MONACO, Monaco, May 24 – Lewis Hamilton has hailed his mourning Mercedes team and says the performances of the car itself are ‘fantastic’ ahead of qualifying on Saturday for Sunday’s 77th Monaco Grand Prix.
The defending five-time world champion and his Silver Arrows team-mate Valtteri Bottas were seven-tenths of a second clear of third-placed Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari after Thursday’s opening sessions.
“I’m surprised,” he said. “I don’t know where all the time has come from — I don’t know if Max (Verstappen) maybe didn’t get in a time or what, but the performance we have here is fantastic.
“We’re constantly improving this car and understanding it and understanding the tyre. I guess that’s why you’re seeing the performance advantage we have.”
A similar performance in Saturday’s qualifying session would give the team a near-perfect opportunity to extend their triumphant season-opening run to six one-two finishes.
On an overcast morning on the traditional rest day at the classic ‘blue riband’ event, celebrating the 90th anniversary of its inaugural run in 1929, the paddock was busy as teams prepared for possible mixed weather conditions for Saturday’s critical qualifying.
Hamilton, a formidable street track racer, is aiming for a third Monaco win to boost his lead in the drivers’ championship in which he has 112 points, seven more than team-mate Bottas on 105.
– Respect for Lauda –
In the week of Niki Lauda’s death Merecedes want to honour the memory of their late non-executive chairman with a notable win.
Hamilton, who withdrew from Wednesday’s pre-race news briefing because he felt too emotional to attend, stayed focussed on his driving after Thursday’s sessions.
His team’s chief race engineer Andrew Shovlin added a note of caution when he warned of concerns about how long it was taking for their cars to warm up their soft tyres for qualifying laps.
“Our number one concern is getting the soft tyre to work on the first lap,” he explained. “Our headline times were good, but it took us a lot of laps to get there and qualifying is so important at this track.”
He added that the team’s reserve driver Esteban Ocon was working in a simulator to assist in finding a solution.
“Monaco is unusual in that we have an extra day between the practice sessions so it gives us more time to look at data and understand the issues.”
Hamilton added that, contrary to expectations, it was not always a pleasure to speed around Monte Carlo.
“Every year, it gets faster — and it’s that much faster you notice it when you’re going past the barriers and touching them…
“But, honestly, I wouldn’t say it’s fun. It’s incredibly intense. You have to be so focused, just the smallest mistake… When you look into Tabac, for example, the speed you’re going towards that corner… and it’s just a wall in front of you. Going up the hill to Casino it’s the same thing.
“So it’s no joke and whilst it’s definitely always a great thing to drive the car, it’s just so intense…”
He warned, too, that Sunday’s race is unlikely to be great entertainment because it is so difficult to overtake.
“Unfortunately it’s not a great racing track, but it’s a great track to drive single laps on,” said Hamilton. “We’re just doing a long stint, where it’s a one-stop for everyone – most likely a train. We know already that’s going to be the case.”