Ferrari's Charles Leclerc desperate to right past wrongs at Monaco Grand Prix

The winner of the jewel in F1's crown is usually decided during qualifying but there is still room for drama

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc. Reuters
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After an unexpected sojourn created by flooding in Imola, the Formula One world championship moves to the famous streets of Monte Carlo on Sunday and the contradiction that is the best event and, usually, one of the worst races of the year.

With overtaking next to impossible, especially with this year’s bloated car designs, the greatest grand prix on the calendar, the jewel in the sport’s crown, is all about Saturday’s qualifying.

Thread the needle through the narrow streets, put the car on pole and victory is almost certain. That’s the way the story goes. Or is supposed to. But tell that to Charles Leclerc.

Ferrari’s main man is achingly desperate to win his home race on the streets outside the front door he has used since he began walking to school as a child.

More so because he has set pole for the past two years and failed to win a practically unloseable Grand Prix.

It is 50 years since anyone has managed that in successive years, going back to Jackie Stewart in 1969 and '70. But then, those were the days when F1 cars broke down. In the modern era of rock-solid reliability, Leclerc’s "achievement" stands alone.

And Stewart had already won the race once by then and went on to win it twice more from pole.

In 2021, Leclerc was a victim of his own making, crashing after setting pole and ruling himself out of Sunday’s start. Last year was down to an epic strategy bungle by his own team. But he is proof at least that, at Monaco anyway, talent can mean more than machinery.

Top dogs, as they undoubtedly are after winning the first five rounds, Red Bull are certainly not guaranteed pole on Saturday.

Max Verstappen will have to stretch nerve and sinew to beat his teammate Sergio Perez, let alone Leclerc, Lewis Hamilton or George Russell.

After all, the Mexican won last year’s race and his fans say he is now the king of the street tracks. But there is an extra nuance to their rivalry. The double champion is reportedly still steaming that his teammate’s crash last year denied him pole just as he was set to nick top spot.

So furious, in fact, he publicly refused to help Perez to finish second in the driver’s championship when they got to Brazil five months later.

Fernando Alonso arrives as Red Bull’s primary challenger knowing that if he has a chance of outdoing them anywhere, it is here.

It would be the perfect way to crown Aston Martin’s new partnership with Honda that was announced on Wednesday. In 2026, they take over the power unit used by the current champions Red Bull, who are switching to Ford.

Honda were set to leave F1 but clearly see the chance to unite with the colours favoured by James Bond as just too good a chance to miss.

Sunday’s race sees revisions to both Mercedes and Ferrari cars as they bid to get their title challenges back on course.

Both have had disastrous starts to the season with just a single podium apiece and no wins. The changes, which were supposed to be debuted at Imola, are unlikely to be of real use on a street track. But mileage is mileage. The true benefit will only be known in Barcelona a week later.

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari’s No 2, arrives in Monaco with a leg injury thanks to a mistimed tackle in a charity football match earlier this week.

Much speculation surrounds his F1 future with Lewis Hamilton seen in talks with new Maranello boss Fred Vasseur. But it is interesting how often the seven-time champion is seen at Ferrari when his Mercedes contract talks hit their peak.

Would Maranello’s mandarins really upset the relationship with their golden boy Leclerc for a Mercedes champion in the autumn of his career?

Monaco is the perfect place for such machinations. Writer Somerset Maugham famously called the riviera “a sunny place for shady people”. After all, it was here in secret meetings at the Loews Hotel (now the Fairmont) that Ferrari stole Michael Schumacher and Ross Brawn from Benetton and won five successive world titles.

It is one of those places where belief has to be suspended; the giant superyachts, improbably expensive cars, sunshine, beauty, and the impossibility of it all just has to be enjoyed.

But for those who cannot afford to make the pilgrimage, there is good news. The stand-off over a new Monaco contract last year was partially connected with its erratic television coverage and F1 itself has taken back control so the quality is likely to rise considerably.

Updated: May 25, 2023, 7:34 AM