The pendulum of form swung in Mercedes’ favour last time out at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, with the Silver Arrows claiming the first one-two finish of the season, but can Ferrari and Red Bull strike back at a venue which in 2017 exposed Mercedes’ “diva” car?
At last year’s event, with Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton struggling to get their Mercedes W08’s into the correct tyre operating window, they only managed to take fourth and seventh places respectively, whilst Ferrari claimed their first Monaco Grand Prix victory since Michael Schumacher in 2001.
If recent track history is anything to go by, Sebastian Vettel might fancy his chances of clawing back some of the 17-point deficit to championship leader Lewis Hamilton.
With Monaco being one of the least power-dependent circuits on the calendar, Red Bull are expected to once again take advantage of their chassis strengths and be in the mix this weekend, particularly as they have generally reduced the gap between themselves and Ferrari and Mercedes this season.
Whilst Mercedes boss Toto Wolff expressed his desire for his team to not be faced with the same issues as last season, he still labelled Ferrari and Red Bull as the favourites for Monaco.
“It’s a circuit that gives us completely different challenges – and unique ones, too,” said Wolff. “Last year, it became a weekend of damage limitation when we didn’t find the right set-up. It was a painful lesson from us and we are determined to show that we have learned it this year.
“We don’t head into the weekend as favourites – they are Red Bull and Ferrari. Red Bull are strong in the slow-speed corners and where straight line speed is less important, while Ferrari dominated last year.”
The Monaco circuit is one that places heightened significance on Saturday, where drivers will participate in the most important qualifying session of the year.
With overtaking opportunities at a premium, 84% of Monaco Grands Prix wins have come from drivers who started in the top three. The last driver to win in Monaco from lower than 3rd on the grid was Olivier Panis in 1996, who took victory for Ligier from 14th on the grid.
That doesn’t mean that there’s a lack of opportunity for a mid-race mix-up. Incidents are commonplace and the safety car has been deployed at every race this decade.
Pirelli debut the Hypersoft compound
Owing to the compact, low-speed nature of the track, the Circuit de Monte Carlo has some of the lowest tyre degradation levels of the season. Pirelli have consistently brought their most aggressive tyres to this event but one-stop strategies are commonplace.
Such was the lack of tyre degradation at the Principality, drivers were capable of executing an ‘overcut’ strategy. Instead of pitting earlier than your rival to profit from the fresh rubber, both Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo elected to stay out in free air and leapfrog their competitors when they eventually made their pit stops.
This tactic earned Vettel the victory, much to the annoyance of team-mate Kimi Raikkonen (who had started the race on pole), whilst Ricciardo jumped from fifth to third over the pit stop phase. Lewis Hamilton also did this to climb through the midfield to seventh after starting the race in thirteenth.
This year, as well as making their entire range of tyres one step softer, Formula One’s official tyre supplier will give the Hypersoft tyre it’s Formula One debut. The pink-walled tyres have been seen in testing before now, but these tests have been done on circuits which will never be allocated the softest tyres.
“We’ve tested the hypersoft in Abu Dhabi and Barcelona,” said Mario Isola, Pirelli’s Head of Car Racing, “of those two, Abu Dhabi is a better comparison to Monaco and there we saw that the hypersoft was worth about a second per lap than the ultrasoft; so we could see some more records broken this weekend.”
The likes of Red Bull, Williams and Renault have selected the maximum number of hypersoft tyres for this event, suggesting that they believe the Hypersofts will be more than durable enough for this weekend. Will the introduction of the new compound create additional strategy variation?
Alonso returns to Monaco after last year’s Indy 500 attempt
Given McLaren’s lack of competitiveness last season, Fernando Alonso was permitted to miss the Monaco Grand Prix in favour of the challenge of Indy 500, as part of his quest to complete the ‘triple crown of motorsport’; wins at the Monaco Grand Prix, Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Whilst his Indy efforts didn’t go to plan, this year McLaren are in a stronger position and have an increased chance of a bigger points haul, meaning that Alonso will be required to maximise any opportunities that come their way.
The team from Woking are one of the front-runners in a tightly-contested midfield battle, and Monaco is a venue where, in their recent Honda days, they normally have the chance to showcase their claim of having one of the best chassis on the grid. The pressure’s on to demonstrate just how far they’ve come.
All images: Motorsport Images
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