Rencken: All change in Monaco?

2012-05-24 06:58

Seven different winners in as many races: since last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), Mark Webber (Red Bull), Jenson Button (McLaren), Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) and Pastor Maldonado (Williams) have each taken line honours.

More to the point, in the five races (of 20) so far in 2012 five drivers representing five teams powered by three engines (Mercedes, Renault, Ferrari) have taken the flag - equalling F1’s record-setting 1983 when the sixth round saw the first repeat winner.


On current form the odds ahead of this weekend’s Monaco GP are strong that a sixth driver/team combination will reign on the narrow, bumpy streets of the Mediterranean principality, so watch for a record.

It won’t, though, be a street stroll for whoever gets the trophy from Durban-born Princess Charlene - wife of Albert II - for so busy is the circuit that during a typical Monaco qualifying lap a driver makes more than 130 significant steering movements and 200 car inputs per 3.34km lap - not including brake and throttle pedals/including kers and DRS activations - and changes gear on average every 54m.

The circuit, bounded by the Alps Maritimes and the Mediterranean Sea on the other, has 19 corners (8L/11R), eight of which are taken at less than 100km/h, and only two at more than 250km/h to deliver an average qualifying and race speeds of around 160km/h and 150km/h respectively. Each lap demands 12 braking events, six of them ultra-heavy.

Following complaints about bumpiness, the track has been resurfaced in parts, while tyre barriers have been replaced by space-age TecPro material in Turns 1 and 14 to better absorb impacts. Further safety improvements on this most rudimentary of tracks include abrasive surfaces in run-off areas.


However, Monaco’s track surface is the least abrasive of all circuits, yet, conversely, track evolution (the rate at which it "speeds up" through cleaning by passing cars and rubber laid down) is the fastest of the year – off a high "green" base due to civilian traffic dirtying it 360 days a year.

Taken in conjunction with relatively low average speeds, the surface has a low tyre-wear factor. Thus Pirelli has specified Supersoft (red sidewall) and Soft (yellow) compounds, with the latter able to last 50 laps or more, making a one-stop strategy entirely realistic – although McLaren’s Jenson Button used a three-stop sprint strategy to finish behind winner Vettel and Alonso in 2011.

Three factors have played major roes in delivering the unpredictability that has epitomised this season: tyre degradation, kers and DRS; however, for Monaco the FIA has curtailed free use of the latter device during preliminaries in the interests of safety. Thus DRS is banned from Portier through the tunnel to the harbour chicane – scene of Checo Perez’s horrific accident during 2011 qualifying – while on Sunday a single DRS zone will operate: on the main straight, with detection in the preceding hairpin.
The tight and twisty confines of the circuit and lack of extended run-off areas mean a high rate of incidents which invariably bring out the pace car. In the last decade seven races have featured a total of 13 such periods to provide an overall incidence of 70%, while in the same period the winner has come from the pole position seven times.


To have a chance of victory the teams need to ensure strong qualifying form while factoring flexibility into their approaches to best adapt to changing circumstances, particularly as the pits lane time – without stopping – amounts to an excruciating 20sec at the mandatory speed of 60km/h. All these factors result in a wide approach to strategy, making this most prestigious of races arguably the toughest to win.

Thus Monaco’s victory roll is truly illustrious, with the winners of the last seven races being Kimi Räikkönen, Alonso, Alonso, Hamilton, Button, Webber and Vettel – champions all save Webber – while Michael Schumacher did a fair amount of winning in his heyday, last taking the flag here in 2001.

If the event is different to all other grands prix, so is its timetable, with formalities commencing with two practice sessions on Thursday, followed by normal Saturday/Sunday service. F1 does not run at all on Friday, with support events held in the morning and the pits being opened after noon to enable fans and autograph hunters to do their things. 

Vettel and Alonso lead the championship with 61 points each, followed by Hamilton (53) and Räikkönen (49), with Webber (48) and Button (45) completing the first six. Thus only 16 points, or a single third place paying 15 points, separate the top five.


However, the Lotus twins of Räikkönen and Roman Grosjean could well spring a surprise, as could Rosberg, who views the track as his home circuit, having grown up and been schooled in Monaco.

Any bets the top six order will change come Sunday at 4pm?

If the outcome of the 78-lap race, which starts at 2pm on Sunday, remains unpredictable, the weather is less so: sunny 24C skies are forecast for all four days. Qualifying takes place at the same time on Saturday.