Hamilton and Vettel to duel for F1’s crown jewel

When Formula One makes its customary May stop in the glittering hills of Monte Carlo this Sunday (28 May), it won’t be just for kicks.

The Monaco Grand Prix so often promises the world’s most expensive procession in which the season’s fastest car almost always starts from the front and cruises to the flag.

It’s so hard to pass along the slithering streets of the principality that the old F1 adage ‘to win at the slowest possible speed’ returns to the sport’s lexicon as drivers and teams, desperate not to lose precious track position to a silly error or tactical mistake, tip-toe their way to the finishing line.

And with so many visceral examples in recent memory, who could blame them?

In 2015 it was eventual champion Lewis Hamilton who learnt the hard way how split-second decisions can lead to unrecoverable mistakes in Monte Carlo.

A late race safety car panicked the Briton, then comfortably leading the race, into asking to stop for new tyres. The Mercedes pit wall made a crucial miscalculation and heeded its driver’s call — but when none of Hamilton’s rivals did likewise, Lewis fell to third place, where he ultimately finished.

Hamilton was inconsolable, but one year later he would be the beneficiary of another howler, this time on the part of Red Bull Racing.

Daniel Ricciardo converted his maiden career pole position into an early race lead despite heavy wet conditions — but his pit wall fumbled its way through his race strategy so badly it lost an easy win.

First Red Bull Racing was outplayed on tyre strategy — Ricciardo was stopped twice; Hamilton made just one stop — then second it made the inexcusable error of calling Ricciardo into the pits without having his tyres ready.

Ricciardo finished a furious second in the world’s most famous race.

Proof, then, the mystique of Monte Carlo can undo even the sport’s finest — as has been the case for Max Verstappen in his two visits to the seaside circuit, both of which the Dutchman failed to finish.

The teenage prodigy and the sport’s youngest race winner has impressed at just about every race bar Monaco, crashing out in 2015 in a botched overtaking attempt and again in 2016 after locking up in the damp conditions.

Even the best are tripped up in Monaco, which will make the knife-edge battle between Mercedes and Ferrari, Hamilton and Vettel, all the more enthralling.

Mercedes has form on its side, leading this year’s constructors title and having won the last four Monaco grands prix, but Ferrari’s 2017 car has presented no obvious or specific weaknesses, growing in strength race on race.

Interesting is that the final sector at the Spanish Grand Prix’s Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya — a slow and twisty part of the track similar to Monaco’s tight layout — suggested Mercedes will lead the way ahead of Red Bull Racing, with Ferrari third fastest.

The Monte Carlo circuit puts a premium on downforce while placing minimum emphasis on engine power, which has historically suited Red Bull Racing’s team philosophy.

But in 2017 RBR’s chassis lacks as much, if not more, than the Renault power unit bolted into the back. Design guru Adrian Newey, who has progressively stepped away from Formula One in recent seasons, is increasing his involvement to help the team works its way up the order.

Any gains before the Monaco Grand Prix are likely to be modest, however, lending credibility to the possibility that Red Bull Racing will be little more than an also-ran for the first time this decade at Formula One’s favourite race.