There is an air of expectation as the F1 circus heads to Monaco. Runaway championship leader Fernando Alonso is starting to look vulnerable against the might of McLaren, and he may face similarly strong opposition from Italian Monaco specialists Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella.
Kimi Raikkonen’s devastating pace sealed his Spanish Grand Prix win with comparative ease, but he’s got to need a lot more of them if he’s going to cut back his 27-point deficit to Alonso. Partly aided by the tyre blistering Alonso suffered in the early stages of his home race, Raikkonen’s principal threats will be a fired-up Fernando and Raikkonen’s McLaren team mate Juan-Pablo Montoya.
Montoya has had a tough start to 2005, plagued by unforced errors and laid off for two races with a shoulder injury. The Monaco circuit, scene of his 2003 win, offers him a chance to get back on level terms with his team mate.
Two other strong picks for victory are leading Italians Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella, both of whom have an affinity for the peculiar demands of Monaco. Trulli took his sole win to date here last year and Fisichella has always qualified and raced well at the track. Fisichella was finally back on form in Spain after two races blighted by mechanical failure and he, like Montoya, will be relieved to have a decent running slot for first qualifying as a result. Trulli is still second in the championship, but that has been jeopardised by the discovery that Toyota have not been running under the correct licence (see news blog).
One person who will not be running at an optimum time in first qualifying will be Michael Schumacher. He will be up against a dirty Monaco track on Bridgestone tyres that struggle to perform for a single flying lap. It will take a massive effort from him to break into the top five, and even from there a victory would be a tall order. Armed with a heavy fuel load he could do it if he does not suffer a repeat of his Spanish Grand Prix tyre failure and he gets lucky with traffic.
Michael’s brother Ralf was finally on terms with team mate Trulli in Spain, though aided in qualifying by a lighter fuel load that reversed their positions on race day. This is the very least he needs to be doing, though. To justify his substantial pay demands he should be comfortably clear of Trulli week in, week out. This will be a fascinating intra-team struggle as the season unfolds.
After 2004, though, it’s a delight to be able to consider six or seven serious candidates for victory going into a race weekend. Sadly, Williams do not yet seem to have sufficient raw pace to race with the leaders, and that also means a podium finish is unlikely. They are continuing to develop the FW27 at a frantic pace and it’s possible that, on a circuit where aerodynamic efficiency is secondary to the amount of raw downforce that can be generated, they may punch above their weight. Sam Michael’s willingness to countenance adventurous fuel strategies was evident in Spain, and it may pay dividends here.
Over at Red Bull Vitantonio Liuzzi needs a solid result as Christian Klien may be taking his car back soon. Klien racked up three points before they switched, and Liuzzi would not have scored any had three separate penalties for drivers ahead of him in San Marino not promoted him from 11th to 8th. In Spain, he spun out. He won the Monaco F3000 race last year and will need a similarly mature performance to get a points finish for Red Bull this time out.
Matters are still refusing to come right at Sauber, either for Felipe Massa who has been dogged by failures and unreliability, or Jacques Villeneuve who came crashing back down to earth in Spain after his San Marino high.
Minardi continue to focus their attention on beating Jordan, and Monaco offers perhaps the best chance for them so far this season (see The Battle at the Back, issue 10) if the curvy new PS05s can get away from the line this time.
Running third-to-last in first qualifying will give Jarno Trulli a strong chance of success at the circuit where he won last year. If he can translate his one-lap speed into a pole for Sunday, that’s half the race won already. But, for a circuit that is derided for its lack of overtaking opportunities, Monaco has been a difficult track to predict a winner on in recent years and has not been won twice by the same driver since 2001.