Bonjour mes amis! Et bienvenue à Monaco. The traveling circus has once again returned to the Principality for the crown jewel in the Formula 1 Calendar. The 3.340km circuit is narrow to say the least, translating to a slight advantage for a setup with shorter gear ratios. It’s a tight squeeze to the first corner, St Devote, where many a first lap incident has occurred. Turns 4 and 5 are bumpier on the street circuit, causing drivers to change their lines to avoid bottoming out down to Maribeau. Drivers must be careful not to lose the rear through Portier to be able to get the best line to go flat out through the tunnel. The chicane at the exit of the tunnel has been the scene of many an out-braking manoeuvre over the years, on occasion catching the car in front up the rear… Through to the final sector and La Rascasse. Marking the second slowest point on the track, braking and racing line are vital to run an inch away from the inside wall Overtaking is “easiest” at the Nouvelle Chicane, and the start-finish straight where drivers can get a little extra from DRS. The unforgiving nature of Monaco translates into an all important qualifying. Focus on front wing aerodynamic grip and downforce through the corners will be vital over the weekend, giving the Renault powered teams a fighting chance. Concerns of fuel saving and energy recovery take a backseat for this race. Some drivers will try and aim for a little bit of oversteer in the corners to make the most of being able to accelerate out from the corner sooner.
Under the threat of rain, qualifying got underway largely without incident. Track temperature was a balmy 29 C, falling to 27 C as the afternoon wore on. Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton denied Nico Rosberg a hatrick of pole positions in Monte Carlo. Hamilton took the top spot with a blistering 1:15.098, relinquishing Rosberg to start from P2 on the grid. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was best of the rest, dipping into the 1:15s to secure P3 on the grid.
Mercedes were unsurprisingly strong in qualifying, though didn’t run away with the session. Hamilton’s session was slow starting, being caught in traffic from the two Lotus’, before losing aero grip through turn 11. After a front wing adjustment, the Briton was back on track, playing cat and mouse for the fastest lap. Lewis Hamilton had the advantage of choice in going out first in the final session, and remained unchallenged for the pole lap. It was a 1:15.098 on his final run on the super soft compound that did it, though the threat from Rosberg never came. Rosberg struggled to keep his F1 W06 from locking up at St Devote. A near repeat of last year spoiled Jenson Button’s lap at the end of Q2. Though thankfully this year there was no debate that the front right lock up was an accident. Unfortunately for Rosberg, his final in Q3 lap was a scrappy one. Diving into the pits, Rosberg’s penultimate lap of 1:15.440 on the super softs will slot him in to P2.
Sebastian Vettel had looked promising in the Ferrari to challenge for dark horse pole position. Despite an aggressive qualifying, the top spot remained just out of reach. Missing the apex in turn 11 spoiled the SF15-T’s final lap, making a 1:15.849 in the super soft tyres a time for P3. Sebastian however did remain 0.8s clear of team mate Kimi Raikkonen overall. Suffering from a little too much oversteer in the earlier sessions, Raikkonen lost the rear again as the chequered flag fell, relinquishing the Finn to P6 with 1:16.041 on the super softs.
Red Bull Racing are traditionally strong on the streets of Monaco, and today was no different. The high downforce, low engine wear nature of the Monaco Street Circuit Daniel Ricciardo was an easy P4, though the Australian felt he could have easily pushed for P3. After being caught in traffic and not getting the perfect run, Ricciardo’s best time on the super softs of 1:16.041 slots the RB11 into P4. Separated by a mere 0.141s, Daniil Kvyat lines up P5 just behind his team mate with a time of 1:16.182.
It was a bittersweet session for Force India, with Sergio Perez qualifying in a solid P7. Heading out early in Q2, Perez worked to get his confidence up through the narrow circuit. Paying off in the final session, Perez pulled out a 1:16.999 on the super softs. Nico Hulkenberg however was an early victim to the barriers. In the final minutes of Q1, Hulkenberg in the VJM08 lost the rear into Portier, sending the left rear into the barrier. Hulkenberg was however able to make it through to the second session, though a mistake into the final corner cost him passage into Q3. Qualifying in P13* with 1:17.193, Hulkenberg will also start on the super softs.
