At stake at this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix is not just the distinction of winning one of the most coveted trophies in F1 – it’s also a chance to grab the season initiative.
McLaren will be desperate to impose themselves on the race after taking the hunt to Ferrari in Turkey. But the Italian team was still dominant there and it will be looking to underline this dominance in Monte Carlo with the whole world watching.
In the meantime several lesser teams are hopeful that a qualifying upset could deliver their best chance of a victory this season.
At the head of this pack is last year’s victor, Renault’s Fernando Alonso. But BMW’s Robert Kubica, Red Bull’s Mark Webber and two-time winner David Coulthard, or even a qualifying specialist like Toyota’s Jarno Trulli, will all be keen to try and grab glory.
This race rewards experience, so we’ll be keeping an eye on Trulli and Coulthard.
In the meantime the prospect of rain is concerning drivers who, mindful of the demands of the circuit and the absence of traction control, are already feeling particularly cautious.
No pressure, boys. But The McLaren team has made it clear that it’s expecting great things of Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen.
Its race preview reads: “The focus for the drivers will be on adding to the illustrious history of the team at the Monaco Grand Prix.
“Since the start of the McLaren and Mercedes-Benz era the team has won the race on five occasions – Mika Hakkinen in 1998, David Coulthard in 2000 and 2002, Kimi Raikkonen took the spoils in 2005 with Fernando Alonso claiming victory just ahead of then team-mate Lewis last year.”
As long as that’s clear. Hamilton himself says that he is expecting the unexpected in what is always an unpredictable race: “At Monaco literally anything can happen. It is my favourite race. You have the history all around, you can just feel it, and the atmosphere is fantastic.
“It is the Grand Prix that every driver wants to win. Being a street circuit it is very exciting to drive, there is no room for any error all weekend. You are on the limit the whole time, there are no long straights where you have a moment to think.
“It is so tight and narrow, and when you consider how quick you are driving it is unreal. To be quick you need to use every centimetre of the circuit, this even includes touching the barriers at some points.”
He said that the coming weekend’s set-up will be a challenge: “The primary requirement is fantastic traction, to ensure you can get out of the corners well.
“Because there are no straights, we put as much downforce as we can on the car as we don’t need to, and aren’t able, to reach the speeds of any other track.”
And he added that the racing conditions would be unique – and difficult to put into words: “You are so low. You are hitting some corners at 180mph, as you are braking down you know there is no run-off area, you can’t see the exit.
“All you can see is directly what is in front of you, probably about 50 metres. In some corners it is almost a guess, you are guessing where the car should be, hoping that you are in the right place, relying on your instinct and memory.”
For Honda Jenson Button described the challenges of driving the circuit: “The whole lap at Monaco is just a non-stop challenge and you have to maintain absolute focus and concentration over every single one of the 78 laps of the race.
“The absolute key to a really quick lap is to not let the barriers intimidate you as this is a circuit that rewards precision. Having a good qualifying session and getting the best grid position possible is so important to a successful weekend.
“Passing is very difficult during the race, so you need to make a good start and do your overtaking off the line where possible.”
He said that being a resident of the Principality, a distinction he shares with David Coulthard, will not give him an on-track advantage.
“It is completely transformed! It’s unbelievably busy and getting around can be just impossible. My top tip would be to walk everywhere or use a scooter.
“What I love about Monaco is that it is a fantastic race for the fans who can get so close to the action and noise of Formula One.”
Team Principal Ross Brawn explained what Honda had done to prepare for the race weekend at the Paul Ricard test circuit earlier this week.
“The first two days took place on the short configuration which resembles the high-downforce and low-speed characteristics of the Monaco street circuit.
“We used the test to evaluate our aerodynamic package for the Monaco weekend with some refinements to the developments that debuted in Spain.
“Driveability is very important around Monaco, with so many low-speed corners where the driver has to have confidence in the set-up of the car to avoid losing time on exit, so we did a lot of work on this.
“We also ran the new Bridgestone super soft tyre compound and the indications from the test are that this tyre will perform well as the option tyre during the race weekend.”
For Red Bull David Coulthard said that Monaco “always gets the heart beating a little faster as it’s such a special circuit.”
He added that the race was also the most glamorous of the season: “The harbour, the boats, the Casino, the people — quite a contrast to Turkey, which was very low-key with a small crowd and no real buzz.
“From a driving point of view Monaco is a unique challenge because you have to put everything on the line and there is no margin for error.
“I’ve always relished that challenge and I’ve had a lot of success in the Principality, including two wins, a pole position and Red Bull’s first podium finish in 2006.
“So I’ll be aiming to open my points account and pick up anything else that I can from attrition. Hopefully the tide of misfortune has now turned and I can get my season properly up and running.”
Team principal Christian Horner said: “Monaco is a lottery and it is always dangerous to go there with too many expectations.
“Two years ago we had a great result when David scored the team’s first podium, whereas last year was very frustrating.
“Both drivers like the circuit, with David having won twice and Mark winning the F3000 support race in 2001, so they have a strong track record but it’s a unique circuit which makes unique demands, penalising the slightest mistake from man or machine.”