Red Bull the team to beat
Though Red Bull had been billed as race favourites for the first time this season – mainly due to their impressive pace at the tight chicane in Barcelona – there were still question marks over whether they could convert that strong final sector into a consistently quick Monaco car.
Not only did the team answer those questions in resounding fashion on Thursday, they simultaneously crushed track records and their rivals in the process.
Can Red Bull keep up their pace?
P2: Red Bull smash records
Able to utilise those aerodynamic and suspension upgrades over a full lap, Red Bull were flying around the Monte Carlo streets and sealed their first P1-P2 double of the season, with Daniel Ricciardo looking like the man to beat. The Australian led a team one-two ahead of Max Verstappen in both sessions and was around half a second quicker than anything Mercedes and Ferrari had to offer all day.
“I’m getting lit tonight. I enjoyed myself,” beamed Ricciardo.
Daniel Ricciardo was ecstatic with Red Bull's Thursday form in Monaco but expects Ferrari and Mercedes to close in Qualifying
Red Bull will be the first to admit, though hampered by engine power, that they didn’t deliver when it came to their chassis design last season, perhaps best demonstrated by Ferrari’s dominance at high-downforce tracks. But days like these go a long way to suggest the team have stepped it up in 2018.
The next challenge is a big one, and the team must show they can carry this form into qualifying. At the last two grands prix, Red Bull has had two cars in the top three in P2 – going on to then fail to qualify on the first two rows.
“I think come qualy, Ferrari and Mercedes will turn it up,” Ricciardo added. “I think it will tighten up by Saturday but all we could do today was try and top it and we did. It’s a good start.”
They must make this pace count.
Merc and Ferrari not as far away as timesheets suggest?
“With a rest day tomorrow, can Mercedes, can Ferrari do anything to catch Red Bull?” was the key question from Sky F1’s Ted Kravitz as the sport’s leading two teams were quite frankly blown away on the first day of practice.
But although both teams struggled with the balance of their cars – Lewis Hamilton claimed his W09 felt “terrible” in places – they refused to concede defeat just yet, and nor should they.
After all, Mercedes were more than half a second off the pace at this stage last year before nearly snatching pole, while Ferrari have stepped up from P2 to P3 all season.
As Sebastian Vettel said: “On Saturday it will be very close. I couldn’t pick a favourite yet. Red Bull look strong but they have looked strong on a couple of Fridays this season so we will see.”
Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen remain optimistic they can reel in Red Bull at the Monaco GP
And if, and it remains a big if, Red Bull remain untouchable through the rest of the weekend, the battle between Vettel and Hamilton could be intense. The two title rivals were less than a tenth apart on the timesheets in Practice Two.
While Hamilton admitted Mercedes had a lot of work to do to fight for victory, he insisted they were closer to their rivals than he expected.
“I didn’t finish my last sector and that was at least three tenths or so, so if you put that back in, we’re a lot closer than I anticipated,” said the championship leader.
Monaco 2018 makes record-breaking start
F1 statisticians have got used to rewriting the record books over the last 18 months thanks to the sport’s 2017 push to increase speeds and downforce in pursuit of the kind of seat-of-the-pants challenge now being presented to drivers on all types of circuit around the grand prix world.
And if any there is anywhere that the lowering of lap times is most visual – and significant – it’s Monaco. The tortuous street layout may have the slowest average speed of the season, but every extra mile an hour drivers can find round a corner matters when even small errors can be met by a crunching greeting with the barriers.
The pole position record tumbled last year and that 1:12.178 was bettered within 90 minutes of the 2018 cars taking to the famous street track on Thursday. Fast forward to the end of Practice Two and the new outright track record (albeit technically unofficial as it wasn’t set in a race) was down at 1:11.841 courtesy of Daniel Ricciardo’s flying Red Bull.
So just how hot will the pace get when it really matters in qualifying on Saturday? Last year, there was only a 0.6s improvement from P2 to Q3, while in 2016 it was far closer to one second. Something similar this time might just leave a magic 1:09 out of reach but with the new hypersoft tyre offering up so much grip and performance, this particular Monaco GP qualifying hour should be quite something.
McLaren may not be best of the rest
After revealing their ‘real’ 2018 car at the last race in Spain with several new aerodynamic features, this was McLaren’s chance to deliver on their pre-season promises that they had one of the strongest chassis on the grid and compare themselves next to their similarly Renault-powered rivals.
But not only were the Woking outfit more than a second off the Red Bulls, they were also behind a Renault in both sessions – with the manufacturer team looking to posses the fourth-quickest car this weekend.
Was Ayton Senna's 1988 Monaco Pole Lap the greatest in F1 history? Watch during our Qualifying coverage from 1pm Saturday on Sky Sports F1
McLaren certainly weren’t helped by the brake issues which plagued Fernando Alonso’s first session, with the Spaniard finishing 17th, and will hope Friday’s rest day gives them time to recover and tweak things for a crucial weekend.
Alonso finished fifth in a Honda-powered McLaren, and he’ll certainly take anything close to that this time around.
Stoffel Vandoorne did enjoy a positive day, however, out-pacing his double-Monaco-winning team-mate in P2.
The crown jewel in the F1 calendar returns and you can watch the Monaco GP on Sky Sports F1 this weekend, with Saturday and Sunday’s action also on Sky One. Get Sky Sports F1.