Red Bulls take wings again as Hamilton prepares for major test

Lewis Hamilton heads into this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix knowing he has to perform a perfect balancing act between aggression and tact to keep alive his title defence on the unforgiving barrier-lined streets of Monte Carlo where Pirelli have introduced ‘ultra-soft’ tyres for the first time.

He needs aggression to combat the elan and speed of his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, who leads him by 43 points in the title race, and he needs tact to keep relations with the German, and the team, harmonious as they engage in what is expected to be a furious duel for glory in Sunday’s 74th running of the classic showpiece event, widely seen as ‘the jewel in Formula One’s crown’.

But, after the unfolding of an incident-packed day of accidents, and the unexpected, during Thursday’s two opening practice sessions, it may not be quite as simple as that.

The prospect of a duel – between two men who had glossed over any rifts between them when they shook hands and made up on Wednesday following their opening lap collision in Spain -- may need to be re-assessed already after Australian Daniel Ricciardo, so harshly done by in the Spanish race 11 days previously, made the most of an updated Renault engine in his Red Bull car to gate-crash the party and outpace Hamilton by six-tenths of a second at the top of the times.

Rosberg was third, more than two seconds further adrift, but with the second Red Bull, driven by the record-breaking Dutch teenager Max Verstappen, in very close attendance. After so long in the wilderness, it was clear Red Bull had taken wings again.

Ferrari, fancied to find speed and challenge again here in the Mediterranean principality and in front of so many important sponsors, watching from their super-yachts in the harbour, were left adrift. Kimi Raikkonen was seventh and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel ninth after twice brushing the barriers, once losing the rear end of his car and bashing it severely. He had to pit for a new rear wing.

After the dramas and melodramas of recent weeks, it was intriguing, too, to see Russian Daniil Kvat, the fall guy in the move that took Verstappen into his Red Bull seat, clock the fifth fastest time for Toro Rosso on a track that truly tests the talent of a driver.

That meant that, at the end of a mild and dry day with intermittent sunshine, and with his team-mate Spaniard Carlos Sainz sixth, the Red Bull squad were primed for a noisy party in their floating high-rise office block known as the ‘energy station’. They had four cars in the top six.

Hamilton certainly knew that his work was cut out, but having dominated the morning’s opening session, he retained a belief that pole position was not beyond him in his pursuit of only a second victory in the principality while Rosberg, more downcast, saw his dreams of an Ayrton Senna-equalling fourth consecutive Monaco win given a cold reality check.

“Barcelona was the worst feeling, but, as I always say, the true test is how you get back up when you've been knocked down," said Hamilton on Wednesday. “It was a tough moment for all of us after the race, but it's now chapter closed -- and looking ahead to Monaco...”

Around 24 hours later, he was reassessing things as he and Rosberg, together, conceded they had a major fight on their hands to cope with the speed of the Red Bulls. “That was totally unexpected,” said the championship leader. “I thought they were be there, or thereabouts, but not six-tenths ahead. I don’t think we can close that gap by turning up the engines for qualifying.”

After being deprived of a dominant victory last year by a tactical blunder by his team, Hamilton still has only one Monaco win – in 2008 – and is desperate to add another. If he does, it will also be his first much-needed victory since clinching his third drivers’ title in Texas last October.

“I didn’t get a great lap and I still feel there is time to come from me,” he said. “But six-tenths? No, I don’t think so….”

The defending three-time champion was less tactful when it came to consideration of Pirelli’s ‘ultra-soft’ tyres. He felt they were not soft enough to make much difference.

“The last two, three, four years here, it's been a one-stop race, which is the most boring,” said Hamilton. “So everyone knows that pole position, mostly, they are going to win. A one-stop race -- it's a procession.

“Why don't we have more stops? The ultra soft is not really a soft! We need ultra, ultra, ultra, ultra, ultra -- at least four times softer tyres so we can do more stops. It mixes it up more.”

He added that the number of Virtual Safety Car (VSC) interventions was also an equalising factor. On Thursday, there were eight.

“We're going to be two seconds faster this year than we were last year, but overtaking is going to be the same – and there won’t be any more stops,” he said.

If the weather holds and he keeps his speed in qualifying on Saturday, one man who will not mind a dull race is likely to be Ricciardo. “I’m in a great window right now and I feel it is my time,” he said. “The car is just great and I love racing here. I feel very confident.”

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