Ask any sports fan anywhere in the world to name the most prestigious race on the Formula 1 calendar and every one will say Monaco.
The tight and twisty streets around Monte Carlo have hosted a Grand Prix since 1929 and a win here, they say, feels like winning the world championship.
Known as F1′s ‘Jewel in the Crown’ if you are not excited about Monaco, you are not a true fan as this race by itself epitomises what the sport is all about.
The glitz and glamour and the Hollywood celebs who parade around the paddock and on the boats in the harbour combine with the sight of the world’s fastest racing cars darting between the barriers on one of the most famous stretches of road in the world.
While the cars have changed dramatically in the 85 years of racing on the Cote D’Azur, the track barely has from the climb up Beau Rivage, to thrashing through Casino Square and rounding perhaps the most famous corner in the whole of motor sport, the Leows Hairpin.
The magic of Monaco never gets old and this year the race comes as the season is reaching something of a boiling point.
Lewis Hamilton’s fourth successive win of the year in Spain at the last round finally saw the Briton move clear of teammate Nico Rosberg and to the top of the drivers championship.
In 2013, however, it was Rosberg who claimed a memorable victory in Monte Carlo as Hamilton was left following the German for much of the race and actually fell behind Sebastian Vettel late on to finish third.
With the 2008 champion on such a role, a second win in Monaco is almost a must for Rosberg who risks being simply overpowered by his teammate.
In many ways it should have been the German who claimed victory in Barcelona, but at the key moments it was Lewis who had the edge and by race end the six tenths advantage to cross the finish line first.
The question heading to Monaco is: How much is Rosberg prepared to risk to beat Hamilton if he ends up behind again? Is the pressure of Lewis’ run of wins enough to perhaps force Nico into a move he may not normally make? Is this the race where the perceived good relationship breaks down?
Both men have had success in Monaco as well as Hamilton claimed a famously Senna-like victory in the rain in 2008 and has always been strong around the streets of Monte Carlo.
For the first time this year too, some see a viable challenge from Red Bull to the dominance of the Silver Arrows.
With such a premium on grip and handling around Monaco, Mercedes’ power advantage stands for very little but I still think they will be the team to beat.
This is because the most advanced supplier in terms of power delivery and low-end torque will succeed on the technically demanding street circuit.
And with Mercedes seemingly on top in this area too with its V6 power unit allied to the chassis Mercedes has, which is comparable to that of the perceived superior Red Bull, I believe even without the power advantage anything other than a Hamilton or Rosberg win, in a normal race, would be a surprise.
The particular strengths of the Ferrari power unit may also see it become more competitive in Monaco. Certainly the Scuderia would expect to be closer than they were in Spain, a race that saw Kimi Raikkonen lapped and Fernando Alonso barely avoid the same fate.
The internal battle has also picked up after the controversial strategy decisions in Barcelona which seemed to give Alonso the edge despite Raikkonen being the lead car at the time. Is this another rivalry set to heat up in Monte Carlo?
Lotus have high hopes but may also risk a high repair bill, last year Romain Grosjean crashed three times during the Monaco weekend but has shown much better form since and claimed the team’s first points of the year in Spain.
As for Pastor Maldonado he has traditionally been very quick in Monaco but his run of recent crashes and incidents will make for a nervy weekend for all.
The team is making progress, however, and with catching Ferrari their aim, perhaps the first proper competitive race of the year with both cars might be on the cards.
The three Mercedes customer teams will also be part of the ever-growing midfield battle along with Toro Rosso.
Williams had a strong weekend in Spain with Valtteri Bottas in fourth while poor strategy led to Felipe Massa not scoring.
With qualifying so key in Monaco, Bottas will be hopeful for a repeat of his performance from Spain, though for Massa, it could be a tricky race as part of the huge midfield scrap.
Force India too have had some good results in Monaco though without the power advantage their exact level of competitiveness will be interesting to watch, while McLaren, famously one of the most successful teams in Monaco, will be desperate for their first points since Malaysia.
Towards the back this could be a very key weekend in the battle for ninth in the Constructor’s championship. I am including Sauber in a three-way battle with Marussia and Caterham because right now the Swiss team look more at risk from behind than they do challenging those in front.
Marussia made some excellent gains in Spain and I can genuinely see the team catching Sauber in pure pace. With the potential for a high attrition rate and Max Chilton’s now incredible run of 24 consecutive finishes, as well as the pace of Jules Bianchi, this could be their chance.
Caterham, however, are in a worrying position. With a huge overhaul of their technical operations in recent weeks and the lack of development compared to Marussia, Kamui Kobayashi and Marcus Ericsson could be in a private battle for the back row on the grid.
Of course the usual pecking order traditionally gets thrown out of the window in Monaco because of the unique nature of the race, but for an event that usually needs no promoting, the storylines up and down the grid heading to Monte Carlo make this year’s race perhaps the most anticipated in years.
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