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By Alan Baldwin
MONACO (Reuters) - Charles Leclerc will race around his home streets in a Ferrari for the first time in Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix, a boyhood dream come true, but dominant Mercedes also have sentiment on their side.
The death on Monday night of Austrian Formula One great Niki Lauda, a triple world champion and non-executive director of the Mercedes team, has cast the showcase race into a different light.
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A week ago there were those who feared a sixth successive Mercedes one-two finish, at a tight and twisty track that has seen plenty of processions in the past, would have the fans turning off in droves.
Now that looks more like a fitting tribute to a man who won his titles with McLaren and Ferrari but would have been cheering on the Silver Arrows of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas as loudly as anyone.
Various tributes are expected for one of the sport's greatest characters, who won for Ferrari in Monaco in 1975 and 1976.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said his compatriot had been a guiding light.
"As a team-mate over the past six and a half years, Niki was always brutally honest -- and utterly loyal," he said.
"It was a privilege to count him among our team and moving to witness just how much it meant to him to be part of the team's success."
Hamilton leads Bottas by seven points going into one of the Briton's favorite races, and one he has won twice already, and the characteristics of the car suggest Mercedes will again be frontrunners.
"If you look at their performance in the low-speed section of this (Barcelona) circuit, you would expect them to be very strong (in Monaco)," Red Bull boss Christian Horner said after Hamilton won in Spain 10 days ago.
"They’ll certainly be very much the favorites."
Red Bull won last year from pole position with Daniel Ricciardo, but the Australian has moved to Renault and Max Verstappen is the main hope now.
The young Dutchman does not have such happy memories of the track, wrecking his chances last year by hitting the wall in Saturday's final practice and lining up last.
"Looking at the low-speed performance in the last sector (in Spain), we are clearly not the favorite and I also don’t expect it to be like last year when we were super strong in Monaco," he said.
Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel is a two-times Monaco winner but much of the attention will be on Leclerc, who was born in the principality and can become the first local driver to score points at home since Louis Chiron in the 1950s.
A first career F1 win for the Monegasque, who crashed out last year on his debut with Sauber, would be truly momentous.
"It’s my first home GP as a Ferrari driver and it’s bound to be a special weekend," he said.
"I remember as a kid, I would spend the afternoon with a friend who lived in a flat with a balcony overlooking the Ste. Devote corner. We used to play with toy cars while the real ones rushed past beneath us.
"I always told myself that one day, it would be great to be driving in this race."
Ricciardo, who has finished only once in the points this year with a best result of seventh, is unlikely to be standing on top of the podium on Sunday but the Australian does expect a better showing.
"I’ve done it before so it’s familiar territory. I’m really curious actually to see how I perform this year in Monaco," he told Reuters. "I think we can get a good result. Maybe our best of the year. We’ll see."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Amlan Chakraborty)