Toro Rosso were another team to gain advantage from the high downforce track, with both Sainz and Verstappen having strong opening sessions. Unfortunately for the Scuderia, the results on track didn’t translate in the final grid line up. Carlos Sainz challenged Perez for P7, finishing just a tenth of a second slower than the Force India in P8 with 1:16.931. The rookie has however been handed a penalty for missing the compulsory weigh bridge. So, all the hard for Sainz is undone as the STR10 will start from the pit lane. After a stormer of practice sessions, Max Verstappen’s STR10 lost steam in the final session, failing to improve from his Q2 time of 1:16.546, Verstappen will start P10 with 1:16.957 on the super softs.
Almost happy days for Lotus, with both E23s running strong. While some may have watched in bated breath as Pastor lapped blisteringly fast and close to the barriers**, the Lotus driver managed to pull ahead of his team mate early on in the session. After being caught in traffic in the final session, Maldonado was unable to keep temperatures up in the E23, and was unable to improve on his final lap, making for a qualifying position of P9 with 1:16.946. Grosjean had less luck during qualifying, locking a wheel into turn 15 on his flying lap. The small error cost Romain a slot in Q3, settling the Lotus of P11 with 1:17.007. However, due to an early gear box change, Grosjean carriers a 5-place grid penalty to tomorrow’s race.
McLarens’ MP4-30 appears to be better suited to the Monaco streets, largely due to the low engine wear. Jenson Button would have made it through to the final session had it not been for waved yellow flags in the first sector, spoiling his final flying lap. Button had a strong handle on the set up and was able to push the McLaren for pace and grip. Unable to catch a break however, his fastest Q2 time put him P12 with 1:17.093. Alonso didn’t carry any luck through to qualifying either, despite a strong start. The Spaniard, going strong was threatening to make it through to Q3. This turned out to be empty threats however as Alonso’s Honda chose to pack up in Q2, relegating him to P15 and a 1:26.632.
Williams were surprisingly less competitive in qualifying. There wasn’t a specific issue hindering the FW37’s performance, it appeared that Monaco just didn’t suit the Williams set up. Massa couldn’t get the pace he needed out of the car to make it to the top ten shoot out, only managing a 1:17.278 for P14.Throughout the session, Bottas was unable to keep the temperatures in the tyres, and lost time due to the subsequent lack of grip. In a galant act of mate-ship, Bottas backed off his final flying lap after making a mistake on his own. By backing off, Bottas allowed his team mate through into clear track ahead to have a run a his lap. Calling it a day, the Finn dove into the pits, settling himself for P17.
Sauber opted for a different strategy in qualifying, venturing out first on the super softs while the rest of the grid (with the exception of the Manors) started on the soft compound tyres. Unfortunately for Sauber, the strategy didn’t exactly pay off, as neither Nasr nor Ericsson made it out of the initial drop zone. Felipe Nasr did manage to out-qualify his team mate in P16 with 1:18.101 on 4-lap old super softs. Ericsson will start P18, after a lap 4-tenths slower with 1:18.513.
Rounding off the back of the grid is the Manor F1 Team. Both the Manor’s made it through the circuit with enough grip and speed to qualify inside the 107% rule (1:21.884), with Stevens again out qualifying Merhi for P19 and P20 with 1:20.655 and 1:20.994 respectively.
The atmosphere of the Monaco Grand Prix is rather extravagant. The Monte Carlo streets are phenonemal. Lined with yachts and champagne off track, the streets are so narrow that it’s hard to believe a race can physically be held here. Needless to say, there is very little margin for error. To top things off, an 80% chance of the safety car keeps things interesting (like we would be bored here?). Starting from pole, it’s Hamilton’s race to lose tomorrow. Now we wait to see who can catch him.
* Expected to start P11 due to penalties on the grid
** I may or may not have been one of them.