Fernando Alonso and Max Verstappen are Formula 1’s kindred spirits.
Listen closely to the way they speak about each other and it soon becomes clear that they recognise many of their own qualities – driving skill married with a never-say-die spirit and unflinching commitment – in each other.
Game recognises game, you might say.
Yet in the time they have shared a place on the grid in Formula 1, their fortunes have been so wildly different that they each may as well have been playing a different game entirely.
Verstappen arrived in F1 as a teenager in 2015 at the precise point Alonso’s career came off a cliff, that season the first of a number of years he spent in woefully uncompetitive machinery.
As Max embarked upon a trajectory that would see him equal Alonso’s tally of two World Championships – and easily surpass his number of grand prix victories – in 2022, Fernando’s patience would be tested to the extremity that he saw fit to step away from F1 for a couple of years.
Although Aston Martin’s breakthrough has allowed him to regularly stand alongside Verstappen on the podium in the early months of 2023, Alonso’s deficits to the dominant Red Bull at the finish line have been so vast (38 seconds in Bahrain, 26 in Miami) that they were effectively in a separate race.
Which makes the prospect of Alonso and Verstappen finally competing on pretty much even ground at this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix so utterly compelling.
With the Aston Martin’s performance in high-downforce configuration a theme of the first five rounds, Alonso himself has identified Monaco as one of a number of races – Hungary, Singapore, maybe even Barcelona next weekend – where he could realistically end his decade-long wait for a win in 2023.
And with the RB19’s unholy straight-line speed certain to be contained at this tightest of street circuits, the stage is set in Monaco for Alonso to do to Red Bull what Red Bull often did to F1’s last dominant force, Mercedes, in the early years of the V6 hybrid era.
Who’s to say, though, that Monte Carlo will necessarily come down to a straight fight between Verstappen and Alonso?
It could be even argued that Charles Leclerc, the Ferrari driver, has spent the last few weeks effectively warming up for his latest attack on the streets he calls his own.
After soaring to two pole positions in less than 24 hours in Baku, Leclerc – not for the first time in his slightly stuttering F1 career – landed on the wrong side of the line with two crashes in consecutive days in Miami.
Given his wretched record in Monaco – Leclerc has never stood on the podium here, only reached the finish once and famously failed to even start the race in 2021 – the emphasis will be on him to finally strike the right balance.
The cancellation of last weekend’s Emilia Romagna GP had led to speculation that teams would delay the introduction of important upgrades until Spain, but potentially in a sign of how desperate they are to turn around their 2023 season Mercedes remain committed to bringing their heavily revised car to Monaco.
To zero-pod or not to zero-pod?
That is the question ahead of the first sighting of the updated W14, with which the team are placing enormous faith in George Russell and Lewis Hamilton to keep out of the walls.
Keeping out of the walls may be considered something of an achievement for Alpine after a messy, highly wasteful start to 2023 has kept them level on 14 points with McLaren.
It was at this race last year, remember, that Alonso pulled off a devastating rear-guard drive, holding on to P7 despite having a queue of seven cars – led by Hamilton’s Mercedes – breathing down his neck.
With Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon both inconsistent so far this season despite a welcome second two-car points finish of 2023 in Miami, this weekend may come to reveal exactly Alpine what have lost in the driving department from last season.
McLaren’s main weakness of 2023, meanwhile, has been drag – the development mistakes made by the team under the leadership of former technical director James Key leaving the MCL60 car brutally exposed on the straights.
Following a disastrous weekend in Miami, might the lesser emphasis straight-line speed in Monaco provide Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri with a platform for McLaren’s best showing of the season to date?
After all, Monaco is renowned as the ultimate driver’s circuit, one where the fundamental limitations of the car can be overcome for one weekend only.
That particular truth may light up the eyes of Haas team-mates Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen, both very much the racer’s racers, who might fancy their chances of springing a surprise.
The same may also be true of Valtteri Bottas, of fellow Ferrari customers Alfa Romeo.
Bottas only scored one podium finish in his four appearances here for Mercedes and suffered some rotten luck along the way, including the longest pit stop in history (43 hours) in 2021 after suffering a stuck wheelnut.
Without a top-10 finish since the season opener in Bahrain, a return to the points – at the circuit where he finished ninth in 2022 – would be handy if Alfa are to once again face being left behind in the development race.
After a fine start of the season on track, Yuki Tsunoda cemented his status as one of the stars of 2023 by assisting the clear-up effort in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy.
Back to business this weekend, expect Tsunoda to retake his usual position in or around the points as team-mate Nyck de Vries – going by the evidence of his season so far – explores the local scenery in Monaco.
If the Monaco layout may conceal the flaws of some cars, the opposite is very much true for a Williams team whose only real strength of note is prodigious speed in a straight line.
Our advice to Alex Albon, Logan Sargeant and indeed anyone else likely to be at the back this weekend on a circuit where field spread and lapped traffic are constant considerations?
Keep a close eye on those blue flags, because Alonso and Verstappen are coming through…