Barely 48 hours after the death of Niki Lauda, Lewis Hamilton approaches Thursday’s Monaco Grand Prix opening practice in sombre mood as he aims for only his third victory in the classic Mediterranean street race.
Lauda, the non-executive chairman of Mercedes who passed away on Tuesday morning, was instrumental in Hamilton’s career-defining move from McLaren to the Silver Arrows team.
“My buddy, I’m struggling to believe you are gone,” said Hamilton in his social media posts on Tuesday. “I will miss our conversations, our laughs, the big hugs after winning races together.”
Lauda’s death, following long-term health problems, will cast a shadow across a racing occasion known for glamorous parties, fabulous boats and celebrity visitors as major sponsors jockey for attention and deals.
But it is unlikely to affect the on-track concentration of the drivers, especially at Mercedes where his passing will be most keenly felt, as Hamilton bids to add another Monaco win to those in 2008 and 2016 – and register a triumphant tribute to the great three-time world champion Austrian.
As always, Hamilton will face a determined challenge from his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas and both the Ferrari and Red Bull teams with Max Verstappen, in fine form this year, looking a likely threat to the continuing supremacy of Mercedes.
The Silver Arrows reeled off an unprecedented fifth consecutive season-opening one-two in Spain this month, Hamilton’s triumph lifting him back to the top of the drivers’ championship.
Hamilton said he felt the team’s greater understanding of the performance of their longer wheelbase cars would give them a better chance this year, a vie backed by Bottas.
“It’s such a unique track, you need a really special car in terms of how it works mechanically, with all the warps and bumps and everything. I’ve actually never been on the podium there so it’s something I really look forward to and something I will definitely focus on 100 per cent.”
Many local residents of the Mediterranean principality will be keen to see Monegasque Charles Leclerc challenging for Ferrari, if he can edge clear of team-mate and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, but Red Bull’s Verstappen is likely to be the major threat to Hamilton and Bottas.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner was optimistic, but wary of Mercedes’ all-round domination so far this year.
“Mercedes looked pretty mighty particularly in the last sector in Spain, but we’ve always run well in Monaco – and Max is due a bit of redemption there,” he commented.
The opening two free practice sessions on one of Formula One’s most demanding and unforgiving circuits are staged on Thursday rather than their usual Friday slot in the Principality.