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F1 Preview: 2018 Monaco Grand Prix

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The Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend continues its traditional place on the motorsports calendar as perhaps the biggest weekend of the year, with three marquee events all happening on the same day.

The Coca Cola 600, the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500, and the Monaco Grand Prix are all crown jewel events in their respective series, and things kickoff in the principality on Sunday morning.

Monaco, the “Grandest Grand Prix of all,” is exactly that…grand. Lined with multi-million-dollar yachts, over-the-top luxurious buildings, and a who’s who of the rich and famous, and it’s hard to imagine an event with more glitz and glamor.

But don’t be too distracted by the spectacle – there is a race to be run, and a pivotal one at that.

A Monaco victory is considered to be one third of the international racing “triple crown” – joined by the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As such, winning this race carries the most weight of any Formula 1 Grand Prix, and a victory here can help make a driver’s career.

Key talking points are below.

Get Hyped…for Hypersofts

Pirelli’s newest compound, the hypersoft tires, make their race debut this weekend in Monaco.

Teams have already sampled the hypersoft tires at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, both during pre-season testing and during a two-day test there following the Spanish Grand Prix.

All F1 teams have loaded up on the pink-sidewall tires, meaning they will be the tire to have all weekend long. Expect lap records to be obliterated this weekend.

Ferrari Looks to Rebound from Spanish Grand Prix Drubbing

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MAY 13: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya on May 13, 2018 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

At the Spanish Grand Prix, for the first time all year, Ferrari was genuinely outpaced by Mercedes. In fact, Ferrari was thoroughly outpaced by Mercedes, with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas qualifying 1-2 and then cruising to a 1-2 in the race.

Sebastian Vettel meanwhile, was left in fourth when a decision to pit for new tires under a Safety Car allowed Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen up into third, and Vettel was never able to get back around. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen, in the sister SF71H, retired after 25 laps with a turbo problem.

Last year, Ferrari swept the Monaco front row, with Raikkonen on pole, while Vettel emerged as the race winner, ahead of Raikkonen in what was a 1-2 for Ferrari.

The Monaco track will well be better suited to the Ferrari design, so expect them to bounce back with vigor this weekend.

Red Bull Racing a Genuine Threat for Victory?

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MAY 13: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB14 TAG Heuer leads Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB14 TAG Heuer on track during the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya on May 13, 2018 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

On pace, Red Bull is somewhat down to Ferrari and Mercedes. But, their strength is in slow-speed corners. And with slow-speed corners in abundance around the principality of Monaco, Red Bull could be a legitimate threat on pace.

“There are mainly a lot of slow speed corners in Monaco. This last sector has been really good for us (in Barcelona), so I expect a good weekend in Monaco if we can find the right set up,” said Max Verstappen in a story posted on Crash.net.

Verstappen added, “Looking at the last sector (in Barcelona) and then looking at Monaco with the type of corners there, I think we have a very good chance, yes.”

Red Bull has triumphed before at Monaco, taking three straight wins between 2010 and 2012 with Mark Webber (2010 and 2012) and Sebastian Vettel (2011). And, a 2016 victory with Daniel Ricciardo appeared to be for the taking before a pitstop error gave the advantage to Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton.

Don’t be surprised if either Verstappen or Ricciardo has the speed to fight for a victory.

Welcome Back Alonso!

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MAY 11: Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren F1 walks in the Paddock after practice for the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya on May 11, 2018 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Fernando Alonso returns to Monaco after a year’s absence due to his appearance in the 2017 Indianapolis 500.

His Renault-powered 2018 McLaren MCL33 appears to be a much sharper tool than last year’s Honda-powered MCL32, but that doesn’t mean Alonso enters the weekend expecting big results.

Indeed, the McLaren package is still only good enough to be a mid-field contender, albeit at the sharp end of the mid-field as Alonso has three finishes of seventh, one finish of fifth, and one finish of eighth in five races so far, meaning he has scored points in every outing.

Of course, Monaco’s infamous nature as a tough track to make passes on means qualifying will be at a premium, and that has been one of the McLaren’s pitfalls in 2018 – it was not until the last race in Spain that Alonso broke into Q3 for the first time all year.

However, McLaren brought a slew of updates to the MCL33 in Spain, and Alonso hopes the improved form will carry over into Monaco.

“Monaco is one of those tracks that tends to level the playing field a little and it’s a bit like throwing a dice,” he detailed in a piece on Crash.net. “As we saw in Spain, even if you qualify well it doesn’t mean you won’t fall victim to drama which can change things around.”

Alonso finished, “So, we need to maximize everything on Saturday, and then fight hard on Sunday to earn as many points as possible.”

The weekend schedule in Monaco is slightly different from a usual weekend. Practice opens on Thursday, not Friday – Friday is actually an off day for the team. But, Saturday and Sunday get back to the usual routine.

Qualifying rolls off 8:55 a.m. ET on Saturday 5/26, with Sunday’s race rolling off at 9:00 a.m. ET.

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F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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