Monaco Grand Prix 2007 preview

Monaco Grand Prix, Monte-Carlo, 2006, startSuddenly, street circuits are all the rage. It’s as if Bernie Ecclestone gets all his ideas from the Champ Car World Series.

Mind you, that is where the ideas for refuelling and safety cars doubtlessly came from.

Anyway, more street circuits will soon be a feature of the F1 calendar and when you consider the glamorous allure of Monte-Carlo it’s not difficult to see why.

Yes, it’s virtually an overtaking-free zone. But it is also unique, distinctive and ruthlessly punishing venue unlike any other on the present calendar.

And the new tyre and safety car rules this year make the result especially tough to call.

Two major aspects of the 2007 rules could have an enormous impact on the Monaco Grand Prix.

The first is tyres. At Monaco drivers need the softest compound they can get their hands on and Bridgestone’s ‘super soft’ compound will be available to them for the first time this year.

This year, however, each driver is forced to do a stint on each type of rubber. Conventional wisdom suggests you leave the harder tyre to the end when the field is more spread and the track will be at its most ‘rubbered in’, and therefore more receptive to the tougher compound.

But there are certainly going to be teams who will be attracted to using the harder tyre first in the hope that an early safety car period might allow them to get it out of the way quickly – as Vitantonio Liuzzi tried in Bahrain. It’s a massive gamble, but it could have an enormous pay-off.

Safety car, Monte-Carlo, 2006, 2Interestingly the teams tried the super-soft at last week’s test at Paul Ricard and found it too soft for that particular track. There’s always the possibility that the super soft may be too soft, which would create a whole new host of problems.

The new safety car regulations have not had a dramatic impact on a race yet. But Monte-Carlo is probably the circuit where the safety car is most likely to make an appearance – and when it does, any drivers that are a pit stop behind will be in trouble. They will not be able to dash straight into the pits, and any cars behind them will be made to catch up first.

If race strategy is your thing you’ll have noticed this pulls tacticians in two directions at once – a shorter first stint minimises the risk element should the safety car make an appearance. But longer early stints on soft tyres reduce the amount of time that has to be spent on the slower tyre. That’s the Monte-Carlo gamble.

This all overlooks the usual Monaco challenges – getting a clear lap in in qualifying (though with Michael Schumacher now retired that may become easier), bolting as much downforce onto the car as possible, and not hitting the barriers.

It’s strange then, that everyone is tipping a rookie with no Grands Prix wins to his name to win the race…

McLaren-Mercedes

Incredibly, Lewis Hamilton currently leads the drivers’ world championship. He hasn’t made any of the sort of rookie errors that everyone expects from him – but if any track is going to tease one out of him, you’d expect it to be Monaco.

Hamilton’s record here is unimpeachable, however. In the F3 Euroseries two years ago he took pole and won both races, and he won the GP2 race here last year as well. He was fastest at Paul Ricard on the super-soft tyres during testing.

There are perhaps only two things stacked against him and they both revolve around qualifying. He’s only been on the front row of the grid once and that is essential at Monaco.

That partly comes down to whether he can be quick enough for pole – but it also comes down to whether the team will let him run the optimum strategy to do so.

Team mate Fernando Alonso won here last year but has been beaten by Hamilton in the last two races. He absolutely has to assert himself here.

Renault

Renault looked strong in the second part of testing last week when the teams were gearing up for Canada. But given their struggles for grip it doesn’t seem likely that Monaco will play to their strengths.

Giancarlo Fisichella, however, has often been strong here. And Heikki Kovalainen had his best outing of the year so far in Spain – a trouble-free outing at Monte-Carlo and some useful points would be a healthy continuation of that progress.

Ferrari

Felipe Massa, Jean Todt, Barcelona, Ferrari, 2007The Ferrari looks strong in every department but Monaco demands downforce, traction and little else. It’s possible for another team – most likely McLaren – to outgun them here.

Felipe Massa’s confidence must be sky-high after two wins. He had a shocker at Monaco last year – crashing in qualifying and nowhere in the race – and will be pumped up to avenge that and seize the championship lead.

Team mate Kimi Raikkonen is in much the same position as Alonso. He thought he’d unlocked the secrets of the Ferrari ahead of the Spanish race, only to apparently be outclassed by Massa again, until his car failed.

Also like Alonso, Raikkonen knows how to win this race and that vital extra notch of confidence may be enough for him to put one over his team mate.

Honda

This will be a particularly interesting race for Honda as the quest for total downforce may neuter some of the car’s shortcomings. Can Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello capitalise on that chance?

They surely can, but they’ll have to avoid hitting each other this time.

BMW

BMW are in a bit of a nowhere land between McFerrari and everybody else. Robert Kubica hasn’t done a Grand Prix distance here before so he might find himself back behind team mate Nick Heidfeld again.

The team experimented with different tyre strategies earlier in the season and it will be interesting to see if they try to repeat that here. That plus a little bit of luck with the safety car could set up a surprise result.

Toyota

Jarno Trulli is another ex-Monaco winner and very rapid around the circuit. He could spring a massive surprise in qualifying and cause all sorts of problems for the leaders.

But the team have got to knock the silly errors on the head – particularly the unreliability that ruined Trulli’s race at Catalunya.

It’s difficult what to make of Ralf Schumacher’s season so far other than to say that it’s hard to see him getting a 2008 drive anywhere at this rate. Major improvement is needed – he can’t get left behind in the first part of qualifying again.

Red Bull-Renault

David Coutlhard’s impressive run to fifth in Barcelona has been tarnished by allegations that the team is using a flexing rear wing. This story may well develop further before the Monaco Grand Prix weekend.

Despite this and still being dogged by unreliability the team are getting quicker with every race and must already be giving the ‘factory’ Renault team some serious headaches.

Mark Webber’s usual panache in qualifying deserted him in Barcelona but he can’t lose the mojo in Monte Carlo – it could be the key to a very strong result for Red Bull. Coulthard, twice a winner at this circuit, cannot be discounted either – especially if he qualifies as well as he did last time out.

Williams-Toyota

Williams are having a strong start to 2007 and Nico Rosberg already looks like he is putting the bad memories of 2006 behind him.

Alexander Wurz though has been plagued by a manner of ills. He needs to keep out of trouble and get solid result in at the track where he made a name for himself in 1998.

Scuderia Toro Rosso-Ferrari

Vitantonio Liuzzi, Toro Rosso, Barcelona, 2007, 2Still not competitive enough relative to their ‘big brother’ team. Scott Speed is particularly under pressure although it didn’t seem his retirement last time out was anything of his doing.

Both drivers need to keep out of trouble and get the most out of the car. Beyond that they only seem likely to score points in the event of high attrition – or some demon strategic play.

Spyker-Ferrari

Designer Mike Gascoyne has spoken very highly of rookie driver Adrian Sutil and drawn attention to his worthy performance at Monte-Carlo in 2005 alongside then team mate Hamilton.

Sutil is doing a hugely respectable job at Spyker. There have been the odd mistakes but there’s also been a lot of pace – often a fair bit more than Christijan Albers.

It’s not likely that the team will be anywhere other than last on the grid at Monaco but as long as the two drivers don’t hit each other on the first lap, that’ll be an improvement on last year.

Super Aguri-Honda

Buzzing after scoring their maiden Grand Prix point Super Aguri will have more giant-killing in mind for Monaco. Of course it all comes down to qualifying but at this track where driver skill can make an enormous difference it’s not completely out of the question.

Anthony Davidson, of course, has not done a Grand Prix distance around here so Sunday will be tough for him.

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