F1 Preview: 2017 Monaco Grand Prix

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As racing weekends go, few come bigger than the one we are about to embark on.

Between the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race, the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 and Formula 1’s annual crown jewel event, the Monaco Grand Prix, there is no shortage of motorsport action.

The debate regarding which of the three is the biggest and best could rage on endlessly, but there can be little doubt that Monaco is the most glamorous.

As the 20-strong grid dart their ways around the tight confines of the principality’s streets, the rich and famous will watch on. This weekend, if you live for the limelight, there is no better place to be seen than Monaco.

But it is F1’s biggest stars who will shine brightest on Sunday. Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton’s burgeoning rivalry was once again on display last time out in Spain as they went wheel-to-wheel for victory, with the latter emerging victorious.

Both drivers know what it takes to win in Monaco – but who will come out on top this weekend? Here are the key talking points ahead of Sunday’s grand prix.

2017 Monaco Grand Prix – Talking Points

Vettel, Hamilton ready to serve up a classic

The Monaco Grand Prix may be the most iconic race on the F1 calendar, yet it is hardly renowned for being conducive to wheel-to-wheel fights given the narrow nature of the city streets (more on that later).

However, racing isn’t all about overtaking. Many of the most iconic battles in Monaco have seen two drivers shoot clear of the pack and run nose-to-tail for much of the race, with last year’s thrilling fight between Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo being the most recent.

Given the tiny margin separating Ferrari and Mercedes in the early part of the year, we could be poised for another classic between Vettel and Hamilton – one that could even be defining in their championship battle.

Vettel out to end Ferrari’s Monaco hoodoo

Ferrari may have been one of the most dominant teams in F1 since the turn of the millennium, yet Monaco has been among its weakest circuits.

Not since 2001 has the Prancing Horse trotted to the top step of the podium in Monaco with Michael Schumacher, with the likes of Rubens Barrichello, Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and, since 2015, Vettel, all failing to win the race.

2017 presents Ferrari’s best chance of a Monaco win in a long time. With Mercedes running a longer wheelbase, the SF70H may be the car to beat. Vettel will be leading Maranello’s charge once again, and if 2005 Monaco winner Raikkonen can play a decent rear gunner, Ferrari may be able to hark back to its past success.

JB’s back!

While Fernando Alonso may be hogging the limelight over in Indianapolis ahead of this weekend’s ‘500, Jenson Button is currently getting used to life back in the F1 paddock as he prepares for a one-off appearance in Monaco.

Button seemed to have retired from F1 at the end of last year, and has been enjoying much of his free time in America with his girlfriend and preparing for triathlons, only for Alonso’s shock deal to put the wheels in motion for a return.

Monaco appears to be McLaren’s best chance of points in the early part of the season, with the deficiences stemming from the Honda power unit being masked somewhat. So while there is an opportunity for Button, his lack of testing – his first lap in the MCL32 will be tomorrow in practice – means we should not expect the world.

Nevertheless, much as Alonso’s Indy adventure has been a good news story for McLaren, so is bringing back the ever-popular JB.

How will 2017’s wider cars cope in Monaco?

This is the question that was on everyone’s mind when the dimensions of the new-for-2017 cars were announced. They certainly are quicker and look much meaner, but they’re also much bulkier – and on a track like Monaco where space is already hard to come by, it could make it a very tight squeeze indeed.

“It’s always tight around this track even now I think because it’s 20cm wider, the car. It doesn’t sound much but when you put all the cars together and on a tight circuit you see it and notice it more,” Daniel Ricciardo explained in Wednesday’s press conference.

“So qualify well! It’s going to help” – sage advice indeed, now more than ever…

Opportunity knocks for midfield runners

The battle through F1’s midfield has been one of the closest in recent memory so far this season, with the updates that Force India, Williams, Toro Rosso, Haas and Renault brought to Barcelona only acting to tighten things up further.

Monaco is a race where opportunities can present themselves. The likes of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull have been out of reach thus far in 2017, yet a tiny error or a fortuitous strategy call that leads to track position could turn all of that on its head.

Force India currently leads the pecking order on points, although Sergio Perez insists the team still doesn’t have a faster car than Williams – the Mexican finished on the podium here last year, and a repeat is not unthinkable, regardless of his assertion.

2017 Monaco Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Circuit de Monaco
Corners: 19
Lap Record: Lewis Hamilton 1:17.939 (2016)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) 1:13.622
2016 Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:17.939
DRS Zone: T19 to T1

2017 Monaco Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times

Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.