Grand Prix de Monaco – The marquee event on the F1 calendar. It has enjoyed this privilege since 1955 and will extend its reign this weekend as it hosts the 6th round of the 2012 Formula One Championship season. The 2012 Monaco GP will be run for 78 laps around this 3.340km long circuit, along the streets of Monte Carlo, in the Principality of Monaco. The interesting thing to note is that the layout of the track has remained almost the same through the decades.
The circuit de Monaco is richly steeped in history. The list of winners here includes legends like Jackie Stewart, Sterling Moss, Alain Prost [4 time winner], Graham Hill [5 time winner] and the legendary Ayrton Senna [a record 6 time winner]. Of the current drivers, Michael Schumacher [5 time winner] and Fernando Alonso [2 time winner] have tasted success multiple times at this track.
Monaco has served up many notable incidents and controversies. The most recent one being Schumacher’s parked Ferrari at Anthony Noghes in the dying moments of qualifying for the 2006 race, supposedly to avoid anyone from going faster than him. It has been a site of many unexpected twists and turns in past years, mostly due to crashes and accidents. The anecdotes and stories about this track are many, but let’s cut to the chase and take a stroll around this legendary track.
The first sector consists of the run to turn-1 “St. Devote” and the snaking “Beau Rivage” through turn-3 “Massanet” to turn-4 “the Casino”. St. Devote has been the site of many pile-ups over the years. It is easy to be greedy and get sucked in while trying to brake late at this blind right hander. But then again, blind turns and tempting braking zones are the feature of this track. It is important to carry momentum through this 2nd gear corner as it leads on to one of the three quick sections of the track. The track weaves around, but for the bravest drivers, there is an almost straight line through Beau Rivage if you’re prepared to graze the barriers. The cars reach up to 260kph in top gear before they brake for the 4th gear left hander at Massanet which leads directly into the very tight right hander at Casino.
Now, you’ll see a lot of cars yank off what should have been the racing line as they exit this corner. That is because there is a huge bump smack in the middle of the road that can unsettle the car enough to lodge it into one of the barriers around. Negotiate that, and we’re at the first sector marker.
This is my favorite sector. The cars brake from 4th gear at 200kph to 2nd gear at 80kph for the very tight right-hander at turn-5 “Mirabeau”, and drop down the slope to the slowest point on the track – the turn-6 hairpin at Loews, taken at a painful 45kph in 1st gear. We then pass under the bridge and through the double apex right-hander at turns 8-9, “Portier”, and into the tunnel beneath the Grand Hotel. The cars at this point are like a wound up jack-in-the-box, literally springing onto the track as they exit turn and, rocketing from 80 to 300 kph through the tunnel, into the Marina complex for the final sector. This is the fastest part of the race track, and also the darkest, because it literally is a tunnel. The cars shoot from broad daylight into an artificially lit tunnel, and back out in under 10 seconds, presenting a unique challenge for the drivers’ eyesight. The fact that the tunnel section is the only notable flat-out-in-top-gear part of the track, the speed carried through the preceding corner Portier, can make or break a lap time.
As the cars emerge flying out of the tunnel, they enter sector-3, greeted immediately by the “Nouvelle Chicane” put in place precisely to slow down the cars. The braking area is downhill here, and it is very easy to miss the braking point. The track therefore, offers a slight run-off area here. The next sequence of corners is probably the most challenging in F1. The driver around the Marina is spectacular to say the least. The cars accelerate form 2nd gear out of the chicane, to 4th gear by the time they reach turn-12 “Tabac”. It is easy to get fooled into taking this turn flat-out in 3rd\4th gear and landing in the barriers. Survive that, and you’re faced with a fast left-right chicane “Piscine”, taken in 4th gear at around 200kph. Negotiate that, take a deep breath and brace for the second, slower chicane at turns 15-16, taken in 2nd gear at 100kph. This is also the DRS evaluation point. Stay off the barriers and run down through turn 17 to the extremely tight and very slippery hairpin at turn-18 “La Rascasse”. This is a possible point for overtaking if you’re brave and opportunistic enough. Barely does the car come around the apex when we’re up at the final corner, the very tricky turn-19 “Anthony Noghes”. It’s a 90 degree blind right-hander that has a barrier very close at the exit. There’s a very very narrow line through here, and a brush against the barriers is inevitable, as the cars burst onto the start-finish straight, which also doubles up as the DRS activaton zone on this track.
Stringing together a perfect lap at Monaco is akin to threading a needle while standing on one leg in a windy desert. Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but it is certainly not something a lot of people can boast about. None did it better than Ayrton Senna though – His 1988 feat of out-qualifying teammate Alain Prost by 1.4 seconds is one of the most famous Senna stories ever told, and there are many of those.
Due to the very narrow, bumpy roads, and the unforgiving barriers around the track, overtaking here is at a premium. KERS and DRS did manage to get cars close along the start-finish straight, but passing the car in front still remains a big challenge. A quick car here is a car that has good mechanical grip(as this is a very high downforce circuit), is easy on its tyres, manages brake ware, has a robust gearbox, rides the bumps well(read suspension on the soft side) and handles exactly like its driver wants it to.
Since this is a race watched by the wealthiest of the world, and a site to impress major sponsors, all drivers and teams will be looking to put on their best performance. There’s also the matter of having the 6th different winner in the first 6 races of a Formula One season, which will be a first of its kind. Qualifying will play a major role in determining the final outcome of the race, more so than last weekend. It’s just too close to call at the moment, but I will certainly be hoping for a new race winner come Sunday evening!