Formula Spy's Thomas Maher looks ahead to the 2016 race on and off the track
Round 6 of this year’s F1 Championship sees the sport remain in Europe and, indeed, on the driver’s doorsteps in the rich man’s playground that is Monaco.
Motor racing has taken place on the streets of Monte Carlo for over a century, with Formula 1 making an annual visit since the series’ inception back in 1950. Many of the drivers live in Monaco, due to the exemplary standards of living afforded to the citizens of the world’s most famous tax haven, and this means they are racing on streets that are part of their daily lives. For one brief weekend, they swap their idyllic croissants by the harbour for a frantic pummelling of that same tarmac; a frenetic workout that requires every single little bit of concentration, focus, mental fortitude and skill that they possess.
The Monte Carlo event is full of little idiosyncrasies that make it one of the most memorable Grands Prix of the year. For instance, there is no other race on the calendar that doesn't have to pay to have its spot on the F1 calendar. There is no other race that sees practice take place on Thursday, rather than Friday, meaning that the entire sport takes an enjoyable 24 hour break mid-event. It’s the shortest track in F1 at just 3.3 kilometres, with the shortest race in terms of distance travelled at just 260 kilometres, 45 less than the FIA-mandated 305. But, due to the interminable twists, turns, slow corners, and no discernible straights, it’s one of the most difficult races to complete. Such was its challenge, there was a time when it was assumed that a rookie driver would fail to complete the 78 lap distance, due to the encroaching barriers seemingly closing in around them as the race wore on and fatigue set in.
One rookie driver who failed to complete last year’s event was Max Verstappen, now the hero of F1. The teenager won his first race last time out in Spain, just two days after he stepped into the cockpit of the Red Bull RB12 for the first time. Defeating the seasoned veteran and 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen, a man who is around so long he even raced Max’s father Jos over a decade ago, Verstappen proved that his promotion from Toro Rosso was not a move in haste and has already managed to join the big leagues. But, in the stellar debut year that marked him out for stardom, Verstappen was caught out by Monaco. Duelling with Lotus’ Romain Grosjean, he misjudged an overtaking move into the first corner and speared off into the barriers that were mere feet away. Caught out by the lack of room in the braking zone, Verstappen’s aspirations for the same event this year are not quite as lofty as repeating his Spanish win - he says he just wants to stay out of the barriers.
Max Verstappen during the drivers football match at the Stade Louis II Stadium, Monaco. Picture by: David Davies / PA Wire/Press Association Images
The barriers aren't the only obstacle for the Mercedes drivers to negotiate if they want to win this weekend. Still clear favourites to take the win on any given weekend, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg both shot themselves in the foot last time out in Spain. Colliding while duelling for the lead was spectacular, and gave us all a memorable moment that will be played in season montages for years to come but, you can be sure that behind closed doors, Mercedes chewed out both men for their “unacceptable” failure to get their cars home. Neither were innocent parties in the collision, but the body language of both drivers in their Spanish debriefs was interesting. Lewis Hamilton seemed morose and defensive facing the press, speaking in monotone as he fielded questions. Nico Rosberg, on the other hand, was bristly and feisty. He came across like a man who felt wronged and that he had been guilty of less than Hamilton. Taking a journalist to task over a question about a comparison to their much less serious Spa 2014 collision, Rosberg was an angry man after Spain. Having missed out on pole position, he made up for it with a great getaway and pass on Hamilton into Turn 1. His comments that it was then his race to lose were pretty accurate; Barcelona’s circuit is very difficult to pass at. His strong-arm defence of his lead won’t have gone unnoticed by his bosses or, more importantly, by Lewis Hamilton. The reigning champion has bullied Rosberg off the track on previous occasions, with a notable example at the start of last year’s Austin race, and Hamilton will now have to think twice before doing the same as he fights to close in the points gap to Rosberg.
Making life more difficult for Mercedes is the addition of Red Bull to the title fight. The spark is returning to the team that, arguably, have the best chassis on the grid. The formidable RB12’s weakness in the Renault engine is not as crucial around Monaco, which rewards mechanical grip and downforce - both traits the car has in abundance. An added bonus for Red Bull is the introduction, a race early, of a “B-Spec” Renault power unit, which was trialled successfully in testing last week. Renault are only expecting to have one updated unit available to Red Bull this weekend, so will it be Ricciardo or Verstappen to benefit? Ferrari, too, are still in the mix, although Monaco may not be their strongest race. The overall package of the Ferrari is an all round good car, but the chassis is believed to be outclassed by Mercedes and Red Bull. Should Ferrari be able to vie for the win on merit at this particular event, it would be against expectation.
Nico Rosberg during the 2015 Monaco Grand Prix at the Circuit de Monaco, Monte Carlo, Monaco. Picture by: David Davies / PA Wire/Press Association Images
The Monaco GP is an intense pressure cooker of a weekend. It's claustrophobic, with everything crammed into a tiny area. The pit area and garages are temporary, and cramped. People are always milling around and there is no escape from the eye of the public or the media. Drivers feeling frustrations will have nowhere to hide, nowhere to relax while at the track, and many have points to prove. Hamilton, astonishingly, heads to Monaco as defending champion in a dominant car, with fewer wins than Max Verstappen in the Red Bull. He will be all out to rectify that and end Rosberg’s Monaco winning streak this weekend, after Nico was gifted the win by a Mercedes strategy error last year. Rosberg will be out to prove that he is Merc’s top dog at his home race, while Ferrari have their own internal battle heating up as Kimi Raikkonen lies second in the driver’s title chase, against anyone’s predictions. Daniel Ricciardo will want to show that he’s no pushover after Verstappen’s incendiary introduction to the team, while the midfield battle of Force India, Toro Rosso and McLaren is sure to be just as enthralling as ever. All the ingredients for a memorable weekend are in place, now we just need to throw them all into the simmering pot that awaits at F1’s most spectacular venue.