Words and hats may have to be eaten along with the usual canapes and caviar if Lewis Hamilton wins the glamour race of the Formula One season in Monaco this weekend.
The sceptics who doubted McLaren’s 2008 world champion would stand on top of the podium this season after his move to Mercedes face a moment of truth with Hamilton’s team arriving in the Mediterranean principality on the back of three pole positions in a row.
Mercedes have faded in races so far, unable to control their car’s insatiable appetite for tyres on a Sunday afternoon, but Monaco’s tight and treacherous streets are kinder on the compounds.
Hamilton, a winner in what is now his home in 2008, loves the historic circuit that winds up through Casino square and blasts down through the echoing tunnel and out along the harbourside and the ranks of swaying super-yachts.
Champions Red Bull have won the jackpot for the past three years, with Australian Mark Webber triumphant in 2012 after also winning in 2010, but Mercedes’ qualifying form threatens their run of success.
“They (Mercedes) will arrive as favourites for Monaco,” said Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso after he won his home race in Spain this month.
“They’ve been on pole position for the last three races, they were on pole last year with Michael’s (Schumacher) lap, so it would be a surprise if they weren’t on pole position in Monaco,” the Spaniard added.
“And it’s more difficult to overtake in Monaco, so maybe they can keep good positions for longer.”
Hamilton’s team mate Nico Rosberg will be just as much of a threat, with the German – who grew up in Monaco with the circuit part of his daily journey to school – chasing a hat-trick of poles after Bahrain and Spain.
Red Bull’s triple champion Sebastian Vettel leads the standings after five races, four points ahead of Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen and 17 clear of Alonso in third place.
The tyres should be less of a problem than in Spain, where four pitstops were the norm and a shocked Hamilton sank from second on the grid to 12th at the chequered flag, although debris damage will still be a concern.
Suppliers Pirelli, who have brought their softest tyres to the race, expect drivers to have to make no more than two visits to the pits.
Hamilton left Spain too stunned to focus on Monaco but a sponsor trip to the United States and a visit to Le Mans to watch the French MotoGP race last weekend are sure to have revived his spirits.
Monaco is the date on the calendar he has been looking forward to more than most. He has watched the preparations for the race, with the barriers and grandstands going up, with barely concealed excitement.
“I was running around and I was thinking – because obviously Michael put it on pole – that it (last year’s car) must have been pretty good (in Monaco),” he told reporters. “So I really hope that’s the same this year.”
Although Schumacher, a five times winner in Monaco, was fastest in qualifying last year, the German did not start on pole because he had a five-place penalty carried over from Spain where he had caused a collision.
Webber did, and made the advantage stick with Rosberg a close second after starting alongside the Australian.
Just like last year, the Red Bull driver arrives in Monaco hungry for his first win of the year – a situation he would have already resolved had Vettel not defied team orders in Malaysia.
“It’s always been a good track for me,” said Webber, who can be expected to dive into the swimming pool on his team’s quayside ‘floaterhome” – the imposing hospitality unit erected on pontoons next to the paddock – if he wins again.
“It’s still a daunting place, a very challenging venue. I’m not saying you are on holiday there but when I’m out there, I don’t know what makes me feel as comfortable as I do.”
Alonso and Vettel are the only drivers to have won twice this year, with Raikkonen the other winner, and the Spaniard can become the first to win at Monaco for three different teams having triumphed previously for Renault and McLaren.
Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion who now has 22 consecutive scoring finishes to his credit and is closing in on Schumacher’s record of 24, can take the overall lead if events go his way.
The race also offers a chance for Williams, three times winners in Monaco, to score their first point of a so far dismal season with Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado very much at home on the steel-fenced streets. (Reuters)
Monaco Grand Prix Facts & Stats:
Lap distance: 3.340km. Total race distance 260.520km (78 laps)
2012 pole: Mark Webber (Australia) Red Bull one minute 14.381 seconds
2012 winner: Webber
Race lap record: Michael Schumacher (Germany), Ferrari 2004, 1:14.439
Tyre choice: Soft (yellow), Supersoft (red)
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso has 32 career wins, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel 28, Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton 21, Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen 20 and McLaren’s Jenson Button 15.
One more win for Raikkonen would make him the most successful Finnish driver in terms of race wins. He is currently tied with two times champion Mika Hakkinen.
Ferrari have won 221 races since the championship started in 1950, McLaren 182, Williams 114 and Red Bull 36.
Mercedes have been on pole for the last three races. They have never before managed four in a row.
Vettel has 38 poles to his credit, putting him third in the all-time list (Michael Schumacher had 68 and Ayrton Senna 65). Hamilton has 27 and Alonso 22.
Caterham and Marussia have yet to score a point after three seasons in Formula One.
None of the five 2013 rookies have scored points so far.
Kimi Raikkonen has now finished 22 successive races in the points for Lotus, two short of Schumacher’s 2001/02/03 record with Ferrari.
Former champions Williams have yet to score a point this season and for six races in a row.
Red Bull have won the last three Monaco Grands Prix (Mark Webber 2010 and 2012, Sebastian Vettel 2011).
Ferrari have not won in Monaco since 2001, with Schumacher. They have, however, set the fastest lap in five of the last nine races. Mexican Sergio Perez had the fastest race lap for Sauber last year.
The driver on pole has won eight of the last 12 races in Monaco. In 1996 Frenchman Olivier Panis won from 14th on the starting grid, the lowest winning start position to date.
Since 1950, only 10 times has the race been won by a driver starting lower than third.
McLaren have won 15 times in the last 29 years. Ferrari have won eight times.
Six former Monaco winners will be on Sunday’s starting grid: Vettel, Webber, Button, Hamilton, Alonso, Raikkonen.
If Alonso wins on Sunday, he will become the first driver to win in Monaco for three different teams. His two previous wins were with Renault and McLaren.
Monaco is the race with the lowest average speed on the calendar, just 160kph.
Williams’ Valtteri Bottas is the only current rookie not to have raced in Monaco in single seaters.