Champions must be streetwise to cut through the great Monaco traffic jam
Monte Carlo's tight turns and this season's extra cars put the onus on driver ability
"Gimme a break! There used to be 26 drivers out there in the old days, and half of them were slow, not just half a dozen!" Keke Rosberg, bless him, has always been a man for telling it like it is, without frills or favour. The moustache would bristle and the cigarette cupped in hands placed nonchalantly behind his back would twitch whenever he warmed to a theme.
"And," he thundered yesterday, indignantly, after listening to his son Nico's rivals bleating about the likely effect of traffic in qualifying, "we had to change gear the proper way!"
There are many who believe that Rosberg, champion of the world in 1982 and the winner here in Monaco in 1983, was (like his old friend and rival Gilles Villeneuve) a much better racer than the son who followed him into the sport. But that was then and this is now, and whatever the elder Rosberg may say, qualifying here today, let alone the race itself tomorrow, promises to be one of the most dramatic and hard-fought contests of the season.
With three more teams than last year, the narrow street circuit is crowded. Requests had been made to split the field for the first qualifying session this afternoon, but the teams could not agree on how the split would be made. And so we will see 24 drivers fighting for track space and "hot laps" at the same time. Some of the best-fancied competitors might lose their scalps if luck doesn't run their way.
For those who will watch and savour the action, it could not be better. And there is no better circuit on which to study a vintage crop of drivers, with four world champions – Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso – and at least one, Sebastian Vettel, destined to be a champion in the near future
Since 1929 every metre of road has its own tale to tell of the exploits of the greatest drivers in the world. This has been the place where the highwire artists have walked without the safety net of generous run-off areas; the canvass on which the true artists have painted their greatest masterpieces; a place that breeds respect yet demands brio but not bravado.
It was here in 1961 that Stirling Moss humbled the more potent Ferraris with his privately entered Rob Walker Lotus; where mechanical failure repeatedly denied Jim Clark's greatness its just reward; where Graham Hill's consistency and doggedness made him five times a winner. It was here where Jackie Stewart's canny precision and innate gentleness three times brought him the meeting with Prince Rainier and Princess Grace; where a stunned Jochen Rindt kick-started his ultimately posthumous world championship 40 years ago with an astonishing triumph in adversity over Jack Brabham; where Ayrton Senna once had an out-of-body experience, such was the manner in which he immersed himself in the pursuit of the ever-more perfect lap of the Principality; where Michael Schumacher equalled Hill's tally of victories.
Rindt compared cornering a Formula One car to being like a stone swinging on the end of a piece of string; this is the place where that stone can most easily collide with an immovable object.
The challenge is intimate and intense – more about the driver's innate sense of touch and feel than it is pure physics and geometry – caressing the ever-present barriers but never meeting them head-on. Controlled aggression is the key as Russian rookie Vitaly Petrov noted after practice on Thursday as he relearnt a track that is a whole lot different in an F1 car than when he competed here in GP2. The difficulty is that the walls are so close that you have to concentrate relentlessly while learning the limits, yet in each corner you still have to push hard all the time.
Hamilton, Schumacher and Button have all proved they can win here, Robert Kubica is bound to soon. Button crashed so badly here in practice in 2003 he had to miss the race, yet finished a challenging second to Jarno Trulli in 2004. Last year he was untouchable, his Alain Prost-like smoothness preserving his tyres just when it mattered most.
"You have to tame an F1 car here," he said. "It's all about precision. You have to be fast yet precise in every corner, and it's so easy to make a mistake. And mistakes here get penalised heavily, as I found out in 2003."
The only one he made last year was to park in the wrong place at the end of the race. "I was really embarrassed to begin with," he said of the gaffe, "but then I figured I wasn't embarrassed at all. I'd won the Monaco Grand Prix – how cool was that? When you're in the car you can't hear the crowd but as I ran I could, and I was high-fiving my crew all the way down the pit wall. Winning Monaco was the second best thing about winning the championship. It's still glamorous here, and it's unique in that you can celebrate with everyone because the crowd is all around you."
But if Monaco was made for anyone, it was made for the likes of Hamilton, Alonso, Schumacher and Kubica. If Button is a boxer with the fluid style of Sugar Ray Leonard, Monaco is their cage and they are the ultimate fighters of a tough game – the guys who really like to get down and scrap when the occasion demands it, the ones who can get more out of the car than it wants to give. It is the only place on the calendar that truly rewards that brand of aggression when it is allied to control and precision, where the driver can mean the difference between the joy of success and the disappointment of second place.
"People say that the car has everything to do with it," noted Hamilton, who said there were light years between the McLaren he had to drag around this time last year and the sleek missile now at his disposal, "but some can pull more out of it than others. I'm seriously confident in this car, and the driver with the biggest heart and balls and talent should come out on top here if they get things right."
"There is no other place like this," Alonso said. "When you win in Monte Carlo, you know you have done something very special.
"My confidence was good from the first session," said Kubica after Thursday's practice. "But things can change very quickly in Monaco, so we have to watch out and try to put the car in the best window in the right moment. Anything can happen here."
Then there are the other hopefuls yet to prove themselves completely here: Felipe Massa, Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, with perhaps Adrian Sutil and Petrov poised to spring surprises. Vettel and Massa are ultimate fighters, too, Rosberg and Webber boxers in Button's vein.
Of course qualifying will be tricky with 24 cars out there, as if it isn't difficult enough with all the other factors that each has to cope with. But that's all part of the job. That's why they are grand prix drivers. Finding that elusive clear lap, when others cannot, goes with the badge. And that's why Monaco bestows greatness on some and not others.
The drivers to watch
His smooth style is perfectly suited here, as he proved convincingly last year.
The most outstanding, yet unlucky, driver of the season. Hungry for his first win of 2010 on a circuit he loves.
Back at his most dangerous, smooth and fast in a car that's proved a winner.
A month ago you'd have written him off, but don't discount a surprise.
The guy in form, but he needs reliability and luck on a car-breaking circuit.
The Pole is making the fewest mistakes of all the main men. The dark horse.
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