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Lewis Hamilton heads into Monaco with a heavy heart

Barely 48 hours after the death of Niki Lauda, Lewis Hamilton approaches today'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 focus 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 teammate 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," he said. "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."

LECLERC'S CHALLENGE

Many local residents of the Mediterranean principality will be keen to see Monegasque Charles Leclerc challenging for Ferrari, if he can edge clear of teammate 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 straight top-four finishes.

The first two free practice sessions on one of F1's most demanding circuits are staged today instead of their usual Friday slot in Monaco. - AFP

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