Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso have both indicated that they see Monaco as a chance for McLaren Honda to challenge for a top 10 position, and I for one would be happy to see the team score its first points of 2015.
It goes without saying that ultimate power plays less of a role at Monaco than at the other tracks that F1 has visited thus far this year, but also important is the fact that by all accounts the MP4-30 is a very good chassis. The car has no apparent vices, and that will help instil confidence in the drivers from the moment they head out onto the track on Thursday. The team will also be two more weeks along its steep development curve, having no doubt learned a lot at the Barcelona test.
Throw in the fact that Jenson and Fernando are both past winners, and know what it takes to get through the weekend and end up atop the podium, and you have the ingredients for a solid weekend. It will take reliability and probably a dose of good fortune, but I would not be surprised to see at least one car well inside the points.
A good result in Monaco would be entirely appropriate. From Barcelona onwards we are into a run of long established venues which have special significance in that McLaren and Honda raced there during their previous partnership, whereas the first four flyaways have all been added to the schedule more recently.
Leaving aside Austria (absent during the McLaren Honda years) Montreal, Silverstone, Hungaroring, Spa and Monza are all venues where the team found success, and of course later in the season F1 will visit Suzuka and Interlagos, where so much history was made in the Senna era. But Monaco is a special race – it's the only track where McLaren Honda was unbeaten over the full five years of the partnership from 1988 to 1992.
Indeed Monaco plays a huge part in the story of the team, going back of course to its very first Grand Prix appearance in 1966, with founder Bruce at the wheel. Remarkably it took McLaren some 18 years to score its first victory in the principality, a reminder if one were needed of just how hard it to win there. Bruce didn't manage it, and nor did Denny Hulme or Emerson Fittipaldi or James Hunt, even in years when they were challenging for the World Championship.
But once Alain Prost scored that first win on a soaking wet track in 1984, the floodgates opened – no pun intended! The Frenchman won the next two races, and scored another success in 1988, on the famous occasion when dominant team mate Ayrton Senna made a mistake and crashed.
Senna more than compensated for that by winning in each of the next five seasons, while also putting in a series of astonishing qualifying performances. For Senna Monaco was a stage on which he could really showcase his ability, and his charges to pole position are the stuff of legend.
In the Mercedes era Mika Hakkinen scored a memorable win from pole in 1998, while David Coulthard (2000 and again in 2002), Kimi Raikkonen (2005), Fernando Alonso (2007) and Lewis Hamilton (2008) have added to McLaren's tally. The team has 15 victories to its name – and the nearest rival is Ferrari on nine.
“They all sort of blend together, really!,” Ron Dennis joked as he scanned the list of winners a few years ago. “But 1988 to 1993 was a pretty impressive streak, and even that was preceded by 1984-1986, so with the exception of one year – 1987 – we won every Monaco GP for nearly 10 years. That transcended driver changes, regulatory changes, everything, so that made it even better. It requires precision driving, and every one of those drivers excelled in precision.
“Obviously traction is important, and you need to have a car that changes direction very quickly, and is reactive to driver input. You have to carry a lot of downforce, and have good driveability. And normally, we excel in those areas. But really it’s a circuit where a great driver can make a difference.”
Nothing has changed since Ron spoke those words, which still perfectly sum up the challenge of Monaco. As noted the most recent victory was in 2008, the year that Lewis went onto win the World Championship. That might seem like a long wait given the earlier strike rate, but consider that Ferrari has not won in Monaco since 2001, even missing out in seasons when Michael Schumacher was utterly dominant. It's another reminder of how hard it is to put all the pieces together – as is the fact that Williams has won only three times in its long history.
“You’ve got some unique car requirements there, but you’ve also got some unique team requirements,” said Ron. “That’s why we’re quite proud of the fact that we have won so many of the races. But we’ve also led races and failed. From drivers’ mistakes, which show the level of concentration that you need, through to team mistakes, when we’ve had failures when in the lead, it could have looked a lot better...”
Of course the event is about far more than the race itself. I can't say I've ever been a great fan of all the glitz that surrounds the place – I've always been happy to escape each evening to the sanity of a quiet town just along the coast – but there's no denying that it is a special weekend. Even hardbitten team personnel, focussed as ever on leaving on Sunday night with the biggest possible haul of points in the bag, acknowledge that.
“You go to Monte Carlo with two sets of emotions,” Dennis explained. “One thing is that despite the glamour, the logistics are a nightmare. While there are now some accommodations for car components and cars in the pit lane, and that has made life a lot easier, it’s still the only Grand Prix that we go to where the teams have to cope with the fact that the transporters are parked somewhere else.
“But it has a special magic, no question. It’s got that slight Beverly Hills feel, where the glitz and glamour actually has substance to it. There are lots of celebrities and executives that attend the race, and consequently you’ve just got to recognise that it is the most spectacular event of the year. And what a backdrop for TV! We race around the harbour, and with the images and the landscape of Monte Carlo, it’s the purest bit of TV you can have all year.”
I think even Ron would admit that McLaren Honda's unbeaten record in Monaco will come to an end on Sunday. But a decent helping of points will go some way to ease the pain. Let's see how things unfold...