x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Truck fire leads to fresh intrigue in Monte Carlo

The track has to be relaid at Turn One as Drivers raise concerns on whether corner will hold up and teams remain in the dark on tyre strategy.

Lewis Hamilton drives through the Monaco paddock yesterday. The McLaren-Mercedes driver is confident of being able to challenge for victory in Sunday afternoon’s 78-lap race.
Lewis Hamilton drives through the Monaco paddock yesterday. The McLaren-Mercedes driver is confident of being able to challenge for victory in Sunday afternoon’s 78-lap race.

MONTE CARLO // Chaos tends to descend whenever a grand prix arrives in a city and Monaco, with its challenging street circuit winding past glimmering super-yachts and homes of millionaire residents, is no different.

Yet even the principality, a mainstay on the Formula One calendar since 1929, has rarely seen anything like the mayhem that greeted visitors to the Formula One paddock yesterday.

On Tuesday, a small truck carrying petrol caught fire while parked on a section of Monte Carlo's illustrious Circuit de Monaco.

Billowing black smoke eventually cleared to reveal severe damage to the track at St Devote, the circuit's first corner, which leads up towards Beau Rivage. Workers were forced to frantically re-lay the asphalt and it was due to set last night.

As a result, the race teams were delayed access to the paddock yesterday as they attempted to construct their motor homes.

Once admitted, the area remained a work in progress with heavy machinery in operation.

But with the electronic security gates still to be installed, spectators were able to enter and hunt down their favourite drivers, some of whom had to hold their media activities in alternate locations.

Mike Collier, Jenson Button's personal trainer and all-round go-to man at McLaren-Mercedes, described it as "organised chaos", but it did not appear that way.

The only team unaffected by the fire was that of the constructors champions Red Bull Racing, whose Monaco motor home is so monstrous that it is floated into port and set up on the dock.

In cruel comparison, one team's catering vehicle drove off with its boot open, resulting in food being comically splattered across the ground.

The effect of the fire this weekend, however, is no laughing matter: it has not only affected paddock preparations.

The section of the track that has been relaid is in the braking zone of Turn One and will thus come under massive pressure over the weekend with 24 Formula One cars pounding it repeatedly for three days.

Concerns that the fresh tarmac may begin to crumble or be bumpy or slippery were played down by most drivers.

However, Rubens Barrichello, the Williams driver who doubles as head of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association (GPDA) said things could change if the heavens open.

"If it is oily, we will have to see if it rains," he said. "I don't think there is any prediction for that, but there might be a problem [if it did]."

Even before the track was relaid, concerns had been raised that the new regulations implemented at the start of the season would make Monaco, with its narrow streets, tight tunnel and twisting corners, too dangerous.

The FIA, world motorsports governing body, this season introduced a Drag Reduction System (DRS), a Kinetic Energy Recovery System (Kers) and quick-wearing tyres in a bid to improve the possibility of overtaking.

"Monaco is a place where traditionally there is no overtaking," Barrichello said. "If we can make overtaking possible here, it means we can overtake anywhere on earth."

Button said strategy and looking after Pirelli's supersoft tyres would be more important than overtaking. The new compound has been tested only in cold weather and all 12 teams are in the dark as to how the tyres will react on Circuit de Monaco.

"Strategy-wise, it is very difficult to work out what to do. To pick up the right strategy and get into a race situation, it is going to be up in the air. You really have to think on your feet in the race, depending whether there is tyre degradation or not," he said.

Button's teammate Lewis Hamilton, however, was confident Monaco - a race he won in 2008 - could provide him with his second win of the season.

"It might be my best chance so far," said Hamilton, who won in Shanghai last month. "When you go to circuits that are downforce dependent, we are less likely to win.

"A lot of my energy will be used up trying to keep myself out of the barriers, but I hope that our car works well this weekend and we are able to extract the most from those tyres."

The Monaco Grand Prix, unlike most race weekends, will begin today instead of the customary Friday. Two practice sessions will take place this afternoon, while tomorrow will see no on-track F1 action as the paddock enjoys a rare day off.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae