Monaco in Formula One is like the Indianapolis 500 in INDYCAR and the Daytona 500 in NASCAR. Obviously, Monaco is special, but what is the Monaco Grand Prix like for you?
Monaco is special to me because it’s kind of my home race. We’re beside France and there’s always a lot of people, a lot of fans. It is, of course, special because of all the glamour because it is Monaco. Everyone knows Monaco and everyone wants to be in Monaco. It’s a very challenging track and a very long weekend with lots of demands, but at the end of the day it’s a very nice show.
You mentioned how Monaco is sort of a home race for you. Is your family able to join you? Are you able to enjoy the area on Friday when there is no on-track running?
I’ll have my wife and my Dad coming to Monaco, which is going to be great. Of course, there’s going to be a lot of French fans at the grand prix, which is really cool. I’m really looking forward to that. Monaco’s a special one as we don’t drive on the Friday. It’s an ‘off’ day on track, but I’ve got at least one meeting with the engineers, an autograph session and a fan forum appearance. It’s pretty busy even though you’re not running.
You’ll have an actual home race next year with the return of the French Grand Prix. How important will that race be to you and what experience do you have at Circuit Paul Ricard?
I don’t have that much experience at Paul Ricard. I raced there in GT1 and did the old GP2 tests, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually raced a single-seater there. Having a home grand prix is something special. Everyone’s very excited about it and I can’t wait to go there and see what it’s like.
Much will be made of Fernando Alonso’s drive in the Indianapolis 500. What do you think of it and how much of the Indianapolis 500 will you be able to watch?
It’s pretty amazing and he’s doing well in the testing. It’s a really good race. It’s a nice one, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to watch. I’ll have a look at the highlights.
Jumping into Alonso’s car for the Monaco Grand Prix is Jenson Button. From what you’ve seen so far this year, what adjustments will he have to make to drive this year’s car compared to last year’s car?
First thing he has to do is get used to the width of the car, especially in Monaco. Jenson is a great champion. He’s been world champion and he knows what he’s doing. He’s going to be on it pretty quickly. If we can take advantage of the fact that he’s not got much experience in the car at the beginning, we’ll use that for our own performance, but I’m sure he’s going to be good straight away.
The posh, elegant lifestyle around Monaco meets head on with one of the most demanding and unforgiving circuits in Formula One. Monte Carlo is obviously a cool place to visit, but how difficult is it to race there?
It’s pretty difficult to race there. Every city racetrack is complicated. In Monaco, you can’t make any mistakes or you’re straight into the wall. It’s hard to find the right limit of the car. You always have to drive underneath (the limit), unless you’re in qualifying on a very fast lap. It’s very tight there, and it goes very fast between the walls. It’s a great challenge.
Qualifying is always important in Formula One, but is it exceptionally more important at Monaco because it is so tough to pass?
Yes. It’s almost impossible to pass in Monaco, unless you take big risks, and in that case you may spend some hours with the stewards afterward. Qualifying is the key. You really want to be on the front row. Once the race starts, you want a good start and try to hang in there. It’s one of those races where the chances to overtake are very low. Something really needs to happen for you to be able to come back if you’re racing at the back.
The Monaco Grand Prix has been held since 1929. Does the history of that race resonate with you, and is there a particular race that stands out for you?
I do remember Monaco in 1996 when Olivier Panis won. He was the last Frenchman to win a grand prix. I remember that race, especially as it was a crazy race. He started 14th and was one of only three cars to cross the finish. Of course, the history of Monaco, and all the racing cars, and the changes to the circuit over the years – we love it because Monaco is Monaco.
Because Monaco is so technical, do you consider it a driver’s track, where one’s skills can trump another car’s sophistication?
That’s a tricky question. Yes, it’s a driver’s track, where you need to have confidence in your car. But, on the other hand, if your car doesn’t give you any grip, you won’t have any confidence, and you cannot make any difference. It’s just finding that very fine balance in between the car, the driver pushing it, and the fact that yes, once you’re very confident, you can actually make a bit of a difference.
With this year’s car being so much faster than last year’s car, will it change how you approach or drive any section of the Monaco circuit? Will braking become even more important because of the speeds you’re carrying into a corner?
It will probably go faster, but we just need to be more on it. I don’t think it’s going to change much. We just need to keep working. Braking is very important. Then the grip of the car, the confidence – mainly in Monaco, it’s the confidence that you’ve got in your car. If you can push it on the entry phase of the corner, that’s great. If you can’t, then it’s a bit more difficult.
It seems like good days at Monaco become great, but bad days turn even worse. Is success at Monaco so cherished because it’s so difficult to succeed?
That’s probably true, yes. It’s probably one of the most difficult races to win. Everything needs to be perfect, from the first free practice to the end of the race. You need a good pace in practice and, hopefully, get a top-three place in qualifying. After that you need a good start, a good strategy and a good run to the end. It’s very difficult to get that right.
You’re a guy trying to convince his wife or girlfriend to come to a race. If it’s Monaco, where does he need to take her to ensure she gets to enjoy Monaco beyond just the race?
I think in general, every track that’s in a city – Monaco, Melbourne, Montreal, Singapore, Budapest and Austin – they’re all pretty cool places. There’s obviously the race going on, but alongside that, there’s the city where your wife or girlfriend can explore. Monaco is a high-glamour track because you’ve got the boats, the marina and all of that on top of it. It’s definitely a cool place to bring your wife or girlfriend.
Do you have any milestones or moments from your junior career that you enjoyed at Monaco?
I won the GP2 race there in 2009. I would say that was a good moment.
What is your favorite part of the Monaco circuit and why?
I quite like the run up the hill to Casino Corner. It’s a high-speed part of Monaco.
Describe a lap around Monaco.
So you start on the straight, where it’s very bumpy hitting the brakes into turn one at Sainte Devote. It’s easy to make a mistake here, but then you need to make a good exit for the run up to Casino Corner. Up the hill, blind corner, braking just after the bump, fourth gear, and then third gear for the next one. Going down then you want to avoid the bus stop, which is bumpy, then you head to turn five. There’s always a bit of front-locking, the front inside wheel is in the air. Then the hairpin is a very slow-speed corner. You turn the steering wheel with one hand. After that it’s the two Portier corners. The second one is important because it brings you to the tunnel, which is a straight line on the track. The tunnel is flat out before you have to brake big for the chicane, where there’s another bump. Then you have Tabac, which is quite a high-speed corner, followed by the swimming pool complex, also very high speed. The braking for La Rascasse is tricky, again easy to front-lock. Then there’s a tricky exit for the last corner – it’s not so easy as it’s up a small crest. When you then go down, you can get wheelspin, and then you’re back on the start-finish straight.