It’s that time of year again when the F1 circus arrives at a Grand Prix, perhaps the only Grand Prix on the calendar where the event and location truly matches the glitz and glamour of the F1 circus, it can only be Monaco. I get the feeling we arrive in Monaco this year with what could be one of the biggest unknowns so far this season, and I think only when qualifying on Saturday has concluded will we see just how drastically the pecking order has been changed and modified since the season opening Australian Grand Prix. It’s clear to see that some teams have moved forward, some have also moved back, and some have perhaps not experienced the success they desired so here’s my assessment of four of the biggest talking points ahead of this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix.
Renault’s new engine
Obviously there’s been some talk of favouritism being shown by both Red Bull and Renault, but to me it’s quite clear why the upgraded Renault power units have been given to Ricciardo and Magnussen. It somewhat irritates me that some journalists are suggesting far fetched theories about why Palmer, and Verstappen in particular weren’t provided with the upgraded power unit, said to be worth about 0.4-0.5 seconds per lap but both their teammates are ahead in the drivers championship and I think the questioning and speculation should stop there. Both Verstappen and Palmer seem relaxed and accepting of the situation and it’s clear to see why, either way, the old Renault power unit in the Red Bull at least was still a match for the Ferrari in Barcelona we should still expect to see Verstappen qualifying, and racing in the top five or six.
To me at least, the most intriguing talking point regarding Renault’s new engine is just where Ricciardo will now fit into what has been a Mercedes/Ferrari top two for the majority of this season. On a street track like Monaco, with an extra 0.4s/0.5s per lap Ferrari are in massive danger of falling behind the Aussie, and if Ricciardo puts his Red Bull on the front row of the grid in qualifying I wouldn’t be surprised either, his Q3 lap in Spain was spectacular. Where Renault and Magnussen find themselves is a more difficult question, especially when the midfield is so competitive but if it at least lifts them fully clear of Sauber then the new engine can be considered an immediate success. Reaching Q2 should be a minimum target for Magnussen, but with the old power unit Palmer may struggle to get out of Q1 again.
Will Hamilton get off the mark?
It’s unbelievable to think that for a driver who dominated the opening parts of last season, Hamilton has yet to win a race since the US Grand Prix 2015. If Hamilton had got away perfectly from the line in Barcelona I think the win was his but I think the crash between the two has been addressed enough in recent weeks. Getting off the line seems to be Hamilton’s Achilles heel this season but the run from the start to turn one at Monaco is so short that this has to represent his best chance of leading out of turn one all season. To win the the race it’s vital the Hamilton qualifies ahead of Rosberg, fail to do so, and to get beaten by either a Red Bull or a Ferrari (or both) would signal the end of his race if Rosberg starts from pole.
Obviously many people over the course of the weekend are likely to bring up last season’s Monaco Grand Prix where a fatal strategy call lost Lewis the race, but Hamilton seems to have a renewed focus after qualifying on pole last time out and I don’t expect the memories of last season to affect him in 2016. Barring any mechanical dramas or accidents I think the story of Hamiton’s Monaco GP will be quite simple. Qualify on pole and he’ll win the race. Qualify off the front row, or behind his teammate (assuming Rosberg qualifies on the front row) means Rosberg will further extend his lead at the top of the table. It’s that competitive.
Can Ferrari capitalise?
After the Mercedes pair took each out in Barcelona, the Spanish Grand Prix should have been Ferrari’s to lose, but with Ricciardo now sporting Renault’s new, upgraded engine I think Ferrari will be heading into this weekend a little more nervous that they have so far this season. Raikkonen, who is enjoying his best season since 2013 currently sits in 2nd place in the drivers championship, 13 points ahead of Vettel in 4th, who is also level on points with Ricciardo. Again, like always in Monaco qualifying will be key and if Ferrari can get a car on the front row of the grid they should be able to stay there. A podium finish should be a minimum target for the Scuderia this weekend as it always is but they really need to be aggressively pushing Mercedes if they a) want to have a serious shot at winning races this season and b) want to stay ahead of Red Bull.
The Chasing Pack
Of course, much of the attention will be on the front of the field throughout the Monaco GP weekend but there’s plenty of action going on in the chasing pack worthy of a mention over the course of the next few days. Kvyat finished an impressive 4th, ahead of Ricciardo in Monaco last year and it will be fascinating to see how he matches up to Carlos Sainz this time out with a few miles in the Toro Rosso under his belt. Reaching Q3 should be an realistic target for Kvyat, as it should for both Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso.
Button scored McLaren’s first points of the year at the 2015 Monaco GP with an 8th place finish and with Honda finally making substantial progress with the engine points should be realistic target for both cars, especially when the McLaren was among the fastest cars in sector three in Barcelona, a great measure of pace around Monaco. Reliability will be a concern, but it finally seems like the pace is there to reach the top ten without relying on the misfortunes of others. McLaren need to continue making this sort of rapid progress this season if 2016 is to be considered a success but with Williams already devoting a large amount of time to their 2017 challenger I wonder how long McLaren will continue to put all their efforts into 2016?