Last year saw one of the better Monaco Grands Prix in recent memory. With drivers forced to nurse a single set of tyres for the duration of the race, we even saw some overtaking – ordinarily unheard of at the principality.
With tyres changes back on the menu the chances of similar entertainment this year are pretty slim. But the finely-poised struggle for supremacy between Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher guarantees an interesting contest and the glamour and drama of the only street track on the calendar never fails to lend some excitement.
The engines had scarcely grown cool from the Spanish Grand Prix before thoughts turned to Monaco. Surely the sensational street race, jewel in the Formula One crown, might provide us with a racing spectacle worthy of the mighty title battle being fought this year?
Sure, overtaking at Monte-Carlo is even less likely than it was last year, what with the changes to the tyre rules. Sunday will certainly bring us another tactical battle of the sort that thrills none but the participants.
But at a circuit almost totally lined by Armco barriers, the punishment for a mistake would be enormous. Were Schumacher to repeat his Melbourne slip-up, and Alonso win, the ramifications for his title hopes would be severe.
Monte-Carlo can turn the form book on its head -it puts a premium on downforce and traction and, above all else, a good qualifying position. A light-fuelled Honda or Toyota with a banzai Jenson Button or Jarno Trulli at the wheel could seriously disrupt the Renault-Ferrari duopoly in qualifying, and dramatically influence the shape of the race.
Qualifying could well be more exciting with the race with many drivers having already voiced their concerns about traffic obscuring their laps. It would be a surprise if Giancarlo Fisichella isn’t shouting at somebody come Saturday evening.
Ferrari’s performance at Monaco will be particularly illuminating. Their straight-line speed has been the cause of much interest among other teams who are hurriedly copying Ferrari’s flexing rear wing. But on the tight Monte-Carlo circuit, will it offer much advantage at all?
The picture may well be skewed by the relative performances of the two tyre companies. They are closer matched in 2006 than perhaps any time since the return of Michelin in 2001. Monte-Carlo requires an almost uniquely soft tyre, and Michelin got the mixture just right even in the Ferrari rout that was 2004. A repeat performance could see the red cars swamped by McLaren and Honda as well as Renault.
Such has been Michelin’s strength that Michael Schumacher hasn’t won here since 2001 – his longest losing streak of any of the circuits currently on the calendar.
Of course, there are those who believe he was beginning a bold tactical gamble in 2004. He would have won, they say, had he not chosen to back the field up under safety car conditions in the tunnel, and been hit by Juan Pablo Montoya. Had he won, he would have gone on to set a record 13-race winning streak that year.
Nico Rosberg, Scott Speed, Vitantonio Liuzzi and Franck Montagny all make their first F1 appearances at the street circuit and all have gone well here in junior formulae.
Speed and Rosberg qualified fifth and seventh in GP2 last year; Rosberg took third in the race, one place ahead of Speed. Liuzzi won from pole in F3000 in 2004. Montagny finished sixth from 12th back in F3000 six years ago.
As ever at Monaco Saturday will frame the race and Sunday will see the teams who qualified poorly trying to escape from the midfield. Expect fireworks – if not on Sunday, then definitely on Saturday.