Defending Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton has admitted that he is having to steel himself for 'a new experience' as he gets set to begin the Monaco Grand Prix today from last place on the starting grid – having not finished any lower than second in his two previous appearances in the so-called 'jewel in the crown'.
The McLaren-Mercedes star has always excelled around street circuits, taking the chequered flag a frustrated runner-up to then team-mate Fernando Alonso under 'team instruction' back in 2007 and recovering from an early puncture after brushing the wall to master the tricky conditions to absolute perfection for one of the finest of his nine victories in the top flight to-date in the glamorous Principality twelve months on, the Woking-based outfit's 15th triumph in Monte Carlo – six more than any other team in F1 history.
With the narrow, tortuous layout expected to suit the MP4-24's attributes considerably better than did the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona a fortnight ago – where Hamilton toiled around to a lowly ninth place at the close in a car patently ill-at-ease with the track's high-speed nature – the 24-year-old was tipped to be a top five challenger in qualifying, if not better still, but his challenge would be swiftly undone.
With eight minutes of Q1 remaining and having just set the fastest first sector time of anyone, the Stevenage-born ace locked up on the way into Mirabeau, causing the back end of his McLaren to step out and strike the barrier going through the corner, breaking his rear suspension in the process and instantly bringing out the red flags. His first error of the weekend, it was the worst possible time for it to have been committed.
A subsequent gearbox change has relegated the Briton even further down the grid to 20th and last position – for the first time in his F1 career – marking the latest blow in a 2009 campaign that is rapidly degenerating into a nightmare, with the MP4-24's chronic lack of competitiveness, the departure of his long-time mentor Ron Dennis and the damaging Melbourne 'lies' scandal at one stage even forcing him to reconsider his future in the sport.
Thirty-two points adrift of compatriot and Brawn GP world championship Jenson Button leader he may be, but with the spring back in his step around a circuit he enjoys like no other this weekend, in characteristic fashion Hamilton is refusing to throw in the towel. McLaren may not have a title-challenging car at the moment, he acknowledges, but they will get there.
“What can I say? I made a mistake and I hit the wall,” he is quoted as having rued by The Associated Press
after his qualifying lapse. “We have a tough race [ahead], and I'm just going to have to try and do the best I can.
“It will be a new experience for me. I'll just try to stay out of trouble if I can and bring the car home in one piece. This track's known for not being able to overtake, but we have KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems), so hopefully that will help us.
“It feels great to be back here – the weather is perfect, the whole place looks great and as everyone knows this is my favourite track. The sensation you get from racing up the hill at 175mph, trying to make as straight a line as possible between the barriers while just shaving them with the walls of the tyres, is unbelievable. For me, it is the best sensation you could ever have in a Formula 1 car.