There is something magical about Monaco. The most densely populated country on the planet invites the Formula 1 circus to put on a showpiece event every year – a 78 lap blast around a location entirely unsuitable for hosting a grand prix.
Nelson Piquet Jr famously described the challenge as like riding a bicycle around your living room. Simply lapping the circuit at the limit of adhesion alone is enough of a trial – overtaking on Monaco’s impossibly narrow streets is the work of a moment of magic.
It may be a procession on Sunday. It may be a winner from pole position and a one-stop strategy. Regardless, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about F1’s blue ribbon event.
Monaco serves as a reminder of elements of F1’s past. Silverstone may have hosted the first grand prix back in 1950, but has undergone several facelifts and redesigns over the years.
We may now enjoy the splendour of Monaco with suitably more safety provisions than in yesteryear, but the layout and characteristics of the Monaco Grand Prix circuit are unchanged. It makes the rich history of the event more relatable to the fans of today, which is something that money can’t buy.
While on the topic of money, Monaco is also the venue in which plenty of deals are struck. At a country in which 30 percent of the population is a millionaire, it makes sense that many key F1 financial conversations take place over the weekend.
To that end, Monaco is the only venue that does not pay a fee to host the race. Similar to the theory behind Ferrari’s heritage payments, it is widely regarded that F1 needs Monaco as much as Monaco needs F1.
However, it’s not really about money, business, glamour, or even the history of the event. The race is a unique spectacle. It may not thrill in the same way that the Azerbaijan Grand Prix has in the past two seasons, but surprise results are never far away and the near impossibility of overtaking adds heaps of value in other areas.
Qualifying in Monaco is invariably one of the most entertaining and important sessions of the season. To become a Monaco polesitter requires remarkable skill and bravery. Rubber has to touch Armco in order to extract the maximum lap time. The precision required is immense.
With overtaking so difficult and strategic variance limited by what is usually a one-stop race, qualifying becomes integral to a successful weekend. That leads to some cracking under the pressure and some spawning huge controversy.
Who could forget Michael Schumacher’s infamous oversteer at La Rasscasse in 2006, where he subsequently ‘parked’ his car in front of the barrier, triggering a yellow flag and halting Fernando Alonso’s final attempt. Schumacher was excluded from qualifying and thrown from pole position to the back of the grid.
More recently, Nico Rosberg out-broke himself heading towards Mirabeau and took to the escape road while on provisional pole, ending team-mate Lewis Hamilton’s final qualifying run in 2014. It was deemed by the stewards that Rosberg had made a genuine mistake, but this verdict did not stop theories from developing.
It all adds to the theatre of Monaco. Like at the Indy 500 or Le Mans 24 Hours, the stakes are so high, particularly on qualifying day and that enhances the drama.
This season, qualifying will be even more impressive to watch, with Pirelli debuting the hypersoft tyres. The pink-walled compound has been introduced this year to give the manufacturer an extra option on low grip street circuits.
Renault’s Carlos Sainz Jr has predicted that qualifying could be “absolute madness” this season given the increased grip provided by what he believes to be ‘the best tyre Pirelli has produced in years.’
Speaking at the Autosport International Show in January, Pirelli’s head of motorsport Mario Isola stated that the “hypersoft in the Abu Dhabi test was one second per lap faster than the ultrasoft.
“It is quite an extreme compound. I don’t like to call it a qualifying compound because it was developed to be used on some street circuits and other low severity circuits.”
With the tyre providing more mechanical grip than the ultrasofts used in previous seasons, combined with the faster cars in 2018, it is likely that qualifying on Saturday will see Monaco’s lap record broken.
Judging from the tyre allocations chosen by the teams, Isola was right to not call the tyre a qualifying compound.
No team has opted to bring less than nine hypersoft sets to Monaco, with six drivers heading into the weekend with 11 hypersofts and just one set of supersoft and ultrasoft. However, with the tyre having never previously been used with 2018 cars in a race weekend environment, it will be interesting to see whether the compound holds up in race conditions.
Extracting the maximum performance from the tyres is a factor likely to be determined by car characteristics. Ferrari could well have an advantage over Mercedes this weekend as a result.
Not only does the Ferrari chassis typically extract more speed from softer tyre allocations than the Mercedes, but the silver arrows historically falter on street circuits such as Monaco and Singapore.
However, Red Bull could be about to throw the 2018 form guide out of the window this weekend and dominate qualifying and the race.
The team’s strong chassis design has always shone at the Principality, with Daniel Ricciardo seemingly invincible in 2016 before a pitstop mix-up cost him the lead and race victory, with Lewis Hamilton scooping the spoils.
Red Bull had the fastest car through sector three at the Circuit de Barcelona during the Spanish Grand Prix weekend. Ricciardo set a session best sector time in Q3 that was 0.2 seconds clear of anyone else.
The mechanical grip required in this section of the circuit is usually an excellent barometer for who will be fast at Monaco. Don’t be surprised if Red Bull secures a front row lock-out this weekend.
However, the beauty of Monaco is that we just don’t know what is around the corner. Some say the Monaco Grand Prix is predictable – I’d say it’s predictably unpredictable.