Charles Leclerc was the shock pole-getter for Ferrari on F1’s return to Monaco, where taking pole his to go halfway to victory.
The Monegasque took provisional pole with his first lap before crashing at the exit of the swimming pool to end the top-10 shootout prematurely. Max Verstappen, Valtteri Bottas and Carlos Sainz were all on hot laps behind him and each thought he was on for pole, though it’s hard to draw any conclusions from the first sector alone.
Track position is so powerful around the serpentine Monte Carlo streets that victory is possible even with a substantial pace disadvantage — not that Ferrari is lacking performance. The Scuderia has looked at home riding the kerbs all weekend, and with engine power counting for little and a friendly chassis worth so much more than usual, there’s no reason it Leclerc and teammate Sainz, starting fourth, shouldn’t be thereabouts in speed.
You wouldn’t think that good news for title hopeful Verstappen, who lines up second for Red Bull Racing, even if championship rival Lewis Hamilton will start seventh. But there is a glimmer of hope for the Dutchman.
While there are numerous recent examples of slower cars getting the job done in Monaco, but in the two most recent examples — Daniel Ricciardo with engine trouble in 2018 and Hamilton with worn tyres in 2019, for example — the respective problems arose after the pit stops, a key moment of vulnerability.
Verstappen is still wielding the faster car, as is Bottas, who starts third. Not only will Charles Leclerc have to be centimetre perfect in his defence, but his strategy will have to be responsive to ensure he maintains crucial track position.
The battle for the lead will be fascinating, but so will Lewis Hamilton’s afternoon. The car’s reluctance to generate tyre temperature left the Briton in P7 and 0.7 seconds off the pace in qualifying, but in race trim it should be back on the pace, and the Briton race models will undoubtedly factor him in as a podium contender.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
|20||Mick SCHUMACHER||No time|
Distance: 3.337 kilometres
Lap record: 1:14.260 (Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 2018)
Track record: 1:10.166 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2019)
Lateral load: very low
Tyre stress: very low
Asphalt grip: very low
Asphalt abrasion: very low
Traction: very high
Downforce: very high
Safety car probability: 80 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 323 metres
Pit lane time loss: 16.4 seconds
Fuel consumption: Low
Tyres: C3 (hard), C4 (medium), C5 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.8 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.7 seconds
The undercut, F1’s default aggressive strategy, isn’t particularly effective in Monaco. Tyre degradation is too low for a new set of tyres to generate a dramatic improvement in pace, and this is doubly so considering tyre warm-up is slow in the cool conditions.
But an equally crucial disincentive for the undercut is the risk of getting stuck behind a slower car that has either already stopped or isn’t intending to stop for some time. Overtaking is no guarantee no matter the pace advantage, and getting caught would be terminal for race time.
Further, given the undercut is dependent on finding a gap in traffic, the car ahead would enter that pit window on at leas the same lap, if not earlier, negating the surprise element.
Instead the overcut offers a potential advantage, running longer on a set of tyres already up to temperature to generate the time difference to stop and emerge from pit lane ahead of the car a driver was previously trailing.
With Max Verstappen’s inherent car pace advantage, this would be his easiest route to victory.
But it would be even more appealing to Lewis Hamilton. Starting seventh behind the fastest midfield cars, if passing on track is too difficult, running longer than Pierre Gasly, Lando Norris and perhaps Carlos Sainz ahead, who will likely focus on battlin each other, will be an easy jump forward to rejoin the frontrunning pack.
There are risks to relying on a long first stint, however. The risk of a safety car is at 80 per cent in Monaco, and with the medium tyre able to do the vast majority of the race untroubled, it would make no sense to eschew a pit stop behind the safety car just to run long if the cars ahead all take advatage of the reduced pace.
This is will be a key consideration for anyone starting outside the top 10 and thinking of starting on the medium tyre for the optimum contrastrategy, which risks losing all its potency if the safety car were to emerge before the soft-starters make their sole stops.