Monaco GP - Preview

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Often said to be the jewel in Formula One's crown, this weekend's Monaco Grand Prix finds McLaren Mercedes taking a literal approach with drivers Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen wearing crash helmets encrusted in diamonds.

So much for the financial crisis Max Mosley (who will break cover this weekend) says is imminent. But, if there's one team who deserve to head to the Principality with optimism reflecting the swanky Euro-glitz the event basks in, then it's McLaren.

Their improved showing a fortnight ago in Istanbul was certainly a timely one, coming as it did just as Ferrari - and Kimi Raikkonnen in particular - appeared to be placing distance between themselves and their nearest rivals.

It also offered the distinct hope that 2008 could provide just the type of ding-dong battle that proved so enthralling last season.

Hamilton said he drove his "best race" in Turkey, his charge to second pace behind Felipe Massa coming despite an enforced - and slower over a race distance - three-stop strategy.

Okay, the damaged front-wing endplate sustained by Raikkonen when he touched Kovalainen at the start compromised the World Champion's progress and, perhaps, mitigated against a third Ferrari one-two of the season.

But the sight of Hamilton fighting above his weight, not to mention the thought that Kovalainen, second on the grid and carrying more fuel than both his team-mate and the Ferraris, could have been a contender for victory but for his puncture offers real hope of a McLaren resurgence in Monaco.

Further evidence comes from the fact that McLaren did just that last season to start a strong run of early summer form which brought three successive wins.

Both McLaren's MP4-23 and Ferrari's F2008 are evolutions of last year's cars, with the former's predecessor proving more adept at handling the tight confines and bumps of the 2.075-mile track.


However, Raikkonen is of the belief that Ferrari have improved in this regard, with progress apparently also being made while testing at Paul Ricard last week.

According to Hamilton, who finished second behind then team-mate Fernando Alonso last season, the 78-lap thrash around the streets of Monte Carlo, which first hosted a grand prix in 1929, is his favourite race of all.

"You have the history all around, you can just feel it, and the atmosphere is fantastic. It is the Grand Prix that every driver wants to win," he said.

"Being a street circuit it is very exciting to drive, there is no room for any error all weekend. You are on the limit the whole time, there are no long straights where you have a moment to think.

"It is so tight and narrow, and when you consider how quick you are driving it is unreal. To be quick you need to use every centimetre of the circuit, this even includes touching the barriers at some points.

"In some corners it is almost a guess, you are guessing where the car should be, hoping that you are in the right place, relying on your instinct and memory."

In other words, it's a track that places demands on a driver like no other. Such are Hamilton's preparations that, gaudy promotional crash helmet aside, he feels duty bound to sidestep the huge yachts and parties.

"It is not a distraction in any way, as with any race I am just fully focused on getting the job done," he added. "Monaco weekend more than any other is about being 100 percent in the zone and so I just keep myself to myself."

What might make Sunday's competitors all the more willing to remain 'in the zone' is the fact that, this year, they'll be trying to hustle their way around Monaco's twists and turns without the safety net of traction control.

Nevertheless, cars are set up to provide as much grip as possible. As a slow track, Monaco is not particularly demanding on tyres, so Bridgestone will bring their softest compound tyres, which will also aid traction out of corners.

A softer suspension helps maximise grip over the bumpy (in a Formula One car) steets. Also, to cope with the variations in surface - even traffic markings have an effect - ride heights are raised between five and seven millimetres.

Additional steering lock is provided for the likes of Lowes hairpin, where speeds dip as low as 28 mph. Two corners later the cars enter the tunnel, where they reach a top speed of around 180 mph.

But, with drivers recording the lowest average lap speed of the season, engines are given a relatively easy time.

Indeed, on a track whose nature once moved three-times World Champion Nelson Piquet to comment that driving an F1 car there was like "riding a bicycle around your living room", finding sufficient space for a good qualifying lap is arguably just as important as set-up.


Overtaking, difficult enough in a contemporary F1 car at most tracks, is next to impossible at Monaco, where even getting past a slower car can provide a driver with lap-after-lap of frustration.

Couple the emphasis on qualifying with both a lack of overtaking and the fact that outright performance is not the be-all-and-end-all and it raises the prospect of a surprise victory: Alonso has already said he wants to spring one.

The Spaniard may not have the car beneath him this year but Renault have improved their chassis of late and his Monaco GP victories in 2006 and 2007 tell their own story.

Imagine Alonso repeating his qualifying performance in Barcelona last month and then profiting from, perhaps, a slip up from one front-running rival and, maybe, the mechanical failure (gearboxes go through about 4150 shifts during the race) of another?

At Monaco the permutations are many and the potential for an upset always lies lurking.