(Image source: Andrew Locking)
The waves of the F1 storm surge onto the shores of Monaco this weekend. Perhaps no race is more synonymous with the series than the one that meanders through the streets of the Principality. Here, the DNA of the track matches harmoniously with that of the sport to form an eternal bond. The days of nerve-racking battles and fiery crashes may be gone, but the race is no less important to the F1 calendar.
Now, if only the race could live up to the hype. For those of us too young to understand how momentous a win in Monaco could be, the Grand Prix now offers little more than an extended qualifying session, where drivers wring the most out of the short distances between corners for 90 minutes. Today, the highlights usually comprise radio messages, safety cars and race-defining pit stops. Actual racing? A thing of the past. Still, F1 soldiers on with a wide grin. And, if the looks on the winner's faces are any sign, Monaco remains a special place for the drivers.
Mercedes dominant in Spain
A fortnight ago, we saw the reemergence of Mercedes. The team annihilated the competition en route to a dominant one-two finish in Spain. Coming into this weekend, the concern throughout the F1 universe – both from fans and pundits alike – is that Ferrari has somehow lost their early season form and Mercedes are back on top. How short racing memories are.
Before the Spanish Grand Prix, bad luck, poor strategy, untimely safety cars and overzealous moves under braking were all that had kept the Scuderia from winning every race. Mercedes, and Lewis Hamilton in particular, had looked unremarkable. That they remained in a close second position while doing so speaks of their underlying supremacy. Could Spain's one-sidedness be an outlier?
Can Ferrari strike back?
Last season's Monaco GP saw Ferrari torch the field. Kimi Raikkonen held a race-winning position before Vettel snatched the victory with five stunning laps of speed during the pit stop window to deny the Finn his first victory in 103 races.. After encountering difficulties with thinner tyre treads in Spain last time out, the team should see a return to form this weekend. The question will be whether Kimi can channel last year's drive and avenge his teammate.
On a circuit that rewards balance and low-speed behaviour above all else, several teams should be competitive including Red Bull, providing Daniel Ricciardo can put the ghost of that 2016 pit stop behind him and Max Verstappen doesn't pull any bonehead moves.
After their return to winning ways, Mercedes will look to keep the momentum rolling. However, dominating so easily last time out after four up-and-down races, might offer false perspective. Any hiccup will allow their comfortable lead at the top of both points tables to be cut by Ferrari. However, a win and that lead may appear insurmountable. The good news is that Lewis Hamilton finally looked backed to his best while Valtteri Bottas has been near the front all year.
A chance for others to shine
While the big three will be the front-runners, the Monaco procession should provide other drivers with the chance to strut their stuff. And the constrictor-tight mid-field battle of 2018 will see no quarter given. Personally, I'll be keeping an eye on Fernando Alonso and Charles Leclerc. Their battle in Spain hinted at an eventual passing of the torch. Both drivers have been incredible in recent races showing their ability to wrestle the best from somewhat inferior machines.
Ahead of those two, the Renaults should be formidable in the battle for best-of-the-rest so expect Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz to haul in big points. This should apply to the Haas duo as well but after an up-and-down start for the American team, it's difficult to predict how they'll fare – Romain Grosjean's grid penalty won't help matters either.
Every team in the midfield has a reason to be optimistic. A victory from there is unlikely but a strong qualifying performance on a circuit where track position is king can mean a boatload of points and a reason to party. Just ask Kimi Raikkonen.
While the race itself is often a letdown, the fever-pitch team battles of 2018, and the chassis-focused nature of the track still make F1's Crown Jewel event worth watching.
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