F1 Monaco GP preview: Polesitter Leclerc looks to break a curse, Piastri hunts his maiden win


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MONACO — The cheers echoed for Charles Leclerc after the home Formula One hero secured pole position for Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix.

It’s not the first time that Leclerc will start P1 for his home race, having previously scored pole in 2021 and 2022, but the win has so far eluded him. Throughout his career, he’s been rather unlucky when competing at Monaco, and the big question heading into Sunday is whether he can break his home race ‘curse.’

Lining up alongside Leclerc will be McLaren’s Oscar Piastri, who split the Ferrari drivers during qualifying. He finished within two-tenths of a second of Leclerc’s pole lap, Turns 5 and 10 being struggle points for the Australian driver. He’s experienced a recent bout of bad luck, including an Imola penalty that dropped him from a provisional front row start, but has been knocking on the door for his first win.

Many say the Monaco Grand Prix is a procession, failing to deliver a thrilling product compared to qualifying. But with Max Verstappen lining up P6 after struggling to get his car into a happy place right throughout the Monaco weekend, this could lead to a different kind of race than fans are used to in the recent era of Red Bull domination.

Here are the storylines we’re keeping an eye on heading into the Monaco Grand Prix, a jewel in F1’s crown.

Can Leclerc finally break his Monaco curse?

The pressure is mounting as the F1 paddock readies for race day.

Leclerc’s Monaco bad luck is a theme that’s captivated people around the sport for years. He retired from both 2017 Formula Two races because of car issues, as well as from his first home F1 race the following year due to a brake failure that caused him to crash.

A team strategy mistake in qualifying foiled his chance at fighting for a win in 2019, and when F1 returned to Monaco in 2021, he secured a shock pole position but crashed on the final lap of qualifying, causing damage to his car that ultimately kept Leclerc from starting the race. In 2022, Ferrari made another strategy error, causing Leclerc to go from first to fourth, and last year he received an impeding penalty during qualifying after struggling for pace throughout the weekend.

Could this year be the year? His early pace has been eye-catching, as has his commitment going through the corners of the streets where he grew up. Verstappen said after Friday’s running that Leclerc was “miles ahead” of the field, making his charge to pole position hardly a surprise.

But it hasn’t been a completely smooth weekend for Leclerc. “It’s been a rollercoaster,” Leclerc said. “The weekend has been incredible, until after FP3 when there was an issue with my engine and there was an engine swap at the very last minute which was quite tricky. But fortunately for me, there weren’t any consequences on my weekend.”

Qualifying wasn’t easy either, despite the end result. An advertising banner hit his car in Q1, slowing down his time and forcing another run to improve. “We take off the sponsor banner from the front wing, we went again, so that was already quite tricky, because in qualifying in Monaco, you just want to be out and just do normal laps,” he said. In Q2, Leclerc struggled with the car’s balance, but come the final session, a few setup tweaks helped him find his groove again.

Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz, who is set to line up P3, said, “The priority will be to win with Charles tomorrow.” But that would mean that Leclerc will need to hold off any bad luck — and his “adopted” brother, Piastri.

After a night of sleep, we will see if Leclerc’s bad luck curse lives on or is finally beaten.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

More Monaco misery for Charles Leclerc sums up Ferrari’s season so far

‘Stuck’ Verstappen faces a tough race from sixth

Verstappen was always uneasy about Red Bull’s chances in Monaco, given the nature of the layout and the slow-speed corner weakness of the RB20 car. Despite some glimmers through practice and qualifying that he could get in the mix at the front, he ended up a distant sixth after a rare mistake at Sainte Devote scuppered his final Q3 lap.

It puts Verstappen in a tough spot on Sunday. Unlike points last year where the pace advantage of the Red Bull was so great that he could simply scythe through the field, getting the better of the McLarens and the Ferraris over a race distance is a big ask. Greater than that is the fact it’s Monaco of all places. Verstappen isn’t a fan of street layouts, and he’s hardly likely to fall much more in love with Monaco on Sunday from this starting spot.

“This is the worst case scenario at this kind of track,” Verstappen said.

The bumps and curbs of Singapore hit Red Bull’s weak point last year, and the same has been true thus far in Monaco. Verstappen admitted on Friday that he was struggling with the ride of his car, and despite the best efforts to make changes overnight, nothing was remedied in time for qualifying.

“Literally nothing made it better,” Verstappen said, remarking his car felt like a go-kart running without a suspension. “Then you’re just stuck, there’s nothing you can do. You can see it in the second sector, we are so bad, just because I can’t touch any curbs because it just upsets the car way too much. You just lose a lot of lap time. It’s incredibly difficult.”

It leaves the Dutchman needing to tap into his pragmatic mentality of simply grabbing the points that are on offer, instead of trying to overdrive and bid to make up for the poor qualifying result. A lot would need to fall his way if he is to get into contention for victory.

“We won’t give up,” Verstappen said. “When there’s an opportunity to do something, we’ll try.”

