x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

F1 title chase tighter than ever on the streets of Monte Carlo

Five races, five winners so far and many drivers, including the underdogs, fancy their chances in Monaco, finds Gary Meenaghan

Caterham mechanics wheel one of their cars down the pit lane yesterday on the unmistakably tight Circuit de Monaco ahead of Sunday’s race.
Caterham mechanics wheel one of their cars down the pit lane yesterday on the unmistakably tight Circuit de Monaco ahead of Sunday’s race.

The Monaco Grand Prix, with its ruthlessly unforgiving street circuit and a penchant for ruining a driver's dreams in the blink of an expensively sunglass-shielded eye, is traditionally the most unpredictable race on the Formula One calendar. As much on the track as off, anything can happen in this ornate oasis of opulence.

And yet, this season, unpredictability is as commonplace as super yachts in the Monte Carlo harbour.

While Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel arrived in the principality last year with four wins and a second-place finish under his belt, this term, in a contrast as sharp as a diamond cutter's wheel, the opening five races have produced five different winners from five different teams.

The order of the field, much to the delight of speculators, has never been so uncertain.

"I wouldn't want to predict anything this year, given the result of the most recent grand prix," said Paul di Resta, Force India's Scottish driver.

The sight of Vettel, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso or Jenson Button of McLaren-Mercedes on the top of a podium is nothing new - world champions peculiarly do not look out of place spraying bubbles - but few would have expected to see Mercedes-GP's Nico Rosberg win in China or Pastor Maldonado of Williams squinting in the spotlight following the Spanish Grand Prix.

This weekend, the Lotus duo of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean are hoping to join the party and make history by ensuring six different winners take the opening six rounds for the first time in the sport's 62-year history.

Raikkonen, however, is playing down his chances. "We always try, but if we don't win, we don't win and we weren't fast enough," he said. "We will try again this weekend, but this place is definitely not easy to win."

Lotus are not the only potential successors to the podium's ever-changing top step.

As Mark Webber, Red Bull's Australian veteran, put it yesterday: "There can be six different winners, of course. Why not? And it would be nice if it's me."

Michael Schumacher, who has won in Monaco five times, said there are "quite a few around us that have the capacity to win this race, but have not won a race yet".

His hopes have been hampered by a five-place grid penalty for driving into the rear of Bruno Senna in Barcelona earlier this month.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren's 2008 world champion, has finished fastest in qualifying at three of the opening five races, but has yet to collect maximum points on a Sunday.

Not surprisingly, given his form and street-fighting style, he arrives in Monte Carlo as the favourite. The 27 year old appreciates his team have underachieved on race days, but cuts a relaxed figure for now, dismissing suggestions of growing frustration.

"This is the way racing goes sometimes," Hamilton said. "Of course, looking at the qualifying results we've had for the five races, we would have loved to have finished further up.

"We've gone backwards a little bit in most of the races, but we're working very hard to make sure that doesn't continue. It's massively tight between quite a lot of teams, so I think it's wide open. Particularly at this race, the driver can make more of a difference."

Although Singapore, Canada and Valencia are billed as street races, Monaco is a different breed. With its minimal run-off areas, weaving, winding roads and uneven, bone-shaking track, it is the last of the calendar's genuine street circuits.

How drivers cope with the daunting challenge of avoiding the claustrophobic barriers while still driving their car on the limit plays a pivotal role in performance.

Maldonado, the Venezuelan criticised for ill-judged aggression on his F1 debut here last year, arrives with heightened expectations following a sweeping maiden victory in Spain two weeks ago.

The 27 year old's three GP2 performances on the narrow streets saw him secure two victories, a second-place finish and the billing of a Monaco specialist.

"Monaco is a special track for me, it's my favourite one," he said. "I've been always so quick here, especially in GP2 and World Series as well. For sure, I will do my best to get the maximum again and we will be competitive, I'm sure of that. But we'll see. This kind of track, you never know."

Alonso has grown into the habit of playing down his Ferrari team's chances at the start of a race week only to appear on the podium come the Sunday. This weekend, however, he is as much in the dark about how his prancing horse might perform as anybody.

"Monaco is a unique circuit and you never know what car may dominate and this year even more so," Alonso said.

"We don't know which cars were quick at Barcelona, let alone at Monaco. But the most important thing here is on Saturday during qualifying. If you start from the first two rows you have a podium chance, otherwise it's almost impossible."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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