By Ben Edwards
There will be a low key atmosphere at the start of the Monaco weekend as everyone reflects on the passing of Niki Lauda.
He was one of the true heroes of the sport in so many ways; not only because of his personal journey of injury and comeback, but through his dedication to success in all of the roles he took on over the years.
I met him originally through John Watson, my co-commentator at the time, and despite the fact that they had been rivals and teammates eager to beat each other at any opportunity, their relationship was one of friendship and respect.
Niki could cut through the nonsense that encircles Formula 1 with a steely knife and bring it back to the vital ingredients. His clarity of vision and acerbic wit will be much missed, but his legacy to the sport will last forever.
On to Monaco
No matter how good the car is, how well prepared the drivers are and how much momentum a team carries into the event, the famous street track has a habit of upsetting the apple cart.
If there’s a venue on the calendar that could halt the Mercedes Silver Arrows steamroller, it has to be Monaco.
I remember commentating on the race in 1996 when the Williams team had won all five races of the season so far, and points-leading driver Damon Hill duly dominated the early stages, as Michael Schumacher spun out on the first lap.
By Lap 40, Hill looked all set to make it six wins in a row for the Williams FW18-Renault when suddenly he emerged from the tunnel in a cloud of engine smoke. The dream was over.
My Channel 4 co-commentator David Coulthard could then have won – if only the McLaren team had brought him into the pits a lap earlier. Ultimately, victory went to Olivier Panis, his one and only grand prix win and the last time a Frenchman topped the podium.
Mind you, the odds are still stacked in Mercedes’ favour. Their slow-speed cornering performance in Barcelona was truly impressive and in Lewis Hamilton they have a master of Monaco.
A decade after Hill’s disappointment, Hamilton dominated the GP2 F1 support race from pole position and in 2008 he delivered one of his most impressive grand prix wins, bouncing back from contact with the barrier on Lap 6 to take a hugely accomplished victory.
He was also on his way to crushing the opposition in 2015 from pole position until a late safety car period disrupted his strategy and dropped him to third. But he did inherit the win a year later when Red Bull failed to have tyres ready for Daniel Ricciardo.
The see-saw nature of the venue has never been more stark than for the Australian. The pain of that loss in 2016 was soothed by a redemptive victory last year despite the failure of a crucial element of his power unit, as he was able to fend off Sebastian Vettel to the flag.
The celebrations that Ricciardo enjoyed that day were momentous – but look at him now. That slap-happy grin that has been his calling card for years is starting to sag. A single top-10 finish in the five races this season with Renault leaves him just 12th in the points, and the team he quit Red Bull for is being out-performed by McLaren using the same engine.
Ricciardo always knew it was going to be a gradual process for Renault to catch Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes, but even so, this has not been a comfortable period. Monaco is effectively the team’s second ‘home’ race and yet the last time a Renault driver achieved a podium finish here was Robert Kubica back in 2010.
For Ricciardo’s former teammate Max Verstappen the prospects are surely much brighter. Yes, he has messed up several times at Monaco in the past, including final practice last year when a crash behind the pits denied him a chance to qualify, but that proved to be a game changer.
His shift in approach has carried him strongly through the first part of this season and I firmly believe he will be a major factor this time, even if the Red Bull doesn’t have the grip advantage it had 12 months ago.
As a resident of Monaco, Verstappen might experience an extra adrenalin rush by striving to deliver a big result on his own doorstep, but there is another driver on the grid for whom Monaco surely means more – because he was actually born in the Principality.
Charles Leclerc was very rapid on the streets of Baku a few weeks ago until he committed a similar faux pas to Verstappen’s Monaco mistake by crashing out on a lap that wasn’t that important.
If the Ferrari can handle the tight turns, and let’s not forget the team enjoyed a one-two here as recently as 2017, then imagine the potential face-off between Verstappen and Leclerc, a pair of 21-year-olds attempting to disrupt the establishment…
The magic of Monaco
There is nothing quite like this race in the rest of the motorsport world. For those of us who work in Formula 1, it can be maddening in terms of getting to and from where we need to be, our accommodation is miles away to avoid the high costs of staying on location, and the race can sometimes become a procession from start to finish.
And yet the backdrop is stunning, the jeopardy is constant, the skill of threading a 200mph monster through such narrow inclines is mind-blowing – and the sheer buzz is intoxicating.
It helps too that the form book is no safe bet on the streets of Monte Carlo.
Watch highlights of qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix on Channel 4 from 6:30pm on Saturday 25th May with highlights of Sunday’s big race from 7pm.
By Ben Edwards