Monaco Grand Prix: thoughts on the start, the strategies and the weather

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Felipe Massa, Ferrari, Monaco, qualifying, 2008

Ferrari have the Monaco Grand Prix as good as won before the start has even been given on tomorrow’s race, right?

Certainly from a statistical point of view it’s highly unlikely that the chasing pack will be able to disrupt Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen and the battle for victory is likely to be an all-Ferrari affair.

But what role will the start, the weather and the strategy have to play in the Grand Prix? Here are some thoughts.

Starting strategy

It’s unusual to see changes between the drivers right at the front of the field at the start of the Monaco Grand Prix. On the last three occasions the leaders have held position on the first lap.

Lewis Hamilton, however, must be eyeing up his chances of passing Kimi Raikkonen at the start. In 2003 and 2004 the third placed driver was able to pass the second placed driver at the first turn.

But the odds are still stacked against him. Ferrari will likely have a strategy planned out for the first corner just as McLaren did last year, with Raikkonen aiming to tuck in behind Massa just as Hamilton took up station behind Fernando Alonso.

First turn

Already this weekend drivers have been penalised for cutting across Sainte Devote. The low kerbs at Monaco’s first turn are easy to cut across and seven GP2 drivers took the short cut in today’s race.

One of them, Adrian Valles, moved up from fifth to fourth place that way. But the stewards soon punished him with a drive-through penalty.

None of the other six drivers lower down the order were punished even though it looked like some of them made no effort at all to get around the corner properly.

In last year’s Grand Prix Takuma Sato and Christijan Albers cut the first corner at the start, gaining a position each over Anthony Davidson, but neither were punished. Keep an eye out at the start of tomorrow’s race for more of the same.

Rain

The prospect of rain has hung over most of the weekend and did make a brief appearance during this morning’s practice session.

Various weather forecasters including Meteo France (the agency used by F1) expect rain to fall during tomorrow’s race.

Rainfall could do dramatic things to the race pattern. Last year of the top four drivers it was tomorrow’s polesitter Felipe Massa who looked the least convincing in the rain, notably in losing the lead to Alonso when rain fell on the Nurburgring. If Massa’s Ferrari proves slower in the rain than the chasing pack we could quickly see a Monte-Carlo traffic jam develop.

Rain could cause all kinds of additional complications for race strategists.

For example, the drivers in the top ten of the grid will have less fuel on board than those behind them. If any of those top ten drivers pits for fuel and ends up behind any of the drivers who started outside the top ten, and rain then falls, the drivers who started further down the grid are perfectly poised to take advantage.

When working out what wet weather does to race strategy it’s important to remember that wet weather running requires far less fuel than dry weather running.

And of course wet weather often leads to safety car periods. And as we saw at Melbourne and Catalunya the poorly thought-out safety car rules can hurl a wrecking ball through drivers race strategies completely at random.

What strategies are the leaders running?

It’s extremely difficult to infer from the qualifying times exactly what fuel levels the top ten drivers are using. However from comparing this year’s qualifying times with last year’s it seems as though the leaders have slightly more fuel on board than in 2007, possibly because of concerns over the weather.

2007 Q2 Q3 Difference First pit stop
Felipe Massa 1’16.034 1’15.967 -0.067 26
Lewis Hamilton 1’15.479 1’15.905 +0.426 29
2008 Q2 Q3 Difference First pit stop
Felipe Massa 1’15.110 1’15.787 +0.677 ?
Kimi Raikkonen* 1’15.404 1’15.815 +0.411 ?
Lewis Hamilton 1’15.322 1’15.839 +0.517 ?

*Raikkonen did not set a time in Q2 in 2007

On the face of it the large gap between Massa’s Q2 and Q3 time this year might suggest he was heavy with fuel.

However the fact that he set his Q2 time quite late in that session when the track surface was more favourable, therefore allowing him to set a better time, probably has more to do with it. How much time was the track worth later in the session compared to earlier on? Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg each found 0.7s, so a conservative estimate would suggest it gave Massa a couple of tenths.

This suggests two things to me: first, that we will see drivers pit a little later than we did last year – possibly by no more than a lap or two.

And second, that either Lewis Hamilton is carrying one or two more laps fuel than the Ferraris are, or he failed to get the maximum out of his car in qualifying for the second race in a row.

All will be revealed tomorrow, weather permitting.