MONACO: Lewis Hamilton is aiming to reel off his third successive win and to consolidate his grip on this year’s title race at this weekend’s 65th running of the classic Monaco Grand Prix.
The defending four-time world champion, fresh from a lucky victory in Azerbaijan and a convincing triumph in Spain, arrives in the Mediterranean principality with a 17-points lead on nearest rival and fellow-four-time champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari.
But in an unpredictable yo-yo season punctuated by unexpected dramas, the 33-year-old Englishman knows he faces a challenge to stay on top on the unforgiving barrier-lined streets.
“We have worked very hard as a team to get into this position, but we know this is a major task. It is going to be a close fight and I am excited by the prospect of this race.”
Vettel won last year’s race for Ferrari, ending a four-year run of Mercedes domination at a track where qualifying is of paramount importance due to the difficulty in overtaking during the race.
The German is looking for his third Monaco win and the 50th of his career on Sunday when, many drivers have suggested, the use of a new ‘hyper-soft’ tire with pink sidewalls will deliver record laps.
That prospect and the likely return of grid girls as the Monaco organizers defy F1’s new American owners Liberty Media who ended the tradition this year has added to the keen sense of anticipation.
Pirelli boss Mario Isola said the ‘hyper’ is a step up in performance and is likely to be used both in qualifying and the race.
Spaniard Carlos Sainz of Renault, who tested the new tire at Barcelona following the Spanish Grand Prix, said he expected it to make a major impact.
“It is quite impressive, that tyre, I must say,” said Sainz. “It gives easily a second per lap and that was at Barcelona. Around Monaco, this tire could be something special.
“We could see some very quick laps. I would be prepared for lap records again – and in qualifying it will be absolute madness. It will be crazy.
“Last year, with the new cars, it was something incredible and this year with a two steps softer compound and a tire that for me is the best tire Pirelli has done in a lot of years, it’s going to be crazy.”
As Vettel bids to bounce back, after leading the championship earlier in the season, he and Hamilton both fear as major challenge also from Red Bull who will be celebrating their 250th race start on Sunday.
They won both their 100th and 150th races and Dutchman Max Verstappen believes they should be making a major impact this weekend.
“The team has worked hard and I feel we should be really competitive this time,” he said.
Hamilton and Mercedes are expecting Red Bull to be a threat.
“It is going to be a serious challenge,” said Hamilton.
“The others are going to be hard to beat. If you look at Daniel Ricciardo, in Spain, he was much quicker in the last sector and the last sector is all down-force, so they’re going to be rapid in Monaco, and very hard to beat.
“Montreal as well, where it’s very, very hard to get temperature into the tires, it’s going to be multiple laps of driving to get temperatures into those tires there.
“So different things that are coming up are challenging, I don’t think it’s going to be as clear as it was at every single race.”
1. Lewis Hamilton (GBR) 95 pts
2. Sebastian Vettel (GER) 78
3. Valtteri Bottas (FIN) 58,
4. Kimi Räikkönen (FIN) 48
5. Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) 47
6. Max Verstappen (NED) 33
7. Fernando Alonso (ESP) 32
8. Nico Hülkenberg (GER) 22
9. Kevin Magnussen (DEN) 19
10. Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP) 19
11. Sergio Pérez (MEX) 17
12. Pierre Gasly (FRA) 12
13. Charles Leclerc (MON) 9
14. Stoffel Vandoorne (BEL) 8
15. Lance Stroll (CAN) 4
16. Marcus Ericsson (SWE) 2
17. Esteban Ocon (FRA) 1
18. Brendon Hartley (NZL) 1
1. Mercedes 153 pts, 2. Ferrari 126, 3. Red Bull 80, 4. Renault 41, 5. McLaren 40, 6. Haas 19, 7. Force India 18, 8. Toro Rosso 13, 9. Sauber 11, 10. Williams 4