By Bob Constanduros
And so to Monaco
We’re not even a third of the way through the season and here we are at the Jewel in the Crown. It’s Wednesday in Monaco and I’ve just arrived to the usual dire warnings of air workers strikes and the blockading of the oil refineries making petrol scarce. So far this has had no impact but the air traffic controllers/baggage handlers etc strike every bloody year. They’re so ridiculously predictable that you wonder why no one has sorted this out. It’s pathetic.
So that’s the first rant of the weekend! This, of course, is Monaco, far too reliant on the vagaries of its disorganised and weak neighbour and host but it is a little island of peace, wealth, law, order and calm. In case you didn’t know, it’s where Sir Philip Green, he of the BHS scandal, stores his cash via his wife who lives here. It was once called ‘a sunny place for shady people’ by novelist Somerset Maugham.
I say it’s a haven of law and order, that is until the marshals get going and then they become what marshals become the world over and take the law into their own hands. It doesn’t matter if you work for the FIA, FOM or whoever, if you’re not wearing a team shirt or one from that organisation then you can get lost. But if you’re recognisable hero, like Flavio Briatore (sic), then you will be ushered in whether you’ve got a pass or not. Sycophancy runs riot here.
When I was a young man on Autosport, our then editor – a well-known champagne socialist – used to say that Monaco was an anachronism, that it was out of date, shouldn’t exist. And yet nowadays all you hear is what a great circuit it is, fantastic challenge, great atmosphere etc. One of the two teams that produce useful if often differing statistics, noted that there were precisely three overtaking manoeuvres last year: two ‘normal’ and one DRS. Is that really a circuit on which racing takes place?
Yet at the same time, Carlos Sainz managed to haul himself up from penalised pit lane starter to tenth in the race and scored a single point. And this was in spite of nearly everyone being on a one stop strategy – apart from the hard-done-by Lewis Hamilton.
This year, however, we have three different tyre compounds, with the ultra-soft being used for the first time and soft being the hardest of the compounds. Everyone has a set of the softs but Force India and Scuderia Toro Rosso have gone for three sets each per driver. Most teams have two to four sets of supersofts except McLaren who have five sets and Manor who have six. Finally, Mercedes, Red Bull and Magnussen have ten sets of the ultrasofts; the others have less.
Now there are three points that could well affect the strategy, however. The first of these is the need to be on pole position if you’re going to win the race. Nico Rosberg was second on the grid last year – having won from pole the two years before – but overhauled Lewis when he stopped for a second set of tyres to take his third win in succession. Mark Webber admittedly inherited pole to win in 2012, as did Fernando Alonso in 2006, but the winner came from pole for every race from 2004 to 2015 apart from last year and 2008 when Lewis started third on the grid to win.
Then there is the safety car which has been deployed ten times in the last five years. In fact you could say that safety car driver Bernd Maylander has done as many laps as some of the less successful drivers. The only thing that might save him this year is that it’s his 45th birthday on race day. But form dictates that the safety car will make at least one appearance in the race, maybe more. Of course there have also been two whole race stoppages/suspensions since 2010.
Finally, however, the weather looks seriously bad for Sunday, raceday. It won’t be the first time, of course. Monaco has a micro-climate which means it can be quite good in Nice but tipping it down in the Principality. Out of the last 25 sessions here, five have been wet, and one recalls great drives in the wet such as Jean-Pierre Beltoise in the BRM in 1972 and Ayrton Senna and Stefan Bellof in 1984 when the race was stopped because of rain.
But the white lines and kerbs get very slippery in such circumstances and the one thing that this circuit doesn’t do is forgive errors. There are wise words from circuit debutant Pascal Wehrlein about steadily increasing pace; you don’t hit the ground running here. It’s a bit like Indianapolis, taking place the same weekend, it’s going to bite you at some time.
There’s no doubt there are a lot of drivers in the field who know how to do the business here. Hamilton, Rosberg (three times), Vettel, Raikkonen, Alonso(twice) and Button have all won here while Massa is another pole-winner. But who can work the strategy, wear the right tyres (which might be wets), play the safety car card to their ultimate advantage? Frankly, it looks as if it will be one of the best (and how I hate that expression) for many years; there are a lot of variables for everyone here and as usual, it is the greatest chance of point-scoring for some of those further down the order. Watch out for Manor and Sauber hanging on in there until the end in the hope of picking up points.