Will Formula One’s ‘Jewel in the Crown’ offer Mercedes’ rivals a glimmer of hope?

If ever there was a circuit to level the playing field at the expense of outright horsepower, then Monaco is the one.

Even for non-motorsport fans, the glitz and glamour of this French Riviera location and showpiece motorsport event is well known. Fans of the sport know that passing is almost an impossibility given the circuit’s tight confines, and that qualifying is arguably the most important day, as a result.

And that could well help the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull, as the slightest of mistakes can spell disaster.

Sadly, for both Ferrari and Mercedes, thoughts this weekend will not only about the race but paying tributes to a key figure in the history of both teams – the legendary Niki Lauda who passed away on Monday at the age of 70. Lauda, driving for Ferrari, won at The Principality in 1975 and 1976.

“Niki leaves a void that will be difficult to fill. He was a genuine motor racing icon,” said current Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel. “Nevertheless, we are here to race.

“There’s no doubt that Monaco is the most iconic race of the season, driving uphill at first and then down through the city streets, before going through the very quick tunnel in the dark, coming out into the port section. It’s really unique. For the drivers and engineers, this bumpy track is a world away from the circuits we are used to and that makes it even more challenging.

“The cars need maximum aero downforce and a set-up that gives the driver the confidence needed to brush the walls to chase the fastest lap time. There’s no room for error in Monaco and with just seven corners and no real straight, overtaking is almost impossible. That’s why it’s vital to qualify well. The track is so short that, in free practice and qualifying, there’s always traffic. You just have to keep going to try and find a clean lap.”

For Vettel’s teammate and Monaco national Charles Leclerc, it will be his first Monaco Grand Prix around his home circuit and an occasion he is very much looking forward to, despite the sad circumstances.

“The news about Niki Lauda came as a shock to me and to everyone,” added Leclerc. “Whenever we met in the paddock, he was always kind, always willing to talk. He was a great champion and his personality will be much missed in our sport.

“It’s my first home GP as a Ferrari driver and it’s bound to be a special weekend. I remember as a kid, I would spend the afternoon with a friend who lived in a flat with a balcony overlooking the Ste. Devote corner. We used to play with toy cars while the real ones rushed past beneath us. I always told myself that one day, it would be great to be driving in this race. And yes, that did happen and the fact I’m taking part in a Ferrari this year means I can honestly talk about a dream come true.

“To do well in Monaco, you need everything in place, from courage to bravura, from luck to having a competitive car. I hope I can put on a good show in front of my own people and I will definitely be giving it my best shot.”

Thursday’s first free practice session will be a vital one for the drivers to acclimatise themselves with the nuances of the circuit, which traditionally has low levels of grip. As a result, Pirelli is supplying teams with its softest three compound of tyre, the C3, C4 and grippiest C5 which makes its season debut. Still, even with the stickiest of rubber, concentration levels must always be at 100%. Make one mistake and you’re in the wall, as even the greatest champions, including Ayrton Senna, have discovered to their cost.

Sunday’s race is the 66th Monaco Grand Prix in the history of the great event and for one driver in particular, it is a special occasion indeed. For fan favourite Kimi Raikkonen, the race marks his 300th grand prix in what has been a distinguished and colourful career.

“Everyone is talking about my 300th race, but I’m more interested in our performance,” said a typically nonchalant Raikkonen in the team’s preview. “The test in Barcelona was important for us to understand our problems better, but I honestly don’t know how good our car fits to the street course in Monaco.”

Although Mercedes rightly starts the race as favourites, Red Bull Racing and the in-form Max Verstappen may have something to say in the matter. Daniel Ricciardo won last year’s Monaco Grand Prix driving for the team, although he will be hard pressed to repeat the feat in an underperforming Renault.

But the speedy Verstappen holds the lap record at Monaco and, following two podiums and three fourth place finishes so far, he could be a good outside bet to shake up the status quo.

“It was great to be back on the podium in Barcelona and now I’m looking forward to Monaco,” said Verstappen. “It’s a very special and hectic weekend, and for sure it’s a lot of fun. It has a lot of history but it’s not been the best one for me over the last few years. Hopefully it’s time to turn this around. I live in Monaco so it’s nice to sleep in my own apartment instead of a hotel, and a few of my friends and family will be there so I’m looking forward to seeing them and having a good weekend.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.