Saturday, 24 May 2008

Monaco Grand Prix: Qualifying Report

On form Felipe Massa secured something of a shock result in qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix by taking pole position. The boy from Brazil, who claims he hates the Monaco street circuit, beat the much fancied McLarens and his teammate Raikkonen with whom he will share an all Ferrari front row. Massa himself appeared as surprised as anyone during the press conference, as he was clearly thrilled with his own performance. Raikkonen looked considerably less impressed though, as most would have expected him to beat Massa comfortably. Is Massa emerging as a genuine favourite for the title?

It had been predicted all week long that the McLarens would be the cars to beat in Monaco, with their superior traction and stability over the kerbs. Few would have predicted anything other than a Hamilton pole position, yet he will have to settle for third place behind two Ferraris. Interestingly, throughout the afternoon Hamilton was massively quicker than anyone during the first sector but couldn't maintain it over the course of a full lap. Either his set up isn't quite right for the second half of the lap, or he was cooking the tyres too early in the lap and losing pace later on. Of course, we will have to wait and see what the situation is regarding fuel loads in tomorrow's race. Have McLaren gone too conservative in their race strategy? Have Ferrari been too aggressive? Or was it just a case of the red cars being quicker than the silver ones?

Robert Kubica had an excellent qualifying session, finishing just thousandths of a second away from a place on the second row. He will share the third row with Nico Rosberg, who has so far been the star of the weekend in the Williams. Rosberg fell short of upsetting the big boys as he had threatened to do earlier in the weekend, but P6 is an fine performance all the same. Fernando Alonso will struggle to make it a hat-trick of Monaco victories from P7 in his extremely tail-happy Renault. Interestingly he chose to stay on the harder tyre throughout qualifying as he didn't like the balance on the softs. That could cause problems for him if the weather stays dry and he needs to use the option tyre in the race. Trulli is 8th while Webber is in a solid P9 ahead of his teammate Coulthard.

DC didn't make it out onto the track in Q3 after binning his Red Bull spectacularly while braking into la Nouvelle Chicane in Q2. The car snapped right violently as he jumped on the brakes at over 180mph, and he speared into the armco and slid off down the escape road at great speed. Whether it was just a case of the rears locking up over the vicious bumps down there, or some kind of mechanical failure at the rear of the car remains to be seen. Compatriot Jenson Button had a similar kind of accident here in a BAR in 2003 and ended up being carried from the cockpit unconscious and stretchered straight to hospital after hitting the old tyre wall down there, but no such worries for DC. He narrowly missed the tyres and went straight down the escape road, such are the fine margins here at Monaco. Button's 2003 accident HERE..

Button himself will start in 12th alongside Timo Glock's Toyota in 11th place. Nick Heidfeld was 13th for BMW, which was arguably as big a surprise as Massa's pole position. We will have to wait and see whether there was a problem for Heidfeld, as his BMW should have been at least in the top ten. Nakajima is 14th after being comprehensively thrashed by his Williams teammate Rosberg, ahead of Rubens Barrichello.

No major surprises as to who went out in the first qualy session with both Toro Rossos and both Force Indias missing out. Piquet was the man to join them, which is no great shock as he has looked like the guy struggling the most to cope with the demands of the Monaca circuit, from his spin in Thursday practice to his erratic qualifying performance.

Almost the very instant the F1 cars returned to their garage after qualifying the rain began to fall in Monaco for the second GP2 race. It is looking increasingly likely from the forecasts that tomorrow will indeed be a wet race, and that will really be a wildcard factor for everybody on the grid. Normally qualifying strongly will virtually guarantee you a strong finish at Monaco (reliability worries excluded), but in the rain nothing is certain. Without traction control it will be treacherous for the drivers, particularly if there is standing water from the start on the run up to the first corner. It will be even more interesting if the race isn't wet throughout. If it starts dry and turns wet later on, or vice-versa, it could easily throw the teams' meticulously planned strategies out of the window. It should be fascinating to watch.

Provisional Starting Grid

1. Massa
2. Raikkonen
3. Hamilton
4. Kovalainen
5. Kubica
6. Rosberg
7. Alonso
8. Trulli
9. Webber
10. Coulthard
11. Glock
12. Button
13. Heidfeld
14. Nakajima
15. Barrichello
16. Bourdais
17. Piquet
18. Vettel
19. Sutil
20. Fisichella
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Thursday, 22 May 2008

Monaco Grand Prix: Practice Two

Lewis Hamilton signaled his and McLaren's intent to return to winning ways with a blistering lap to take the top spot in Thursday's second free practice session. His 1:15.1s lap put him almost a full four tenths of a second ahead of the rest. The man who took the spot behind Hamilton wasn't either his teammate or a Ferrari driver. It was Williams' Nico Rosberg, who was proving his form in the first session was no fluke. The young German is on fire so far in Monaco, and he will no doubt have raised a few eyebrows in the paddock.

