Mercedes team-mates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton have a battle on their hands for pole position at the Monaco Grand Prix, with Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo fastest in practice for a race where starting first offers a big advantage.
With its harbourside backdrop, confined Casino Square, tight hairpin turns and tunnel stretch, Monaco is a blast from the past that allows the best to show off their skills.
“It’s an incredible feeling, making a car dance through those streets,” said Mercedes triple world champion Lewis Hamilton. “It’s one of the purest thrills you can have in a racing car.”
The late Brazilian triple champion Ayrton Senna, a six-times winner in the Mediterranean principality, famously compared his qualifying lap with McLaren in 1988 to an out of body experience.
“I suddenly realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously,” he said in a later interview.
“I was kind of driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel, not only the tunnel under the hotel, but the whole circuit for me was a tunnel.
“I was just going, going. More, and more and more. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more. Then, suddenly, something just kicked me. I kind of woke up and I realised that I was in a different atmosphere than you normally are.”
Known as the Jewel in the Crown of the Formula One championship, Monaco has always been the race that drivers want to win but it also requires finesse to avoid the unforgiving barriers.
Brazilian Nelson Piquet’s comment that racing around Monaco was like riding a bicycle in your living room has become a well-worn cliche, but the sense of balance and poise remains as crucial now as then.
“It’s a course where speed is not terribly important,” three-time winner Stirling Moss told the Reuters news agency at the recent Monaco Historic race. “It’s just how good the car is, how well you can handle the car.
“It really is a fabulous race.”
Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, who finished third overall last year, is level with his former Red Bull team-mate Ricciardo, with Red Bull’s teen driver Max Verstappen only 10 points behind them.
In Thursday’s practice, racing fans had the unusual sight of Vettel’s trusted Ferrari twice hitting the track-side barriers when he was under no pressure.
“I banged the wall here and there, so of course I am not satisfied,” said Vettel, who has 42 career race wins but none in the past 11 races. “This is a track where you tend to try everything and sometimes you try too much.”
Vettel has won Monaco only once, on his way to a second straight F1 title with Red Bull in 2011. Since then, he has twice finished runner-up, retired from the race two years ago and finished fourth in 2012.
“We are not here to fight for P8 [eighth place] or something in that range, we want to win,” a defiant Vettel said before qualifying. “We should be significantly stronger on Saturday. In an ideal world we will be right on the front row.”