Who will be the master of Monaco?

The Monaco GP: The race all the drivers want to win above all others.

Formula 1’s annual trip to the legendary streets of the Principality marks the high point of the motorsport year.

It is the world’s most famous motor race, the jewel in the crown on the F1 calendar, and Formula 1’s premier event.

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The racing may not always live up to that reputation – the Monte Carlo streets are as mean on overtaking as they are a mistake – but mastering Monaco for 78 relentless, pressure-filled, unforgiving laps still represents the ultimate challenge for any driver.

“Monaco, it’s such a dream to drive here,” said Lewis Hamilton.

“It’s a shame that we only have one race here, because it’s that spectacular to drive. But it’s very intense. You have to be more diligent then your perhaps have to be anywhere else. It’s the most technical and mentally challenging circuit of the whole season. There’s also the heightened aspect of just wanting to shine at a track like this.”

This year’s Monaco weekend has also provided another element of fascination: the superiority of the Red Bull car, revelling in the low-speed corners which characterise the circuit, at the expense of Ferrari and Mercedes.

Daniel Ricciardo, fastest in every session so far this weekend, will start on pole and looked unbeatable in qualifying.

“Even with a perfect lap we couldn’t catch Daniel today,” accepted Hamilton, who will start third behind Ricciardo and title rival Sebastian Vettel. “Red Bull just had a little bit more performance.”

Can the two titans of F1 hit back in this afternoon’s race or will Ricciardo become a new master of Monaco?

Will 2018 deliver Ricciardo’s overdue Monaco win?
Ricciardo has unfinished position in Monaco. Two years ago, he was on course for victory after the first pole of his F1 career before a botched pit-stop allowed Hamilton through. But if Monaco owes him a win, it’s his faultless form this weekend which is earning redemption.

The Australian has surely never driven better. The 27-year-old has been quickest in every practice session before topping every segment of qualifying to secure a deserved pole position with a new track record.

As Vettel graciously admitted, Ricciardo “owned” qualifying. In theory, he should own the race too. But Vettel had a nice line about that too: “It’s nearly impossible to overtake, we know that, but it’s still one of the most fascinating races because things can happen. It doesn’t mean that they do happen but they can.”

Ricciardo only needs to recall 2016 to know that’s true.

Max Verstappen crashes out of Practice Three of the Monaco GP.

Verstappen’s tough times continue
Ricciardo had two unexpected callers after qualifying. The first was Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz congratulating him on his pole. The second was Verstappen to Ricciardo’s room in the Red Bull motorhome to offer his own private congratulations.

It was a noble gesture from a young man in the midst of the first ‘mini crisis’ of his career.

Verstappen’s crash was his sixth ‘incident’ in as many races this season. Having shunned the TV cameras immediately after qualifying, Verstappen spoke well in his media briefing, admitting his mistake and offering no excuses.

But the frequency of his problems this season begs the question of whether he is learning from his errors. Is this merely part of the learning curve every young driver – we shouldn’t forget Verstappen is still only 20 – has to experience? Or is time for the Red Bull driver to cool his approach?

“There is no more brutal lesson than what he has just had,” offered Christian Horner, the Red Bull chief.

In time, 2018 may prove the making of Verstappen. Right now, however, it’s battering his reputation as the undisputed future champion of Formula 1.

Will the undercut or the overcut be more effective?
This weekend has already entered the record books as the fastest Monaco GP in its 76th-race history, the introduction of Pirelli’s new hypersofts, resurfacing to the track, and the intense fight at the front combining to smash the lap record.

Going into the race, the key strategic question looks to be how long the hypersoft will last – Hamilton has predicted just six or seven laps – and what sort of degradation the field will suffer in the later stages of the race if they seek to run an ultra-long second stint to the chequered flag.

“It will be interesting to see who grains the first,” mused Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas.

How to follow the Monaco GP on Sky F1 Sunday May 27 Sky F1 digital live blog 12.30pm: Pit Lane LIVE 1.30pm: On the Grid LIVE! 2.10pm: The Monaco GP LIVE!

That question will be vexing Ferrari in particular after they suffered acute degradation two weeks ago in Barcelona, resulting in Vettel tumbling down the order.

More than ever, track position will be critical in this afternoon’s race, so any driver forced on to a two-stop strategy can expect to suffer a stiff penalty.

The dilemma for the strategists, meanwhile, will be when to take the first pit-stop. Twelve months ago, the lack of degradation meant that Sebastian Vettel, running for five laps longer than his team-mate, was able to ‘overcut’ Kimi Raikkonen for victory, while Daniel Ricciardo employed a similar strategy to jump from fifth to third.

“Honestly, starting with the hypersoft it will difficult to do one stop,” remarked Bottas.

The Mercedes pitwall better hope he is wrong.

McLaren surprise with a season best
After the hype which greeted their new upgrades in Barcelona two weeks ago, it is Monaco which has delivered McLaren’s best qualifying result of the season so far after Fernando Alonso grabbed seventh – one place better than two weeks ago, albeit with a nod of acknowledgment that Verstappen’s absence aided the cause.

After struggling in practice, Alonso, who missed Monaco last year to compete in the Indy 500, surprised himself by reaching the top ten in qualifying. It’s fair to assume he surpassed the car too.

The Spaniard said he was “happy and proud” with the result, crediting set-up changes to the car for the sudden leap in performance. But the result also underlined what a loss Alonso would be to McLaren if the two-time world champion calls it quits on his years of F1 frustration at the end of the season.

Team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne had an unfortunate day. The Belgian looked comfortable in practice but then suffered a gearbox glitch at the end of Practice Three which couldn’t be fixed between sessions but “completely changed the balance of the car” for qualifying. “It cost quite a lot of lap time,” added Stoffel.

It was costly too in a wider sense: Vandoorne now trails Alonso 6-0 in qualifying this year, a statistic which McLaren must regard with some unease.

The crown jewel in the F1 calendar returns and you can watch the Monaco GP on Sky Sports F1 and Sky One this weekend. Get Sky Sports F1.

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