Questions for the 2014 Monaco Grand Prix
Will Mercedes' 100% record survive the streets? What chance Monaco mayhem with the 2014 turbos? And can Lotus continue to improve?
By Sky Sports Online. Last Updated: 21/05/14 10:46am
Monaco or bust for Mercedes' rivals?
The middle of May is hardly the time to be talking about F1 last-chance saloons, but just like the first bloom indicates the beginning of spring, if a true championship challenger to Mercedes is to emerge in 2014 their form really needs to start flowering right about now. The 19-race season may only be five rounds old but Mercedes' early-season dominance has already reached juggernaut proportions - five poles, five wins, four straight one-twos and a 113-point Constructors' Championship lead, need we say more? - and their 48-second winning margin last time out in Spain frighteningly suggested that the Silver Arrows may even have stretched the W05's already large performance advantage over Red Bull and the rest following the first forays of the development war.
But could Monaco, with all its tight twists and turns and historical - albeit not particularly recent - penchant for unpredictability, be the place the all-silver tapestry of the season, at least temporarily, changes? With Red Bull, Mercedes' nearest, and perhaps only, challengers adamant that the overriding difference between their RB10 and the unbeaten W05 are the respective power units in the back of the two cars, Monte Carlo's streets should, on paper, eradicate a large percentage of that perceived disadvantage given the track is the slowest on the calendar and features no straights worth their name.
Then again, the 3.34km circuit, while requiring teams to run bespoke high-downforce packages, is essentially not that aerodynamically-demanding with more of a difference made by having good traction out of the array of slower-speed corners, an area Mercedes' V6 hardly falls short in. Indeed, even before their emergence as F1's new force, it was Mercedes which set the pace over the last two years at Monaco with Michael Schumacher's pole-that-never-was in 2012 followed by an all-Silver Arrows frontrow and a comfortable race-day win for Nico Rosberg last year.
Still, it's hard to imagine how Mercedes' challengers can't be closer than at Barcelona given the uniqueness of the circuit and from Red Bull's perspective, three wins in the last four there. Indeed, how about this as a lesson from history: on each of the last three occasions a team have opened a season with five wins on the spin - Ferrari in 2004 and Williams in 1992 and then again in 1996 - it has been Monte Carlo where they have suffered their first defeat of the campaign. But is it asking the Monaco gods of unpredictability too much to deliver for a fourth such occasion in a row?
Much mangled machinery in Monaco?
Almost since the season started, when the sight of F1's new generation of cars twitching their way round corners became apparent, it's Monaco that minds have cast towards when pondering the challenge faced by drivers in taming machinery torqued up to the max but without the grip they've been used to. Will the streets of the Principality turn into the world's most expensive scrapyard? Can strategists envisage the probability of a Safety Car being any less than 100.00 per cent? Might Pastor Maldonado draw the attention of air traffic controllers in Nice?
Flippancy aside, there's an inevitability in mulling this one over, given that narrow streets have never been - will never be - the natural habitat of Formula 1 cars. "Like riding a bicycle around your living room," was the analogy put forward by Nelson Piquet, although the knowledge that the Brazilian and his cohorts cut loose during the 1980s in cars equipped with upwards of 1200bhp on tap, turbo lag aplenty and qualifying tyres does remind us that we've been here before, only more so.
In other words, drivers adapt - at least that was the opinion generally expressed in Barcelona. "I've got to drive the same way I'm driving now," said Lewis Hamilton, "be cautious on power. Otherwise it's the same as every year: as hard as you can, as fast as you can, using every little bit of road you can."
"It will be a bit tougher but we thought it was going to be horrendous this year, the driveability on exits, and it's not really been that bad," added Jenson Button. "Monaco will be tough, a step further, but we seem to cope okay."
No alarm bells, then, and as Button suggests, they've gotten used to the changes (with one or two notable exceptions) like they were always going to. Furthermore, glitches with the new technology - erraticism under braking caused by harvesting energy and the new brake-by-wire systems being the most obvious example - appear under control now, while concerns over closing speeds (caused when a car saving fuel suddenly loses momentum) appeared to fade in Melbourne. There's always bound to be incident of some kind in Monaco; let's trust it's only an ego or two that takes a bruising.
So how many drivers will come a cropper?
The famous Saint Devote, arguably the most notorious Turn One in the sport, has been no stranger to first-lap drama, with the entire field approaching the tight angle in first or second gear. Early accidents have been less frequent over the past decade though, so Sky Bet go odds-on (4/7) that there's no retirements on the opening lap.
However, there's still an element of risk and punters can back exactly one retirement on the opening lap at 3/1, exactly two at 7/1, exactly three at 12/1 and four or more at 11/1. The first two cars to approach Turn One are likely to be Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, and it's 14/1 for Mercedes to be the first team to retire.
Further down the line, accidents are likely to occur on the narrow streets, as mentioned, so much so that it's fairly unlikely for the Safety Car not to be deployed (3/1), while under 16.5 classified finishers (4/5) is more plausible than over (10/11).
Meanwhile, Lotus have seemingly kick-started their season with Romain Grosjean picking up their first points of the season in the Spanish GP, while Pastor Maldonado ran quickest in post-race testing. Nonetheless, Sky Bet make the Enstone team 11/2 second favourites to be the first team to retire in Monte Carlo, with Sauber the favourites at 4/1.
Can we expect the Lotus revival to continue?
It's a rocky road that Lotus have been forced to travel these past few months: from the disarray of pre-season testing and the first couple of races (in Malaysia, trying to cheer themselves up during yet another mega-shift, some of their mechanics resorted to a spot of tomfoolery in the paddock involving a plastic snake tied to some string and startled passers-by) they've managed to get a handle on the E22 to the extent that Romain Grosjean finally put some points on the board in Barcelona. About time too.
In fact, it could be argued that the Lotus revival has gathered pace to such an extent that they're currently out-developing everyone. Seven seconds off the pace in Melbourne and starting in the pitlane, Grosjean lined up fifth in Barcelona - the Enstone team further behind their rivals on the performance curve but on the bit where it's steeper. With the E22 now spoken of as a potential podium finisher and third place in the constructors' standings (ahead of Ferrari) even being hinted at, it seems that Lotus are finally back in the sort of ballpark you'd expect to find them.
Having said that, they'll have everything crossed this weekend in the hope that Grosjean, at least, doesn't re-discover the sort of nasty habits that briefly re-surfaced there 12 months ago. And then there's Pastor. Like his team-mate, Maldonado has crashed out of every Monaco GP he's ever driven in; unlike the Frenchman, however, he has yet to rein in his excesses. If anything, Maldonado seems to be heading the opposite way. It'll be a brave man who bets against the Venezuelan getting involved in some kind of skirmish this weekend, a braver man still that chooses to stand near the Swimming Pool during qualifying.