On the eve of Europe’s sexiest race, we look at Lewis Hamilton’s dominance, Sebastian Vettel’s struggle, and make a surprising prediction.
Some people will tell you that Formula 1 has lost its romance. Those people have never been to the Monaco Grand Prix, which is packed with super yachts, wealthy gamblers who stalk the Casino Square, and rail-thin supermodels that stumble out of Hotel de Paris at dawn.
Then there’s the race. Weaving through the hilly streets of Monte Carlo, the 2.07-mile circuit is so challenging it killed Luigi Fagioli, so immersive it elevated Senna, and so intimate that Sir Stirling Moss claimed he could spot pretty girls blowing him kisses. How’s that for romance?
Here are the three big stories you’ll need to know before the green flag drops at this year’s Monaco Grand Prix.
1. Was Sebastian Vettel racing in a crooked chassis?
Photo: Sutton Images / Corbis
Vettel doesn’t do fifth place. That’s just not his thing. And yet, five races into this season, the 26-year-old sits behind both Mercedes AMG drivers, Fernando Alonso, and his own Red Bull stable-mate in the points standings. What gives?
Ex-McLaren pilot Gerhard Berger (the man who signed Vettel to Torro Rosso back in '08) speculated last week that the pressure of (and “fatigue” from) defending quadruple World Championships is finally getting to the young German. A feasible theory, sure, but there’s an alternative one worth keeping an eye on, too.
According to German news outlets, Red Bull discovered that its No. 1 chassis was crooked prior to the Spanish Grand Prix. Of course, Adrian Newey, Christian Horner, and the rest of Red Bull denied this report, but nevertheless Vettel showed up for Barcelona in a new car. Could be a coincidence, but Seb suddenly looked like himself again, turning in a spectacular drive to fourth place despite starting from 15th due to a freak five-spot grid penalty. Just 52 percent of the Monaco Grand Prix is spent at wide-open throttle, negating Mercedes’ enormous horsepower advantage; if a busted chassis was the source of Vettel’s woes, look for a strong performance at Monte Carlo (it may be his only shot at winning a race all season).
2. The battle rages on between teammates Hamilton and Rosberg.
Photo: Sutton Images / Corbis
During the Spanish Grand Prix’s final stanza, a race-leading Lewis Hamilton watched in his mirrors as Nico Rosberg chipped away at the gap with Prost-like precision, eventually closing the two-second margin to a mere 0.6 ticks. With a few more laps, Nico would have had him.
While Hamilton left Barcelona with first place, it wasn’t all champagne and wreaths. His frantic radio messages second-guessing his engineer’s pit strategy and comparing it to that of Rosberg’s—it all sounded a bit paranoid. Mercedes has employed professional sports psychologist Dr. Ceri Evans to analyze how the team “communicates” following their intense duel in Bahrain; Jenson Button suspects “mind games” are already a factor (and he’d be the one to know). Mercedes team chairman Nikki Lauda is egging it all on. Hold your breath for allegations of favoritism: We sense an impending schism in the Silver Arrows garage.
Here’s the kicker: Last year, Rosberg turned in his finest-ever performance to win the 2013 Monaco Grand Prix. Hamilton, by his own admission, drove abysmally after a safety car deployed 29 laps into that same race. Some intra-team tensions and a very tight circuit, where overtaking is done entirely wheel-to-wheel, could spell disaster for Mercedes.
3. Felipe Massa is in desperate need of a good race.
Photo: Diego Azubel / epa / Corbis
The 33-year-old Massa signed with Williams this season to play leading man on a title contender before his volatile career comes to an end. Enter Valtteri Bottas, protégé of Mika Häkkinen and a star in the making.
So far, Massa’s been hampered by a poor three-stop strategy in Spain, a botched pit stop in China, and Kamui Kobayashi’s kamikaze routine in Melbourne. But he’s also failed to execute the necessary passes to be relevant during this year’s other Grand Prix races, while his teammate has shown flashes of brilliance. Suddenly, the Brazilian finds himself five spots behind Bottas in the drivers' standings.
Williams says it has remedied whatever issue caused his rapid tire degradation at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and redesigned his rear wing for Monaco. At the moment, Felipe is still Williams’ priority. But we reckon if he doesn’t put in a points drive at Monte Carlo, Frank and Claire will shift their focus squarely to the interests of Valtteri Bottas, once again leaving Massa as the backstop.
OUR PREDICITION: Rosberg takes the win from pole; Vettel splits the Mercedes podium, leaving Hamilton on the third step.
The 72nd running of the Monaco Grand Prix gets underway Sunday, May 25.
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