Nico Rosberg underlined Mercedes’ claim as pole position favourites for this weekend’s Grand Prix by topping both practice sessions on an eventful Thursday in Monaco. In the faster second session he was the only man to break under the 1m 15s barrier, ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso.
But it looks very close at the front with Ferrari, Lotus and Red Bull all competitive in different ways. The Lotus has exceptional speed at the end of long runs, the Ferrari looks good in all conditions and might challenge the Mercedes for pole, while the Red Bull also looked pretty competitive in low fuel and race conditions.
With Free Practice taking place traditionally on Thursday in Monaco the worries of rain never materialised, with the weather in fact remaining glorious throughout the whole day. The day was short of drama, with only Romain Grosjean’s crash in the second session and a brief red flag stoppage, which marshals used to remove a piece of metal sticking up from the kerb at the Swimming Pool.
Rosberg took the top spot in both sessions, but it does by no means look like a dominant position for the Mercedes team. Both Ferrari and Lotus also look in the hunt for the race, thanks to strong race pace on the long runs. Both had their qualifying simulation runs ruined in dramatically different ways; slightly flattering Mercedes’ pace.
Alonso was the pace setter during the early prime tyre runs in FP2, heading the field by 4/10ths of a second at this stage. Splitting Alonso and Rosberg in third was Romain Grosjean who was looking to have another strong day around the street circuit.
And as quickly as it seemed that Grosjean could be releasing himself out of the shadows of his high flying team mate, he promptly found himself scampering for cover when he stuck his Lotus in to the barrier at St. Devote on the first lap of his option tyre run. The car sustained substantial damage on its left-hand side and the incident put the Frenchman out of the session with an hour still to run. Felipe Massa was on his fast lap when this happened, which spoiled his chances.
Grosjean had been flying prior to his accident, “It was the first flying lap on supersofts and I thought the grip would be better than what it was,” said the Frenchman. “Never mind, the car is good and it gives me the confidence to push. I’ll have to buy the mechanics a beer on Sunday and apologise, but it’s okay.”
Following a short red-flag delay to fix the kerbing there was a flurry of cars taking to the track to set their option tyre time before switching attention to longer runs in the second half of the session. Alonso was amongst these cars and having seen the Mercedes pair jump to the top of the times he set about reclaiming his previous position.
But as is the way with Monaco an unpredictable set of slow-moving mobile chicanes halted his chances of threatening Rosberg. He did manage to set a competitive lap time a later lap, but with past-perfect tyres he completed the day 4/10ths of a second behind Rosberg.
The Mercedes pair had a relatively trouble free day as the two Monaco residents Rosberg and Hamilton aim to put themselves in the best position for a Grand Prix victory this season.
After the embarrassing slump from pole position in the race in Barcelona, there should be fewer problems for the Mercedes drivers in the race here, as Monaco is relatively easy on the tyres, with a smooth surface and no sustained high energy corners pushing the Pirelli rubber to its limit.
“We completed a lot of laps and I feel comfortable in the car,” said Rosberg. “It seems that we are quick again on one lap but we have been working hard again to make improvements to our race pace.”
And in race simulation mode the time drop-off gave some encouragement to Mercedes where they were able to put the super-soft compound through its paces over a stint similar in length to what we can expect on Sunday, of around twenty-five laps, with minimal degradation showing.
That said they are still likely to need to make two stops on Sunday, where Lotus can definitely do one and probably Ferrari as well. This could prove decisive provided that the one stoppers are able to qualify at or near the front.
The Ferrari looks the most benign car here. It continued to show strong pace during a race stint as both Alonso and Felipe Massa, in fourth place, lapped consistently as the afternoon drew to a close. All day it seemed that the Ferrari drivers were able to do the lap time with less obvious effort going on in the cockpit compared to the Mercedes. But the Mercedes definitely has the one lap pace advantage.
The Championship leader, Sebastian Vettel, had a quiet day in ninth position and spent the majority of the day on the soft compound completing heavier fuel runs, despite a KERS problem. The sister Red Bull of Mark Webber followed a similar route but was able to take fifth position, as the Australian seemed to have the edge over his team mate here.
Fortunately for the triple World Champion his closest title challenger also had a difficult day. Kimi Raikkonen didn’t suffer any serious issues but the Finn was overshadowed by Grosjean. Although Lotus will take pleasure in their long run pace with both of their drivers setting very fast laps deep in to long runs on the super soft tyre.
Strategy will be key; a one-stop race looks possible for some but not others. Today’s times leave us with the clear impression that we are in for a mighty scrap among the top four teams for both pole position and the race victory.
It will also be very close in Q2 for the final two places in the top ten Q3 shootout, with McLaren and Force India in the mix.
MONACO GRAND PRIX, Free Practice 2
1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m14.759s 45
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m15.077s + 0.318s 50
3. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m15.196s + 0.437s 37
4. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m15.278s + 0.519s 38
5. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m15.404s + 0.645s 41
6. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m15.511s + 0.752s 38
7. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m15.718s + 0.959s 10
8. Jenson Button McLaren 1m15.959s + 1.200s 39
9. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m16.014s + 1.255s 32
10. Paul di Resta Force India 1m16.046s + 1.287s 42
11. Adrian Sutil Force India 1m16.349s + 1.590s 43
12. Sergio Perez McLaren 1m16.434s + 1.675s 40
13. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1m16.823s + 2.064s 42
14. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m16.857s + 2.098s 40
15. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1m16.935s + 2.176s 44
16. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m17.145s + 2.386s 37
17. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m17.184s + 2.425s 42
18. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1m17.264s + 2.505s 46
19. Jules Bianchi Marussia 1m17.892s + 3.133s 40
20. Charles Pic Caterham 1m18.212s + 3.453s 43
21. Max Chilton Marussia 1m18.784s + 4.025s 40
22. Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1m19.031s + 4.272s 30