21 May 2014
Threading the eye of a needle on fast forward
There are a couple of ways of viewing the Monaco Grand Prix. The critics, which include some casual F1 fans and observers, claim that Monaco is nothing but a glitzy showbiz event that produces processional racing with no overtaking. The result is always decided in qualifying on Saturday. The Grand Prix, so the argument goes, is nothing but a formality for either the pole-sitter or front row starter. However, for me, Monaco is not about glamour or celebs or about processional racing for that matter. Sure, it’s nigh on impossible to overtake, but I always look forward to the ‘race round the houses’ with a sense of anticipation that is matched only by a handful of other races on today’s calendar. Why do I like Monte Carlo so much? It’s a one-off. An extreme circuit that would never make the cut if it bid for a Grand Prix today. It’s too narrow and too dangerous. It’s also a real driver’s circuit. It demands the very best from a driver every corner, every lap. And it punishes the smallest of errors without compromise. To be successful round the streets of Monte Carlo, an F1 driver must push himself and his car. He must take risks. If he doesn’t scrape the Pirelli logo on the sidewalls of his tyres onto a crash barrier somewhere out on track, he is not on the limit. He must thread the eye of a needle at high-speed, error free. In short, Monte Carlo is a supreme test of car control and throttle and brake sensitivity for a driver. And It makes for fantastic viewing for fans.
The streets of the principality are bumpy, dirty and low on grip. Driving Monte Carlo in an F1 car is like pressing fast forward whilst driving down a narrow grey metallic tunnel through which 22 F1 cars are supposed to pass unscathed. Driving the 2014 Monaco Grand Prix will be even more extreme given the loss in rear-end downforce and the mountain of torque produced by these 1.6 litre turbo hybrid powertrains. We’ll almost certainly see the drivers struggling to prevent the rear of the car from sliding when they open the throttle. Some drivers are sure to overdo it and clip the barrier, stopping a session or causing a safety car period.
Sector 1 is notable for the sharp, tight right-hand turn at Sainte Devote, which is almost always a hotspot for driver miscalculation. The tyre barrier often attracts those drivers who have taken too much speed going into the first corner. On Lap 1 of the race, the short run from the start-line to Sainte Devote will mean that the Energy Recovery Systems will not have had a chance to deploy. Therefore, picking the right braking point and track position will be critical to preventing faster starters from overtaking. After Sainte Devote, having a power unit with predictable power delivery and good traction is necessary for the quickest climb up the hill towards Casino Square.
Plenty of time can be won or lost under braking and acceleration in the series of corners that includes Mirabeau, Grand Hotel Hairpin and Portier in Sector 2. Again, good powertrain driveability and confidence under braking are necessary for the optimal lap. After Portier comes the blast through the tunnel followed by a hard braking zone for the chicane. If there is anywhere to overtake at Monte Carlo, this braking zone is it. However, a successful overtake really needs a willing driver given the narrow entry into the chicane. The exit of the tunnel is also a notorious accident hotspot and has been the scene of some huge crashes over the years. Traction and braking performance are once again in demand for the final sector. But what always impresses me most about this last part of the lap is the speed and direction change of the cars in the swimming pool section (Turns 13 and 14). It’s just mesmerising!
Mercedes under threat?
Mercedes have won five out of five races so far this season. Will they make it six? Much of the pre-Monaco punditry has assumed that they’ll have far stiffer competition this weekend than in all previous rounds. The reason being that Mercedes will not be able to deploy their formidable outright speed in the narrow streets and slow corners. However, I’m not so sure Mercedes will be troubled for pole position and the win. So much depends on qualifying at Monaco and Mercedes still have by far the quickest car. Yes, their top-line speed will count for less, but their powertrain is not all about outright speed. It offers superior traction and torque delivery to either the Ferrari or Renault. Indeed, Red Bull recently described the Renault power unit’s torque delivery and Energy Recovery System as ‘crude’ while Sebastian Vettel has stated that his main difficulty with the Renault powertrain is driveability. Speed in Sector 3 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is a strong indicator of performance at Monte Carlo due to its slow speed and stop-start nature. Yet, in spite of the Renault power unit’s weaknesses, Vettel topped this sector’s timing sheets, ahead of Hamilton and Rosberg. Vettel and Ricciardo will undoubtedly be competitive around Monaco. However, if both Mercedes cars get clean laps in qualifying, I’d be surprised if they failed to lockout the front row of the grid.
It’s a tough one to call between the Mercedes pair because so much rests on that single special lap – or small error – in qualifying. Rosberg probably has his best chance yet of swinging the momentum back his way this weekend. However, he might have to pass Hamilton in the pits in order to finish ahead as on single lap pace, Hamilton has been almost unbeatable this season. If Rosberg is last to start his flying lap in qualifying that might give him a slight edge given the high degree of track evolution at Monaco. Failing that, Rosberg could choose to undercut his team-mate in the race by stopping slightly earlier for new tyres, which might put him ahead on track. However, this strategy is uncertain to play out as intended given the extremely high chance of a safety car and the notorious traffic round Monte Carlo.
Behind the Mercedes and Red Bulls, I expect Williams and McLaren to wrestle for strong points finishes given their speed in Sector 3 in Barcelona. The McLaren MP4-29’s vulnerabilities are likely to be less of a factor at Monaco while it’s strengths – good low-speed downforce and traction – mean Button and Magnussen are likely to have a better time of it than in recent races. I think Ferrari will struggle given that the F14-T lacks traction and predictable torque delivery. Likewise, Force India may have a job repeating their excellent early-season performances given how slow they were in Sector 3 at Barcelona. Nevertheless, Hulkenberg and Perez are likely to be able to put the undercut strategy to good use to overtake competitors immediately ahead of them given that their car is kind on its tyres. Drivers less able to manage rear tyre wear due to Monaco’s traction demands are likely to be vulnerable to losing track position from being undercut in the pits or they may even have to stop more than once themselves.