What makes Monaco such a unique challenge?
While many street circuits have hosted Formula One races over the years, none are quite like Monaco. The setting, the history, the risk and reward. Many factors make Monaco one of the most unique challenges in F1.
“Winning a race there in 2008, I felt like I was at the top of the highest mountain of the world,” explains Lewis Hamilton. “So many different things need to come together for that to happen and it is a track where you just can’t leave anything on the table.”
Cars have been racing on the streets of Monaco since 1929 and in F1 since the sport’s debut season, 1950. Renowned for its glamour and prestige, it’s part of motorsport’s Triple Crown alongside the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
And while those other two races are more focused on endurance, the Monaco Grand Prix is a much shorter race, but with incredible levels of intensity and concentration.
When it comes to the track layout, the circuit is dominated by slow and medium-speed corners, including some of the lowest corner speeds on the calendar. Its narrow layout hasn’t changed much over the years, but the cars certainly have… and that only adds to the challenge of threading the needle through the twisty streets of Monaco.
How tough is the track for the drivers?
Lewis sums it up well. “Usually after that race, you are mentally destroyed for a good couple of days.” Other tracks require a mix of physical and mental strength, but in Monaco, the focus is much more on the mental side, due to the levels of concentration needed to lap the circuit.
“Monaco is a circuit that’s probably the highest in concentration and mental focus,” Lewis adds. “The street circuit nature, the fact it is quite short and there are not very long straights. It’s not a massively physical circuit because we are not doing really high speeds through corners and pulling the g-forces you would somewhere like Barcelona. But your mind is having to work so much faster.”
Over just one lap in Monaco, there’s little time for drivers to rest, taking multi-tasking to the next level. Balancing the brake, throttle, steering, dealing with the forces and feeling what the car is doing through their body, and also paying attention to their surroundings – there’s a lot for drivers to deal with over a lap!
And then you have to consider the drivers making switch and steering wheel changes as they lap the track, too. With few straights, there aren’t many opportunities to take their hand off the wheel and make those adjustments. So teams have to really consider whether it’s worth the risk of drivers making switch changes, and also ensure they head out on track each time with the correct settings, to minimise the workload.
What’s required with the car set-up?
We approach the Monaco GP weekend like any other, doing our usual computer and driver-in-loop simulations to work through different set-up options. We then take those learnings into the practice sessions, fine-tuning the set-up as the weekend progresses.
Qualifying holds far more importance in Monaco compared to other tracks because it’s very difficult to overtake in the race. The track layout is very narrow, there is only one DRS zone and there are few long straights and heavy braking zones to encourage overtaking. And it also places more focus on race strategy, as a way of making up places.
The corner speeds in Monaco are very low and so we need to put the maximum downforce we can on the car. We also change things like steering geometry for the very tight hairpin and increase the ride height to deal with the bumpy nature of the Monaco roads.
The set-up needs to be consistent and predictable, with a more stable set-up leading to fewer mistakes and surprises. Track time is also very important as Monaco is a layout where drivers need to build up the speed and confidence, so losing any practice time can have a knock-on effect.
“Mastering a lap in Monaco, of course you’ve got to have a light and nimble car, you’ve got to have great downforce, you’ve got to have the right power to weight ratio, you’ve got to have the right track position, clean air in front of you, commitment, you’ve got to be willing to touch the barriers,” says Lewis.
“It’s a track where you have to be able to have your cake and eat it, in terms of how you approach each corner. On other circuits, you brake a little bit earlier each time, going in. And then you work on making sure you get the exit. In Monaco, you want to take everything on the way in and everything on the way out.”