McLaren's Australian driver Oscar Piastri competes during the qualifying session of the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix on May 25 2024 at the Circuit de Monaco, on the eve of the race. (Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / AFP) (Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images)


Piastri will start on the front row in Monaco as he bids for his maiden F1 win. (ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images)

Piastri’s front row is proof of his impressive recent form

While so much of the attention and focus has been on Lando Norris following his maiden victory in Miami and late pursuit of Verstappen at Imola, the other McLaren driver has been putting in some under-the-radar performances.

Piastri was running second in Miami before the safety car shuffled him back, and contact with Sainz ruined his race. He would have started on the front row at Imola had it not been for an impeding penalty that dropped him back to fifth, compromising his race.

Monaco gives Piastri the chance to turn the tide on these recent setbacks. He’s been on the pace right the way from first practice, visibly pushing to the very limit in a way that perhaps only Leclerc surpassed around the tight confines of the Monaco layout — a little too much in Q2 when he hit the wall “pretty hard” but avoided damage.

Piastri admitted that his final lap in Q3 wasn’t the cleanest, potentially costing him the time that would’ve got him a step closer to Leclerc than the 0.154s gap. However, lining up second still puts him in a position to achieve a significant result.

A maiden win will be a big ask, given the difficulty of overtaking at the front. “The run to Turn 1 is always your best chance,” Piastri said. “The strategy, you can try something. Unless there’s a massive pace difference, which I’m pretty sure there won’t be, then overtaking is impossible here. It’ll be won or lost in the pits, probably. We’ll make sure we have a good day.”

Even P2 would be a good haul of points for Piastri, but he’s more focused on ensuring his best performance. “If I can leave this weekend thinking I’ve done nothing more or not been able to do anything more, that would mean more to me,” Piastri said.

McLaren’s pace is here and here to stay, it seems. Piastri now has the chance to lead its efforts for the first time this season, being its best chance of silverware on Sunday.

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 25: Pierre Gasly of France driving the (10) Alpine F1 A524 Renault on track during final practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Monaco at Circuit de Monaco on May 25, 2024 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)


Pierre Gasly earned his first Q3 appearance of the year in Monte Carlo. (Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

Williams, Alpine sniff precious points after Gasly and Albon star

It’s a tough time for Williams, Haas, Alpine and Sauber. Given the pace of the five leading F1 teams and the steps taken by RB in recent weeks, snatching midfield points is becoming an increasingly tough proposition.

Yet some qualifying heroics from Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon have got both Williams and Alpine into the mix for a potential score in Monaco, which could lead to millions more in prize money at the end of the season.

Monaco hasn’t been a good track for Williams in recent years, given its focus on straight-line speed — you have to go back to 2017 for the last time it scored points in the principality. The more well-rounded design philosophy of this year’s car meant Monaco had the potential to be a little better than usual, especially as it is less punishing on overweight chassis like the Williams.

Albon delivered on that through qualifying, squeezing through to Q3 before delivering a competitive final lap at the end of the session to secure ninth on the grid, only a tenth shy of Yuki Tsunoda in the RB. It has put Williams in a great place to score its first points of the year.

“Last year we had such bad graining, it was still easy for other cars to overtake us,” Albon said, not getting his hopes too high after suffering from graining through FP2. “What I’m hoping is that the quick guys will clear it off and give me some clean air to look after the tires.”

Another driver who’ll likely favor a defensive race is Gasly, who also hasn’t scored a point this year for Alpine. His frustration has been evident, but Gasly’s fortunes took an upswing in Monaco after a brilliant lap in Q2 put him P5, sending him through to Q3 for the first time this season and sparking huge cheers on the radio. From 10th on the grid, a breakthrough score is definitely possible.

“You can’t really take Monaco as a turning point because it’s such a different track, but you take everything you can take in a season,” Gasly told Sky Sports F1 after qualifying. “It’s a moment that can hopefully create a dynamic where we’ve managed to keep building on and find more performance.”

Can Monaco actually provide a good race?

Qualifying in Monaco is one of the most exciting sessions of the entire F1 season. Given the challenge of overtaking, it is also one of the most decisive.

F1 fans could be in for a treat, given the lineup. Verstappen splits the Mercedes drivers and will line up sixth. Yuki Tsunoda, Albon and Gasly all qualified in the top 10, meaning some lower teams can secure critical points. (Albon and Gasly have zero points this season). And with Leclerc and Piastri on the front row, it could be a matter of a first home win or a first F1 win, depending on who takes the checkered flag, assuming both can stay in their positions and within reach of each other.

But what makes Monaco so wonderful is also what historically has spoiled a dry grand prix: the track. The street circuit is rather tight, requiring pinpoint accuracy from the drivers. But it also means overtaking is extremely rare, especially when accounting for how heavy and large the modern cars are. If there’s no rain like the 2023 edition, it could be a processional race with few overtakes.

It depends on how you define a ‘good race,’ and whether you place more value on overtaking or the tension of a close fight for victory.

(Lead image of Charles Leclerc and Oscar Piastri: Rudy Carezzevoli, Mark Thompson via Getty Images)





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