Kimi Raikkonen followed up his fine performance in first practice with a solid third place for Ferrari ahead of Massa, Kovalainen and Kubica. Kubica's BMW though was a full 1.1 seconds behind Hamilton's time, which will be disheartening for them after their poor showing in Turkey. Perhaps BMW are beginning to wane after their excellent early season pace?

Fernando Alonso was seventh, but it was a rather eventful session for Alonso and indeed the whole Renault team. Firstly Nelson Piquet spun at the apex of St Devote and went backwards into the tyre barrier. Fortunately he was able to driver himself out of the barrier, but his rear wing was damaged and needed replacing. Then shortly after that Fernando Alonso also lost the back end going through St Devote. He would on the opposite lock, but was eventually saved from spinning by his rear end clipping the armco barrier. He was able to keep the car pointing the right way up the hill, but ended up losing his rear wing in the process. The session was red flagged to clear the debris.

Adrian Sutil was another driver who tasted armco in this session. He caught too much kerb in la Rascasse and bounced into the barrier on the corner exit, damaging his front wing. In truth, both the Force Indias and Toro Rossos have struggled badly so far. Teams with their limited budgets and resources aren't able to prepare unique suspension set ups in the multi-million pound simulators like the big teams do, and they struggle with the unique demands of the Monte Carlo bumps and kerbs.

Elsewhere, David Coulthard finally got some track time under his belt after the team fixed what turned out to be a throttle problem in first practice. He finished in 14th place, just behind his teammate Webber. The Hondas have looked pretty decent so far in practice, with both drivers in the top ten in this session. They look fairly evenly matched on pace with the likes of the Renaults here, which is good news for the Japanese squad.

So the drivers now go for their day off on Friday (the only circuit where that happens), while the teams will no doubt be hard at work preparing their cars and doing the maths for the all important race strategies. The action will recommence on Saturday with a morning practice session, and then the qualifying session which is perhaps more important here than at any other circuit.

Practice Two Times

01 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:15.140 40 laps
02 N. Rosberg Williams 1:15.533 39 laps
03 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:15.572 42 laps
04 F. Massa Ferrari 1:15.869 37 laps
05 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:15.881 39 laps
06 R. Kubica BMW 1:16.296 34 laps
07 F. Alonso Renault 1:16.310 27 laps
08 J. Button Honda 1:16.351 45 laps
09 K. Nakajima Williams 1:16.372 40 laps
10 R. Barrichello Honda 1:16.418 32 laps
11 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:16.426 44 laps
12 T. Glock Toyota 1:16.688 46 laps
13 M. Webber Red Bull 1:17.094 39 laps
14 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:17.131 39 laps
15 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:17.246 35 laps
16 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:17.251 33 laps
17 J. Trulli Toyota 1:17.379 28 laps
18 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:17.581 38 laps
19 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:18.176 31 laps
20 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:18.225 38 laps
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Monaco Grand Prix: Practice One

Kimi Raikkonen took first blood in the opening practice session of the Grand Prix weekend, beating the McLaren duo of Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen into second and third respectively. Felipe Massa took fourth for Ferrari as the two big teams looked in a class of their own at the front of the field. Nico Rosberg produced the surprise of the session, getting his Williams into P5 ahead of the likes of the BMWs.

Practice One got underway with the Monaco harbour bathed in beautiful Mediterranean sun. with no sign of any rain. There were major incidents as the drivers seemed to take things pretty tentatively in this first session while the track rubbered up a little. There was the odd lock up here and there, but no real spins or crashes.

The biggest drama of the session came about an hour in when the session was red-flagged. It wasn't for any accidents or breakdowns though. Several drivers had complained about a drain cover coming loose on the uphill run out of St Devote. After inspection from the race director a welder was called for and the problem fixed. Hopefully that will be the last problem of its kind to worry about, but it was certainly a strange one. The organisation and preparation for this race is usually absolutely meticulous and perfect.

As the session progressed it became clear that the drivers were favouring the harder of the two tyres. Bridgestone has brought some of its softest compounds to Monaco this weekend, but it seems the drivers are struggling to get more than a lap or two out of the option tyre. They're just too soft for the abrasive nature of the track. It will be interesting to see how this affects race strategy when all drivers will be forced to drive at least one stint on these super-soft tyres.

