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The madness of the Monaco GP and the challenge facing Lewis Hamilton

There is no sporting theatre like it, no backdrop so ravishingly unfit for purpose, no place so overtly, rub-your-nose-in-it pleased with itself, no audience so absurdly polished and no race on the grand prix calendar that captures the Formula One essence quite like Monaco, not least because half the grid can fall out of their own beds on to the start line.

No-one would think to organise an automotive shindig in a place like this now and no track architect would ever conjure from his imagination a design like Monaco. In truth the cars are just too quick and powerful. It's a little like driving your Lambo through Chelsea, an act of cruelty to an engine that needs to work at 200 mph not 10.

Except they do race here because both the hosts and Formula One's stakeholders understand the brand power of the event. To win here carries more prestige than just about anywhere, and arguably more concentration. You try negotiating a layout as tight and twisting as this at an average speed of 160mph while one of the best parties on earth is raging all about.

Cars have been racing along this coastal outcrop since 1929. It is one of only four circuits alongside Silverstone, Monza and Spa that featured in the inaugural world championship in 1950 and has been ever-present since 1955, returning this week for the 65th time. The configuration was largely unchanged until 1972 when a public swimming pool was constructed on the harbour front requiring a re-routing of the track around it as the cars rip out of Tabac.

SINGING IN THE RAIN

The entry to the swimming pool section provides a viewing point that shakes your fillings from their mountings, the cars snapping in and out of shape as they dance on the edge of balance and grip while dicing with the concrete wall that separates the track from the sea.

The weather is often the defining feature, a wet surface providing no end of opportunity and entertainment. This, of course, is a double-edged caviar knife for the Prada army sipping Cristal on rented balconies or bobbing about on boats, who would take a hot sun and a dull spectacle over sea squalls since, as we know, designer clobber does not react well to downpours.

Relax yacht people, the forecast this weekend looks a belter, which places the usual premium on pole. The Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull driver that hooks up the best lap on Saturday has, barring error or random variable, the absolute best chance of shaking the hand of Prince Albert on Sunday afternoon.

For the second time in this compelling opening blast to 2018 the championship leader comes to a grand prix with a 17-point lead. The beauty of this Formula One campaign is that it is not the same pilot. The narrative thread has thrown one four-time world champion out of the driver’s seat in favour of another.

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NOTHING CERTAIN IN F1 WORLD

So the comforting certainties of the opening three races that had Sebastian Vettel striding bullishly about the paddock have been stripped away. In his stead bowls Lewis Hamilton, a thoroughly inherited victory in Azerbaijan followed by a thoroughly deserved pole-to-flag triumph in Barcelona. This being motorsport the automotive alchemy that served Hamilton so well in Spain is not to be found in Monte Carlo. The nature of this layout plays into the hands of Mercedes rivals, whose cars are more aerodynamically responsive through slow speed corners.

Ferrari finished one and two here last year, and while Vettel was full of anxious laments in Barcelona over unexpected, excessive tyre wear, no such difficulties are anticipated here. Similarly, Red Bull's ability to extract insane pace from softer rubber would appear to make the fight for pole a red issue one way or another. That is certainly how Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff sees the picture.

“Our first one-two of the season in Barcelona felt great,” Wolff said. “The car was quick, looked after its tyres and both drivers were positive about the balance and handling. But we're not thinking about it as a turning point - the track layout, surface and conditions all suited our car and played into our hands. So we are staying cautious with our predictions as we head to Monaco. It's a circuit that gives us completely different challenges - and unique ones, too. Last year, it became a weekend of damage limitation when we didn't find the right set-up. It was a painful lesson from us and we are determined to show that we have learned it this year.”

BEWARE A BOTTAS SCORNED

Hamilton loves this place but if the car coughs around here not even a driver with his ability can overcome the odds. He started in 14th last year after his worst qualifying session in a decade of racing at Monaco. That his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas was only narrowly pipped for pole, only 45 thousandths of second behind Kimi Raikkonen, deepened the mystery.

The gathering strength of Bottas has been a feature of this season. Qualifying has been close - Hamilton leads 3-2 - and with better luck Bottas might have won in China, where an opportune tyre change behind the safety car propelled the unstoppable Daniel Ricciardo past him to victory, and Azerbaijan, where a puncture robbed him two laps from the end.

Yet in Barcelona Hamilton tapped into the very best of himself, making the most of the silver bullet Mercedes found in performance after the long-haul races. That coupled with the tyre torment experienced by Ferrari put an entirely different gloss on the story so far. Even if Ferrari nail it in Monaco, Hamilton would expect to retain the championship lead if not an advantage measuring 17 points.

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BEAUTY AND THE BEASTS

As we saw in Azerbaijan, on circuits where mistakes are collected by walls instead of health and safety governed run-off areas, the potential for mischief is huge, which serves only to heighten anticipation. For that, and other reasons Monaco remains the one race on the calendar for which this correspondent retains any nostalgia after more than a decade on the F1 beat. The mad setting, a backdrop of outrageous natural beauty scarred by Riviera Man’s worst excesses, rarely leaves the senses alone.

There will be a safety car, no doubt, and depending on the circumstances an opportunity for one enterprising algorithm maestro on the pit wall to conjure a win from nowhere. Or at least that is what the outliers will be telling themselves as they line-up behind the usual suspects at the wrong end of the grid.

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