The Monaco GP form suggested by F1 2023’s closest comparison
The Monaco Grand Prix is where excuses from Formula 1 teams to explain their weaknesses can be temporarily tossed aside.
For one round only, having the power of a ‘GP2 engine’ isn’t insurmountable as drivers spend just 43% of the lap on full throttle - the least of any circuit on the calendar. Likewise, McLaren needn’t be quite so concerned about the excessive drag from its MCL60, since the average speed is only 105mph. Nor is imperfect aerodynamic efficiency brutally punished in the principality. This historic venue is an outlier.
With the emphasis instead tipped towards mechanical grip around the pristine, hosed-down streets, being quick requires an ability to brake confidently into the 19 corners, find a well-behaved chassis at the apex and then rely on sound traction to slingshot out the other side.
Fernando Alonso reckons it will take a botched pitstop, a bout of unreliability or a crash to knock a Red Bull driver off the top step of the podium this season. Perhaps a rainy forecast for this weekend can intervene too. But, for all the praise rightly given to the RB19’s potent DRS, straight-line speed and stability through high-speed corners, if any track can leave Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez vulnerable this year, Monaco might be it.
In previous seasons, much has been read into the fiddly final sector of the preceding Spanish GP - with its vicious kerbs and defining chicane - for what it indicates about the form guide heading into Monaco. But a rejigged running order which now places the Barcelona round directly after 78 laps around the French Riviera means it's a comparison that goes out the window this year. However, the street circuit-biased start to the term enables a run around Azerbaijan to fill the void.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14, Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23, Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR23
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
The second sector of the Baku lap takes drivers from the 90-degree left-hander of Turn 5, up through the treacherously narrow castle section and back down to the entry of the critical Turn 16, which tees up the flat-out sprint to the line. The middle part of the lap is defined by low-speed, second and third-gear corners and staccato bursts of acceleration. A couple of longer stretches, for this comparison, will mimic the charge through the Monaco tunnel. Bar a corner or two from Australia and Miami, this is the most apt doppelganger featured so far.
In isolation, the sector two times taken from the qualifying session for the full Azerbaijan GP look good for Ferrari. Saturday sprint and Sunday polesitter Charles Leclerc set the benchmark over the Red Bulls by 0.15 seconds. That bodes well for a slice of home success for the Monegasque racer. But the Scuderia also concedes that its race pace has lacked compared to its Milton Keynes rival, who in turn has scarified some one-lap performance.
Ferrari driver coach Jock Clear says: “We need to fully understand how we can get the race pace. We have to take our hat off to Red Bull and say they are doing something very, very clever. That car works very, very well in race pace. We might also conclude that to do so, maybe they are giving up some qualifying pace. That's why we can compete with them because they're not optimal in qualifying.”
As such, if Leclerc was to avoid extending his unwelcome record of crashing on his doorstep to instead lead from pole, the dry race pace indications from Baku point to him having one or both Red Bulls breathing down his neck.
2023 Azerbaijan GP qualifying sector two times
With Aston Martin a further 0.3s slower than Red Bull through the middle sector in Baku, the Silverstone team appears to face an uphill battle to deliver Alonso a victory - a prospect that would have seemed more feasible this weekend than any other. However, the green machines might still come to the fore.
Although the headline sector time leaves a little to be desired, the more precise GPS data is positive for the AMR23s. With Alonso’s fastest effort from the Friday afternoon session overlaid with those of respective team pacesetters Leclerc, Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, Aston looks strongest of all under initial acceleration.
Out of Turn 5, for the approach to the castle and between the stone turrets, he sets the pace as the rear axle hooks up neatly. Given that the Spaniard is then fastest over the timing line despite the Astons having struggled in a straight line in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia points to a set-up that leans towards aero efficiency. If the team backs down from this attack to favour its earlier configurations that enabled Alonso to be the last of the late brakers in the opening rounds, then the low-speed prowess should come together well for Monaco.
Sticking with the Baku telemetry, Red Bull proved quickest from entry to exit through the slower changes of direction - even if its precise apex speed was consistently 2-3mph below its rivals. Ferrari then came to the fore towards the end of the straights. Mercedes, meanwhile, only set the pace out of the Turn 15 kink. But the red and silver cars could feature more significantly in Monaco.
Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-23
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
While Ferrari has delayed its upgraded rear suspension until Spain owing to the heavy rain that was predicted for Imola, a revised floor and diffuser in Miami plus a further tweak to the rear for Monaco should deliver lap time. The changes being conceived to make the chassis more benign should marry well with the twisty Monaco lap. Especially when the rear wants to break loose under acceleration and if any wet weather does arrive.
Similarly, Mercedes is something of an unknown quantity. The revised sprint schedule for Azerbaijan punished its characteristically slow start to weekends. Unable to optimise set-up in FP1, it was on the back foot for the rest of the round. Hence a near-0.5s gap to Ferrari through the middle sector.
A more traditional format should help matters. As does the arrival of its first major upgrade. The W14 will sprout conventional sidepods, a revised floor and new front suspension to placate drivers that are unhappy with car balance. While none are optimised for Monaco, if these revisions correlate with wind tunnel simulations of improved performance, some degree of that will be on display this weekend.
Although motorsport boss Toto Wolff has given a reality check, warning that one update package alone will not thrust Mercedes into championship contention overnight, Hamilton and George Russell should nevertheless expect to whittle away at that half-second deficit.
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