Racing in Monaco demands a very different engineering approach to almost every area compared to the typical tracks – so what are its challenges and which teams are best placed to take advantage?
Getting the optimum set up on a racing car is always a matter of compromise but Monaco takes that to an entirely new level, with teams having to take a complete re-think on everything from aerodynamic parts to steering set-up.
The narrow streets offer such limited overtaking opportunities that the focus is all about qualifying – and the chances are the winning team will be the one that produces the fastest car on a Saturday can then make it the widest on a Sunday.
To do that, this is what the teams need to consider...
At most circuits it is the high-speed corners that really make the difference in lap time, so teams focus on balancing their cars to cope best with these areas and worry less about the slower speed stuff. In Monaco, which has the lowest average cornering speed of any circuit, it’s all about maintaining a neutral balance that can cope well with quick changes of direction at slow speeds.
Monaco is often referred to as a “maximum downforce track” but it is more intricate than that. Teams bring special upgrades in to increase downforce, but there is a balance between loading up the downforce and keeping it efficient. Different parts have different levels of efficiency – the diffuser highest, add-on winglets often the lowest - and Monaco all about adding a balanced aero package that gives a driver confidence to push on a single lap but does not leave him open to attack in the race.
KERS and DRS
For overtaking, both these aids are virtually useless but in qualifying DRS is a help because it gives teams an opportunity to ditch the added drag that comes from the Monaco-spec rear wings to gain added pace. Last year, when DRS was unrestricted in practice and qualifying, this gave teams with a good system a major advantage. However, this year that has lessened because it can only be used in one location on the track. As for KERS, the extra power boost is always used up throughout the lap, and again it is rarely of benefit for overtaking but is a crucial part of the mix for qualifying pace.
Engine and Drive train
The engine is at full throttle for just 35 percent of the lap (compared to around 70 percent for the high-speed Monza circuit) but the priority here is on quick response and driveability out of the corners, so the engine maps and gear ratios are changed to provide significant torque at lower rev limits to achieve the sharp bursts of acceleration required. For the race, however, that puts a different kind of demand on the engine and with around 62 gear changes per lap the entire drive train is under a great amount of pressure.
When the engine is worked hard at high speed, it has the advantage of plenty of airflow moving through the radiators to cool everything down. In contrast, when running at low speed there is not enough forward motion to deliver high airflow speeds. Adding extra cooling holes or gills compromise downforce and add drag, so hurts single lap pace. Anyone who needs to do this will be hampered in qualifying so teams with more efficient cooling systems will be at an advantage.
The track surface at Monaco is unlike at any other circuit, with kerbs, drain covers, debris and natural undulations creating a minefield of bumps that cause engineers a massive headache – none more so than the massive ungainly dip on the run down from Casino to Mirabeau, which drivers have to steer around to avoid. All these bumps cause harm to both engine and tyres – because a loss of traction can spin the wheels on the surface and can also cause the engine to suddenly rev, which can damage the engine if it hits the rev limiter. Drivers shift gears early sometimes to avoid it, while engineers have to raise the ride height of the car to avoid bottoming out, lifting wheels off the ground. That immediately reduces the aerodynamic efficiency - so any team whose car can handle the bumps well will be better off.
Monaco’s famous hairpin is so tight a standard F1 car’s turning circle cannot cope with it, so teams need to change the steering to cope and that changes the feel of the car, with usual steering wheel movements turning the wheels by a bigger amount. With the need to be so precise to get as close to the barriers as possible, that is something drivers need to get used to quickly to be ready for qualifying.
The lack of high speed corners means the tyres don’t get worked as hard so Monaco is typically low on wear and degradation. That said, the low grip surface requires softer compounds, and as these are currently very sensitive, the tyre management could be crucial here this year. Last year all points scorers were on one-stop strategy but fewer will be able to do that this year. Those who can could be at an advantage.
Getting a good single lap is as much about the driver’s headspace as his car. Mastering Monaco is about building speed lap by lap rather than going flat-out at once – and it takes time to get a feel for the track, even if you’ve raced there for years. The moment you need your ultimate lap is not in the race, it’s in qualifying, so all preparation builds to that and the pressure is on.
The final consideration is the potential for incident because the barriers are so unforgiving. The well-practiced marshals are incredibly efficient in craning cars off the track but it always takes time. In the race, that means the potential for a safety car is high, so teams have to work with flexible strategies. In qualifying, it makes it vital to get in a banker lap in every session – because if a team leaves it too late and gets knocked out early, they might as well pack up and go home.
So given all of this, who has the best chance of success in Monaco?
Lewis Hamilton has already confidently stated he feels he could hold the field back if he gets to start on pole, and given that a Mercedes has started from pole on the last three races and set the fastest time around Monaco in qualifying last year with Michael Schumacher, there’s a good chance of that happening. Whether it’s Hamilton or his team-mate Nico Rosberg, however, is a different matter.
Aside from Mercedes, a car with good mechanical performance should work well and that could put Lotus in with a chance – particularly if they can qualify relatively high and manage to go one stop rather than the two-stopper that Mercedes are likely to have to go for.
If they can’t get on pole, their best chance of winning could be to predict how long they can last on the harder tyres, stop as early as possible and hope that puts them out ahead when their rivals have to stop. Traffic will play a big part in that strategy – as will getting the prediction right. And that will make race simulations in practice another crucial part of this weekend.
As a wild card, meanwhile, Force India has always gone well in Monaco and they have been strong in some races this season. Engineers say their car has a good neutral balance, which will be useful around here, and who can forget Adrian Sutil’s dramatic performance a couple of years ago?
The simple fact is this. Monaco has been won from pole in every one of the last four races and in seven of the last eight.
This year’s softer tyres could enable someone like Lotus to buck that trend – but the odds are strong that whoever takes pole position this weekend will go on to win.