the awe-inspiring sounds made in eras which preceded this one, but hopefully the reaction to the Barcelona test suggest the complaints about noise may finally be replaced by some genuinely positive headlines about F1's most revolutionary era.
A chance to beat Mercedes?
After Mercedes trounced the field by over 40 seconds in Spain, its rivals have been holding onto the hope that the tight and twisty Monaco circuit will offer an opportunity to turn the tables. The theory is that Mercedes engine advantage won't be as pronounced on a circuit with next to no straights, but don't be fooled into thinking Mercedes are not the firm favourites ahead of the weekend. Renault's Rob White believes it might tighten the pack up, but says Mercedes will still have an advantage. "It's one of these things, performance sensitivity might be lower, but equally perhaps that just means that the grid gets tighter. If everything else is the same, more is always better than less even if more doesn't pay as quickly as at other circuits."
Facts and stats
- Only four drivers finished the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix, a race affected by the rain. Olivier Panis took his maiden career victory in a race which still holds the record for the lowest amount of finishers in a world championship event.
- After hosting the second round of the inaugural F1 world championship season in 1950, Monaco disappeared from the calendar for four years. However since its return in 1955 it has hosted a race every season, becoming F1's most famous venue in the process.
- Every season 33 kilometres of safety rails, 20,000 square metres of wire catch fencing, 3,600 tyres for barriers and 1,100 tonnes of grandstand seating are needed to make the venue race-ready.
- Despite its reputation, pole is not as important in Monaco as you may think. In 59 races, the man on pole has won 26 times, with Panis winning from a record low of 14th in 1996.
- Ayrton Senna was the undisputed king of Monaco with six grand prix victories around the Monte Carlo streets, including five in a row between 1989 and 1993. Graham Hill and Michael Schumacher were also masters of the circuit, with five wins apiece.
Lewis Hamilton is once again favourite to win the race with odds of 4/6, ahead of Nico Rosberg (7/4) and the Red Bull pair of Sebastian Vettel (12/1) and Daniel Ricciardo (16/1). Optimistic Ferrari fans can get odds of 15/8 and 8/1 for Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen to make the podium, while Williams duo Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa are at 9/1 to finish in the top three.
The suggestion of rain at Monaco would make anyone think back to the epic race in 1996, where Olivier Panis took a win for little Ligier in a race which saw just four drivers cross the line, or even when Ayrton Senna announced himself to the world in the wet in 1984.
Like most things in Monaco, overtaking comes at a premium but rain on Saturday or Sunday would add another dimension to F1's most famous race.