As we start to build up to the annual blast around the streets of Monte Carlo, the issue of traffic in qualifying has come to the fore. It's always been an issue, even in recent years when the field was usually covered by 2 seconds. This season we have 24 cars and 6 of these, the Lotus, Virgin and HRT cars, have usually went out in Q1. We've already had drivers complaining about traffic in the past at Monaco with David Coulthard amongst those to be penalised as well as this season, notably Vitantonio Liuzzi, as well as Lewis Hamilton during the race in Barcelona. Bruno Senna supported the suggestion of spliting qualifying so that he wouldn't have to worry about blocking others, although Lotus were one team who rejected this proposal.
Monaco is the shortest track on the calendar with a lap covering 3.34km. Let's use the length of the Renault (5.05m) as a figure for determining the space the cars will take up. If there are 24 cars on track, that means that 121.2m of the track is being used, leaving 3,218.8m of track. This means that if the cars are evenly spread out, there will be about 134m between each. For evenly paced cars, this would be a marginal gap as the dirty air effect would likely kick in if you started to close on a car. If Fernando Alonso starts a lap 150m behind Lucas Di Grassi, he will probably be on his gearbox before the end of the lap. If both drivers are on flying laps, then no-one can be penalised, it's only if the blocker is on an out or in lap. Getting space is tricky as you could back off approaching the final turns only to block someone coming behind on a hot lap. The teams GPS systems will need to be utilised to the full and communication between engineer and driver will be critical.
In Q1, drivers have 20 minutes to do a lap so it can be argued that they should be able to get the job done. It would be expected that the 6 forementioned cars would be in the drop zone with one other car so for the likes of Red Bull and McLaren they should be able to get in without doing a perfect lap. One of the issues is that they the teams, especially those with ambitions of Q3, would prefer to go out on old tyres to get the job done rather than use a new set. Going out early might enable drivers to get a cleaner run but in Monaco a key feature is the big improvement in laptimes as more rubber is laid down so the track should be quicker at the end of the session. With rain expected through Thursday and Friday, the track could be quite green and slippery at the start of qualifying. There is still a chance of a wet qualifying which could be quite the spectacle. Ferrari and McLaren were stung badly by going out too late in Q1 in Malaysia. Drivers may need to be out for the whole 20 minutes to ensure they get a lap done in the best possible conditions whilst balancing tyre usage. Teams have 4 sets of intermediates and 3 sets of wet tyres for the weekend, though the forecast for Sunday currently suggests sunny and dry conditions. Of course, the lessened visability would make it even tougher for the drivers.
So Saturday should provide a fascinating session. Red flags have been common in past seasons and this can lead to even more disruption. Yellow flags are almost as bad as you cannot set a personal best sector time in a yellow flag zone. It will also be interesting to see if any of the new teams decide not to go out in the final moments to avoid controversy. The stewards may well be kept busy as the accusations start to fly and the pressure will be on as everyone knows their chances of points will be minimal starting in 18th place on Sunday.