Questions for Monaco
Are Merc really the favourites, can Mark Webber get his season started, will McLaren finally find a magic cure for the MP4-28, and will we forget about the tyres for a while?
By James Galloway, Pete Gill, Mike Wise and Sky Bet's Jamie Casey. Last Updated: 23/05/13 6:07pm
Are Merc really the favourites, can Mark Webber get his season started, and will McLaren finally find a magic cure?
Will tyres dominate again?
Tired of tyres? Then we've some good news for you: F1's annual trip to the Mediterranean seaside may prove just the respite required. With Monaco's famous tunnel accounting for the only demanding high-speed corner on the circuit, Monaco's twisty, tight confines make it the most tyre-friendly venue on the calendar - hence Pirelli's refusal to reconsider their decision to pair the supersofts with the softs even after the Barcelona backlash. "Wear and degradation is also the lowest of the year, meaning that a maximum of two pit-stops per car should be the norm," report F1's sole tyre supplier. At Monaco, it's the track - and not tyres - which will dictate proceedings.
Not that there won't be plenty of talk about the Pirellis over the course of the Monaco weekend, however. If Mercedes have the upper hand in qualifying, the trick sought on race day by the likes of Red Bull, Ferrari and Lotus will be pulling off a strategic sleight of hand to overtake on a circuit where overtaking is almost impossible. A risky balancing act awaits, especially when traffic can be so troublesome, and the story of the race may well prove to be whether or not Mercedes have to stop more times than their opposition. 2012's one-stopper will not be a straightforward repeat on this year's fickle rubber.
Still, compared to the aggravation of Barcelona, tyres should be a relatively peripheral and muted protagonist this week with discussions about the Pirellis focused on what - if any - changes are agreed for Montreal and beyond. The vow to change had barely been read on Pirelli's press release last week before F1 began to play its favourite game - politics - as Ferrari and Lotus launched thinly-veiled rebukes of Red Bull. Now it seems as if the FIA are ready to wade into the mire too amid a reminder that the rulebook outlaws any changes to the tyres for reasons other than safety. It's a fine mess that F1 is currently getting itself into - and Monaco-goers would be well advised to keep their heads down this week to avoid the cross-fire.
Are Mercedes really the favourites?
Contrary to Fernando Alonso's assertion that Mercedes have to be considered the favourites over the entire weekend, the bookmakers are only siding with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in qualifying. Ferrari's Alonso and Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel are joint favourites on race day at 11/4, with Hamilton (5/1) priced marginally shorter than his team-mate (11/2).
With Pirelli unable to introduce improved tyre compounds until Montreal in June, Mercedes are deemed likely to fall short on Sunday once again, regardless of the lack of room for manoeuvre on the streets of Monaco. Having dominated race day last year, aided by Mark Webber's pole position by default, Red Bull are once again favourites to produce the race winner at 15/8, with Mercedes and Ferrari deadlocked at 9/4.
Down on luck and indeed form since the infamous Malaysian GP, Webber is a 12/1 long shot to repeat his 2012 triumph, but Kimi Raikkonen represents the best value (7/1) to win in Monte Carlos for the second time, while either Lotus driver to top the podium is a 6/1 price boost with Sky Bet . With one of the tightest and trickiest turn ones on the calendar, retirements on lap one are not uncommon in Monaco, and Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes each priced at 12/1 to be the first casualty.
Will Mark Webber find his form again?
"It is a sensational opportunity starting from here." Those were Mark Webber's words on the Thursday of the last race in Spain when looking ahead to a period of the season that has traditionally been very kind to him. It's fair to say, therefore, that seventh on the grid and a fifth-place race finish at Barcelona hardly constituted the 'lift off' to his season he had been hoping for, even if a poor first lap and Red Bull's difficulties with tyre management did provide justifiable mitigating circumstances on the Sunday.
But the facts, as ever in F1, do reverberate loudly: not only does the Australian head to Monaco trailing Sebastian Vettel by five positions and 47 points in the Drivers' Championship, he is one of only two drivers on the grid - the other being Max Chilton at Marussia - who has yet to defeat his team-mate in either qualifying or a race after five events (honourable mentions to race day at Sepang aside).
With the top three in the standings increasingly looking likely that they're going to create a mini-championship all of their own, you get the sense that Webber's season has already reached a crossroads - one lest we forget that many are suggesting will be his final one at motorsport's top table. So, what chance Monaco providing some much-needed salvation? Recent history is certainly on his side thanks to assured victories in two of the last three seasons, while if you go even further back than that he could have won in a middling Williams in 2006 and indeed finished on the podium for the Grove team the season before.
The scruff-of-the-neck approach you need to conquer the Principality is tailor made for the 36-year-old and you sense that if his 2013 campaign is to burst into sustained life anywhere it will be here. It certainly needs to.
Can McLaren finally get their season on track?
This segment is becoming the 2013's season version of Groundhog Day and any expectations of a step forward by McLaren in Monaco are merely a carry-over from Barcelona after the team failed to deliver either the upgrades in parts or upgrade in performance expected of them beforehand. Will Monaco prove any different? The new front-wing, which belatedly turned up on the Saturday in Barcelona but couldn't be run as there was insufficient time for scrutineering, will be given its track debut on Thursday. But would it be sensible for anyone to pin much hope on a part that has apparently been made in such chaotic haste?
The feeling remains that McLaren have picked a bad year in which to play catch-up and the rigidity of the regulations has left them with no room for manoeuvre after taking a wrong turn when they so unwisely opted for revolution instead of evolution. Still, you never know - all criticisms of McLaren's approach will be turned on their head if the new front-wing turns out to be their overdue Eureka moment. Just go easy on the expectations, though.
Will a small team finally make their point?
Which, let's face it, is another way of asking whether there'll be a spate of retirements during the race? Both Caterham and Marussia know that their best bet of breaking into the top ten lies in the unexpected and there's more chance of that happening at Monaco than anywhere else.
Yes, the likelihood of just four finishers limping to the chequered flag (as happened in 1996) is extremely rare in these oh-so reliable times while, at the time of writing, the friend of F1 TV viewers the world over - rain - is not forecast for Sunday. Yet when one ponders the conceit of letting 22 x 750bhp F1 cars loose in the warren-like Circuit de Monaco, it doesn't require too great a leap of imagination to foresee the possibility of trouble ahead, most likely around the next tight, blind corner.
It's not something one wants to see as such - it's a testament to the skill of the drivers that it doesn't happen more often - but occasionally it's unavoidable. Whether the accident triggered by Takuma Sato three laps into the 2004 race was unavoidable is open to debate - the Japanese's car had been trailing smoke almost since the lights went out - but given the blanket of fog left by Sato's Honda engine after it did eventually detonate, it's a wonder that it caused no more than three retirements. In the event, the attrition rate that day was sufficient to promote Minardi's Zsolt Baumgartner into ninth place, which is now worth two points - and perhaps a whole lot more when the Constructors' Championship prize money is divvied up at the end of the season.
The 2013 Monaco Grand Prix this weekend is live only on Sky Sports F1. Don't miss out, upgrade or subscribe to Sky Sports today