Good F1 news for Sebastian Vettel in Monaco
The Monaco Grand Prix should be less about tire degradation and more about pole position, as Formula One returns for its showcase race on a street circuit that is notoriously difficult to overtake on.
That will be good news for Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, but less so for Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen.
Vettel, the three-time defending Formula One champion tops the championship standings by four points from Raikkonen, who closed the gap by finishing second at the Spanish GP with Vettel placing fourth.
That was Raikkonen's third consecutive second place as the Finn bids for his second F1 title.
However, he has one major problem: qualifying speed. He has been on the front row only once - in Bahrain last month - compared to Vettel's two poles.
That could work against him in Monaco.
"It's such a narrow, twisty track; you have to be extra sharp and focused. ... Overtaking is almost impossible," Raikkonen said. "We'll have to see how the tires perform and if there are any good strategies to be made, but the most important thing is to qualify well."
Mark Webber won from pole last year and in 2010, Vettel did likewise in 2011 - giving Red Bull three straight victories.
In the last 10 years, only Lewis Hamilton, five years ago, and Juan Pablo Montoya, 10 years ago, have won not starting from pole.
When Raikkonen won in 2005, he led from the front. This season, his superb tactical sense, coupled with smart management of Pirelli's vulnerable tires, have helped him stay in touch with Vettel.
Monaco, with its tube-like circuit, is unique because drivers are hemmed in on pencil-thin streets and have to concentrate for nearly two hours to avoid crashing into walls or getting spun off track by debris and gravel.
"It is very, very difficult - almost impossible in fact - to have a clean weekend down there," Raikkonen said. "My win in 2005 ranks up there with my most memorable."
There will be less speed, so therefore less tire wear and less pit stops- and overtaking is always a gamble in the home of casinos. The race has produced a lot of spectacular incidents over the years.
"My first memory (of racing in Monaco) was in 2000, my first year in F1 and it was going well until I T-boned Pedro de la Rosa and caused a red flag," veteran driver Jenson Button said. "In those days we had spare cars so we basically had a running race back to the paddock for who got the spare car. That was quite fun."
Red Bull will be especially looking forward to this weekend, after finishing behind both Ferraris in Barcelona two weeks ago.
Fernando Alonso won, Felipe Massa was third, and Webber rolled in behind Vettel in a hectic race that saw almost 80 pit stops with most drivers backed into a four-stop strategy due to tires shredding at an alarming rate.
Red Bull has been one of the leading critics of the tires and Pirelli have pledged to make changes from next month's Canadian Grand Prix. The tires will feature a revised construction including elements from last year's tires to combine durability with performance.
But the other argument in the tire debate is that Red Bull's dominance has been countered. By winning the season opener in Australia and finishing second in Spain with three stops, Raikkonen has shown that smart strategy can compensate for tire wear.
"I think we were pretty competitive," Raikkonen's Lotus teammate Romain Grosjean said Wednesday. "The team has been working well with that so we will see."
However, for the first time in many weeks, the pressure should be off Pirelli - at least for one race.
"We'd expect an average of two pit stops per car, because - in complete contrast to the last race at Barcelona - Monaco has very low tire wear and degradation," Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery said. "The last race in Spain was won from lower down on the grid than it has ever been won before, so it will be interesting to see if this pattern can repeat itself in Monaco."
The chances of Alonso repeating his Barcelona win, where he drove brilliantly to win from fifth on the grid, are slim and he will need a strong qualifying performance to have a chance of repeating his Monaco wins from 2006 and 2007.
Alonso is third overall, 17 points behind Vettel, with Hamilton sitting fourth and trailing Vettel by 39.
Ferrari is trying to close the gap on Red Bull in qualifying. Alonso has never qualified higher than third so far, and Massa's qualifying best was second at the Malaysian GP.