Since retiring from the lead of his home event in 2017, Charles Leclerc has had lousy luck in Monaco. Will that change on F1’s return following its Covid-enforced absence?
Here are the talking points for this weekend’s race.
A change of luck for Leclerc?Charles Leclerc used to watch the Monaco Grand Prix from an apartment above the pit straight. He might never have imagined he would get to race in it one day, and if he did, he surely would have hoped for better luck.
A brake disc failure sent him into the back of Hartley during his 2018 debut. One year later, he looked in good shape during practice, yet Ferrari made the unfathomable decision not to send him out for a second run in Q1, and he was eliminated. Condemned to starting near the back, he retired early on after contact.
His luck was no better in Formula 2, where he led his first race at the track from pole position, until his team failed to fit one of his wheels properly during a pit stop.
Verstappen’s shot at a vital win
By Formula 1 standards, Monaco is an excruciatingly slow track. Pirelli will bring the softest tyres available for this race – and they will likely prove on the hard side for the limited grip available.
In the nip-and-tuck fight between Mercedes and Red Bull, this could tip the balance in the favour of the challengers. So far this year Red Bull have generally been quicker on softer compounds, which is also why Mercedes have tended to be more competitive on race day.
Max Verstappen therefore has a vital opportunity to cut Lewis Hamilton’s 14-point lead at the top of the standings. If the Mercedes driver takes a fourth win from the opening five races, at a track which on paper should suit their rivals well, this championship fight will start to look a lot more like past Mercedes routs.
Verstappen has flown at this circuit in the past, yet has never made it to the podium. He finished second on the road last time, but a five-second penalty relegated him to fourth.
Traffic and ‘team mates’
The other defining feature of the Monaco circuit is it cramped confines, and the enormous difficulty this poses when cars arrive upon traffic. This will figure in teams’ calculations not only when they come up to lap slower cars, but also when they have to plan their pit stops and emerge into the midfield.
This is going to put the strategists under serious pressure. At other tracks they have the luxury of knowing they can pit slightly early, come out behind a slower car, and lose little time passing them with fresh tyres and DRS. That’s not the case in Monaco – getting bottled up behind another car is just too costly.
The relationships between supposedly rival teams could play a significant factor, however. Three years ago Hamilton and Verstappen’s progress was eased when they emerged from the pits behind ‘brand mates’. Mercedes junior driver Esteban Ocon gave Hamilton little trouble, and Brendon Hartley of Red Bull junior team Toro Rosso put up little fight against Verstappen.
Williams driver and Mercedes junior George Russell recently described Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas as his ‘team mates’, so they can presumably expect an easier path past his FW43B on Sunday.
Four Monaco rookies
Four drivers will tackle Monaco in a Formula 1 car for the first time this year – and one of them is a complete newcomer to the venue.
AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda has never raced at Monaco before. He’s hoping his experience in the Macau Grand Prix counts in his favour, though that may provide a better frame of reference for the much quicker Baku circuit which will hold round six. His 2019 Pau Grand Prix experience, where he finished on the podium behind Billy Monger and Nicolai Kjaergaard, may be more useful.
“There are many unusual factors about this weekend,” he says. “It was only while we were in Spain that I learned that you practice on Thursday with no track time on Friday. I will have to make sure I do not lose focus or concentration, but I’m sure I can adapt. I have spent a lot of time on the simulator to prepare.”
Haas pair Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin can at least fall back on their Formula 2 experience from 2019. So will Williams driver Nicholas Latifi, having missed the chance to race in Monaco during his rookie campaign as it was cancelled due to the pandemic.
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Slower cars, better race?
Formula 1 cars don’t race fantastically well on purpose-built tracks – hence the drastic new aerodynamic regulations coming into force next year. Around Monaco, overtaking is virtually impossible.
As Formula E demonstrated two weeks ago slower, narrower cars can put on a better race around the same layout. Food for thought for F1?
As F1 cars can’t pass anything like as easily at this track than their Formula E counterparts, this venue presents an opportunity for someone to qualify well and lead a train of frustrated rivals to the chequered flag. So who has been ‘out-qualifying the car’ so far this year?
George Russell is an obvious candidate, having repeatedly taken his Williams into Q2. The team will run a special logo on their car for this weekend’s race, marking their 750th start, so what better time to finally end their longest ever point-less streak?
Alpine’s Esteban Ocon has also qualified well in recent races and believes Monaco could be their best chance to put one over the likes of McLaren and Ferrari.
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The return to normality?
Monaco is the first venue Formula 1 has visited this year which was unable to hold a round of last year’s championship due to Covid-19. It will also see the welcome return of fans in significant numbers – the stands will be at 40% capacity this weekend.
It’s a welcome move in the right direction, even if it won’t feel quite like a normal Monaco Grand Prix, says Lando Norris.
“I think it’s the first street track we’re going back to since Covid,” said the McLaren driver. “In some ways we’ve used to not many fans being there now.
“But it’s the first street track so I guess when you go to Monaco 50% of the excitement is everything else Spa bar actual going around the track. So I’m sure it’s not going to be as glorious and spectacular as normal, but it’s still going to be one of the best races.”
In another change, McLaren will run a special, one-off Gulf livery for this weekend, which will extend to their cars, motorhome, drivers’ overalls and more.
Over to you
Who do you think will be the team to beat in the Monaco Grand Prix? Have your say below.
And don’t forget to enter your predictions for this weekend’s race. You can edit your predictions until the start of qualifying:
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