Monaco (AFP) - 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."
The Briton, who has won four of his five world titles at Mercedes, added: "It’s truly been an honour working alongside you over these past seven years. I wouldn't have been in this team if it wasn't for you."
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.
"It’s a race that I’ve not really won much and I struggle with that each year,” said Hamilton.
"I’m quick there, but it’s very hit and miss so I’m really hoping this year’s on target because it’s a great track to win at.”
- 'Unique' -
He added that he felt the team’s greater understanding of the performance of their longer wheelbase cars would give them a better chance this year, a view 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.
"It's a street circuit with a lot of history and it's not been the best one for me over the last few years, but hopefully it's time to turn this around," said Verstappen, who has reeled off 10 top-four finishes in succession.
His former team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, now at Renault, won last year’s race for Red Bull and his successor Pierre Gasly said he hopes his team has the performance to beat Ferrari and challenge Mercedes.
"Ferrari is really strong in the straights -- we know they have the best engine at the moment – but in the corners we seem to be a bit more competitive than they are. So in Monaco, it suits the Red Bull car usually pretty well, and we know it's all about qualifying.
"It will be important to just manage the perfect lap on Saturday and I think we could have a chance to be in front of them."
His Red Bull team boss Christian Horner was also 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.