Toyota's Jarno Trulli ended his session by pulling off into the escape road after his car started smoking as it went through the tunnel. Nick Heidfeld was another to run into difficulties as he parked his BMW in Casino Square with a mystery technical gremlin. David Coulthard barely made it out of the pits in his Red Bull, just doing a few sighter laps and not even setting a time.

Practice One Times

01 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:15.948 26 laps
02 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:16.216 26 laps
03 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:16.248 27 laps
04 F. Massa Ferrari 1:16.292 25 laps
05 N. Rosberg Williams 1:16.653 27 laps
06 R. Kubica BMW 1:16.653 27 laps
07 F. Alonso Renault 1:17.498 25 laps
08 R. Barrichello Honda 1:17.511 26 laps
09 M. Webber Red Bull 1:17.798 22 laps
10 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:17.883 26 laps
11 T. Glock Toyota 1:17.942 26 laps
12 J. Button Honda 1:18.153 25 laps
13 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:18.245 30 laps
14 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:18.263 13 laps
15 K. Nakajima Williams 1:18.274 28 laps
16 J. Trulli Toyota 1:18.360 16 laps
17 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:18.360 25 laps
18 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:18.955 32 laps
19 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:19.176 35 laps
20 D. Coulthard Red Bull no time 3 laps
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Monaco Grand Prix: Preview

After the thrills and spills of Istanbul, the glamorous centre-piece of the Formula 1 season is upon us - the 66th running of the Grand Prix de Monaco. With the ban on traction control for 2008, the bumpy street circuit in Monte Carlo has been the most eagerly anticipated race of the year. The track will once again be Formula One's greatest challenge for a driver, with no nannying electronics to bail them out of trouble, and the armco barriers that line the course being as punishing as ever. This will be especially true if the rain showers that are predicted for Saturday and Sunday materialise!

The Monaco circuit couldn't be a greater contrast to the circuit in Istanbul last time out. The perfectly manicured track, with its wide and super-fast sweeping corners and enormous run-off areas are being swapped for the dirty, bumpy, oily and painfully tight and twisty streets of the Principality. This is one of the few races of the season where traction and suspension compliance play as big a role as engine power and aerodynamic grip, if not more. Make a mistake in the fast corners at Istanbul and you have yards and yards of run-off tarmac to bail you out. Make a mistake in Monaco and you will be greeted with the armco barriers.

As such, it has been predicted that the McLaren cars will be the most suited to this track. Whilst the Ferraris appear to have the advantage on the 'normal' race tracks, the McLaren is deemed to be the best car on the grid at riding the kerbs and bumps. Of course, this is all just guess work from the pundits and Ferrari will undoubtedly still be strong. Plus this is one of the few tracks where driver skill will really make a significant difference, so having the best car may not count for everything come race-day.

Fernando has been the guy on form here in recent years, winning the last two Grand Prix consecutively. However, he will be in an inferior Renault car this year around and he will struggle to make it a hat-trick. One feels his best chance will be if rain falls. Lewis Hamilton was second here last time out, and has professed that this is his all time favourite circuit. He always excelled here in his Formula 3 and GP2 days, and drove pretty well here last year. If McLaren do indeed have the best package then Hamilton will surely be the man to beat.

Kimi Raikkonen is a past winner here, back in 2005 in a McLaren. He will have a great chance of doubling his Monaco tally here, although Ferrari seem to have had a strange hoodoo at this circuit in recent years. Despite being a dominant force in F1 for years they haven't taken the chequered flag here since Michael Schumacher in 2001. Felipe Massa will have a job on his hands to repeat his Turkey success here as he is one of the drivers who is struggling the most with the loss of traction control. He may struggle even more if it rains. Still, he may yet upset the form books.

The other two former winners in the field this year are Jarno Trulli and two-time winner and Monaco resident David Coulthard. However, neither driver will be expected to challenge for podiums here. Both drivers will be hoping to get themselves into the points for Toyota and Red Bull respectively, although the battle in the midfield will be as fierce as ever.

If the rain does fall as some have predicted, then we could have a real spectacle on our hands. The last wet race in Monaco was in 1996 and only FOUR cars made it over the line, with Olivier Panis scoring one of the biggest shock victories in F1 history in Ligier-Mugen-Honda. Another notable wet Monaco race was in 1984 when the race was abandoned after 31 laps with just 9 cars still running, and the numbers falling rapidly. That race was of course most fondly remembered as the day that youngsters Ayrton Senna and Stefan Bellof stunned the F1 world with their pace and their bravery in the wet. Sadly neither man is still with us, god rest their souls...
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