Teams unsure how tyres will behave and influence the history where the pole-sitter has won in all but last nine races.
Pirelli tyres hold sway in winding Monaco where pole is all-important
MONTE CARLO // Even against the glamourous backdrop of Monaco, with its sheer cliff-faces and its shimmering yachts, the tiring issue of Pirelli tyres threatens to spoil the Formula One party.
Sunday's street race is the sixth contest of a tumultuous season in which no team is yet fully capable of extracting the maximum out of their car.
Sebastian Vettel, leader of the world championship, has been critical. Fernando Alonso, winner last time out in Spain, said something has to change. Paul Hembery, motorsport director for the tyre manufacturers, said his company has got it wrong.
So as the F1 fraternity arrived ahead of today's opening practice day, it was tyres that dominated conversation: How crucial will they prove this weekend and is qualifying on this narrow, winding street circuit as important as in previous years or will worn tyres produce a jumble of pit-stops on race day?
Red Bull Racing, the three-time constructors' champions and current leaders, have essentially been accused by rivals Ferrari of sour grapes for their continual complaints of Pirelli's compounds.
Yesterday, speaking aboard his team's vast, floating motorhome that is docked in the Monaco harbour, Mark Webber countered that "I don't think anybody is comfortable with these tyres".
"Ferrari have a had a couple of good results, which is great [for them]," he said. "But in general whether we have a car race when cars are racing each other and racing hard and constantly pressuring each other and racing in that top form, that is bit more entertaining. That is where we have to fine-tune things."
Vettel, Webber's teammate, attempted an analogy to explain his point of view.
"If you compare it to skiing, the skis allow the skiers to go really quick around the corners, but you need to be brave enough and strong enough to go that quickly," Vettel said.
"Now imagine, the following year, you have wooden skis: the guy who was not that good in the first place is now doing better than he probably should. I'm not saying the people who are at the front shouldn't be there, but rather what I mean is the sport and racing has changed a lot."
Traditionally, qualifying has proved pivotal here.
Only once in the past nine years has the Monaco Grand Prix been won by a driver who did not start on pole position. With excessively quick-wearing tyres, there is talk that such predictability might no longer be the case.
Lewis Hamilton was the last non-polesitter to win when he triumphed in 2008. He is not, however, hopeful of a rerun.
"I think that if you were just watching last year, it's very difficult to overtake," Hamilton said. "Mark won it and just controlled it from the front.
"Overtaking is very, very difficult here as I proved a couple of years ago. If you're able to get out in front, it's more than likely if you're able to manage your tyres that you can stay there. Definitely."
Webber has actually won from pole twice in the past three years and agreed with the Mercedes-GP driver, adding the advantage of starting at the front is unlikely to disappear just because of tyre degradation.
"We'll be shooting for pole because it puts you in a position where you can be in charge," he said.
"It's like serving in tennis - you're in control of what is going on to a larger degree."
Essentially, nobody knows how the tyres will react. Their performance is impacted by weather, track temperature, circuit configuration and many other particulars. In the first five races, we have seen three different winners, yet only once has a driver on pole position successfully converted.
Fortunately for those tired of tyre talk, there are plenty of distractions away from the track with the Mediterranean glinting on the horizon, the beautiful buildings perched on the top of the cliffs and the glamourous celebrities expected to turn out this weekend.
Although even then, Webber remains slightly chagrined: "I think it's a very dramatic backdrop and to have a race here is exceptional, but the small dogs in hand bags and all that stuff is not really my thing, mate," he said with a shrug of his shoulders.
For some, even the glitz can be tiring sometimes.
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