The most recent two F1 World Champions and McLaren-Mercedes team-mates Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button have warned that the discrepancy in lap times between the sport's fastest and slowest competitors could generate 'a nightmare' in qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix this weekend - and 'a disaster' in the race.

The topic of traffic around the tightest and most tortuous circuit on the calendar has been much-debated of late, with the notion of a split-qualifying session or a Q1 devoted entirely to the three new teams discussed and subsequently dismissed [see separate story - click here].

McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh has acknowledged that there will likely be 'controversy', with 'more cars and a greater performance differential between them this year...the drivers of the slower cars will presumably go round staring in their mirrors' [see separate story - click here].

The prospect of a number of big names falling at the first hurdle in qualifying in the Principality is far from beyond the realms of possibility, and from the back of the grid in Monte Carlo - where overtaking possibilities are famously at a premium - a long afternoon indeed tends to lie in store. What's more, the six-to-seven seconds a lap currently separating the likes of McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari from Lotus, Virgin and Hispania has raised safety concerns when all 24 cars are on-track at the same time in the grand prix.

Having had a close call himself with the Virgin machine of F1 rookie Lucas Di Grassi as he exited his pit-stop in last weekend's Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona - whilst duelling with Red Bull rival Vettel over second place - Hamilton lamented the 'terrible' and 'really dangerous' approach from the backmarkers.

"The backmarkers were really not doing a spectacular job," railed the 25-year-old, speaking to Reuters. "I don't know what the hell he (Di Grassi) was doing there. It wasn't very safe. I had to go left around him and Vettel was going right; it could have been a lot worse than it was. It's very difficult when there is such a big difference. I lapped Di Grassi four times in Spain - that's one of the biggest gaps I've had in Formula 1.

"When you approach a backmarker maybe twice in a race it's not such a big problem, but you catch them so quick, it's just unreal. When you see them you are second-guessing where they will move out of the way, and then they move into the wrong position. They'll go on the inside and be in the corner as you come up to them, so it gets quite tricky. So far, fortunately, there have been no incidents and it has been okay, but Monaco will be very tough. It could be a disaster."

"When they are fighting for 20th place, they don't want to let you past," concurred compatriot, title-winning successor and fellow Monaco Grand Prix-winner Button, who opined that traffic this weekend will likely 'be a nightmare' as he 'didn't think the backmarkers did a very good job in Spain'. "They are so much slower than us, and if you are behind them for four or five corners you have lost seconds. I know they want to race, but the important thing is that they let us past."

Both men, however, insisted they remain in positive spirits ahead of the sixth race of the season, having triumphed there in the past - Button last year and Hamilton twelve months previously - and with the latter in particular having split the pace-setting Red Bulls around the Circuit de Catalunya prior to his penultimate lap wheel rim failure and tyre blow-out, hopes of adding to McLaren's stellar record of 16 victories in the sport's most glamorous race of all are high.

"I love the Monaco circuit," enthused the Stevenage-born ace. "It's the greatest track in Formula 1. My victory there in 2008 is still probably my best win in Formula 1, and one of the greatest moments in my career. It was an incredible day. In 2008 it was wet and, looking at the weekend ahead, the weather also looks extremely unpredictable, with heavy rain forecast for much of it. Even if it doesn't rain on Sunday, the possibility of heavily disrupted practice and qualifying sessions means that we'll probably go into the race with a chance of one of the most exciting and unpredictable Monaco Grands Prix for many years.

"That would be fantastic because, with just a single stop in the race for tyres, there's going to be less opportunity for strategy to play a role in deciding the outcome, unless it rains of course. That means qualifying will be more important than ever; while we're still working hard to improve our qualifying pace, I think Monaco is a place where the input of the driver is more important than at any other track, so I'm pretty confident we'll be able to do a good job. In addition, I'll also be wearing a specially-painted helmet for the occasion. When you see it, you'll know why I'll be hoping for it to swing the odds in my favour!"

"We have a strong car, and there's no reason why we shouldn't be challenging the Red Bull, even though they generally have more downforce than us. I feel I did a very good job [in Spain], considering we didn't have the fastest car. To be as consistent as I was - I didn't make any mistakes - I'm really very happy with my performance. Even though you didn't see me overtaking and stuff, I feel it was one of my best performances just because I feel I improved. I didn't have any problems; I was really well-controlled."

"I won in Monaco last year," added Button, who calls the event his second 'home' race due to his residency there. "It was one of the highlights of my season, and also of my entire racing career. It's a race that you grow up watching; you know the circuit, every corner, by heart before you've ever driven there, so it's an extremely special place. It's a race every young driver dreams of winning.

"Even though I've been racing there for many years, the sensation of speed you experience when you first drive a Formula 1 car out of the pits and up the hill is something that you can never fully anticipate. The acceleration is incredible, and the walls are so, so close.

"To get the best out of the weekend, you've really got to build your speed up gradually - there are no benefits from attacking from lap one and risking a mistake. The track rubbers in incredibly quickly over the weekend, and it's all about letting the car naturally find more speed through the corners as the conditions improve and your confidence increases.

"I love the place, and I'm really looking forward to getting back there. I think the result is extremely tough to call this year because there are a lot of very competitive drivers in the field, so I'd like to think there's a good chance of a slightly unpredictable race this weekend. Sebastian [Vettel] got beaten by Fernando [Alonso] in Spain and had a problem, which shows [Red Bull] make mistakes when it should have been a straightforward one-two. We should not be too disheartened going there. They are not as quick in the race as they are in qualifying, so it is not horrendous. Red Bull won't have such an edge as they had here."

Whitmarsh, meanwhile, pointed to the Woking-based outfit's 'exemplary' record around the streets of Monte Carlo - with no fewer than 15 triumphs in the last two-and-a-half decades, including a six-year lock-out between 1988 and 1993 - as evidence that the team and its two drivers will both be contenders for glory once again this time around.

"It's a race where we love to compete and where we have produced some fantastic performances over the years," the Englishman underlined. "For 2010, we are under no illusions that it will be a challenge to add to our tally; we have not typically been able to demonstrate our ultimate pace in qualifying, and the MP4-25 is not a car that we feel is best-suited to slower, tighter tracks with short, slow-speed corners.

"Having said that, I know full well that the team always seems to produce something special for the race and, in Jenson and Lewis, we not only have two street circuit specialists, but also the last two Monaco Grand Prix winners, which is a very significant string to our bow. I know that both Jenson and Lewis are looking to win in Monaco, and both feel very confident about their chances. It would be a fantastic achievement for Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes if we were able to score a third victory in Monaco in just the fourth year of our partnership."

Comments

Join the conversation - Add your comment

Please login or register to add your comment