Monaco GP unpredictability offers best chance yet of end to Red Bull supremacy

The crown jewel. That’s the accompanying slogan alongside the Monaco Grand Prix: a Formula 1 staple-event identified with the sort-of glitz and glamour we saw last time out in Miami. And will see again in Las Vegas in November. F1’s obsession with the US has given the principality a direct rival or two stateside, to the extent that its long-term viability in the sport if far from a certainty, given the difficulty of overtaking at the track.

But that’s for another day. For now, the famed twists and turns on the shores of the French Riviera still offer the most unique of challenges for the 20 drivers as they return to action for the first time in three weeks. And that distinctiveness should, in theory, give Red Bull their toughest task yet in 2023.

Christian Horner’s team have won all five races so far this season; six if you include the sprint in Azerbaijan. At a canter, too. Yet for a car which reigns supreme on long-straights and in high-speed corners comes a track with few long-straights and a series of low-speed corners.

As such, opportunity arises for Ferrari, Aston Martin and Mercedes. And judging by practice on Friday – ahead of the critical and often finalistic nature of Monaco qualifying on Saturday – Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez will face opposition stauncher than in the opening months of the season.

The opening hour of first practice very much gave room for optimism: no Red Bull car was in the top-three, as Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz topped the timesheets.

The Spaniard, team-mate to hometown hero Charles Leclerc, is quick around Monaco but rather ruined his day with a crash at the swimming pool chicane in the closing stages of second practice.

“We’ve been in better in qualifying than in race-pace,” said Sainz.

“A couple of strong years in Monaco. I want to be optimistic and feel as though we have the chance to win.”

Leclerc, who has never finished on the podium at his home race, has been on pole the last two years – and will always back himself to put himself on top over one lap. He too looked rapid on Friday.

But the dark horse, unquestionably, is a pole position for Fernando Alonso on Saturday. The Spaniard has been talking up his hopes of winning in Monaco, now more than 10 years since his last F1 victory in Barcelona. He was second-fastest in his pacey Aston Martin in FP1; fourth in FP2.

A mixed day, meanwhile, for world championship leader Verstappen. His first hour of running saw the Dutchman dogged with balance issues; complaints aplenty over team radio.

Max Verstappen was quickest in second practice but did struggle earlier

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He was only sixth fastest, but brought it back to top the leaderboard during the second practice qualifying simulations as the sun set. His team-mate and rival Sergio Perez, 14 points behind in the standings, could only manage seventh.

And what about Mercedes? New sidepods – with the strange-looking ‘no-sidepod’ design finally ditched – on the car, alongside a new front suspension and floor. While the true impact won’t be properly felt until Spain next week, it seemed generally more of the same for the time being.

Lewis Hamilton adapted better, third-quickest in first practice, while George Russell failed to finish in the top-10 in either session.

Pole may be beyond the Silver Arrows. Excitement will be palpable, however, at Ferrari and Aston, eager to take the fight to Red Bull for a pivotal qualifying session come Saturday afternoon.

Rain forecast on Sunday, too, could spice up what is quite-often a bog-standard grand prix, with overtaking near impossible.

What can Lewis Hamilton do in a new-look Mercedes this weekend?

(Getty Images)

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