MONACO GP SPECIAL REPORT
Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it gets better,” beamed Lewis Hamilton as he celebrated his first win of 2016. The Monaco Grand Prix was Red Bull’s to lose after Daniel Ricciardo set pole position and pulled away into the distance following a safety-car start in wet conditions, but lose it they did. When Ricciardo obeyed a call to pit for slick tyres on lap 32 of 78 there were none waiting for him, and Hamilton strode through the open door into a lead that had seemed unlikely 24 hours earlier, when yet another engine problem in qualifying consigned him to third on the grid.
Best of all for the three-time world champion, his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg struggled throughout the race and slipped to seventh place on the final lap.
Red Bull’s Spanish Grand Prix winner Max Verstappen paid the price for a moment of imprecision on his first hot lap, with six minutes of Q1 to run, hitting the inside barrier with his frontright wheel on the entry to the second swimming pool chicane. The contact sheared a suspension link, so with one wheel flapping ineffectually he was powerless to avoid the wall.
Verstappen was therefore an early addition to the list of Q1 casualties alongside Sauber’s Felipe Nasr, whose engine coughed its last at the beginning of the session, and after a brief stoppage there was a flurry of tail-end action in the remaining minutes. The Manors of Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto failed to avoid the drop, along with Jolyon Palmer’s Renault, while Palmer’s team-mate Kevin Magnussen traded positions with Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson to scrape through to the next part of the session.
In Q2 Ricciardo contrived to set his best lap on the super-soft compound, theoretically ensuring he would begin the race on that set and therefore enjoy some tactical leeway if conditions remained dry.
The expectation that Williams would struggle in the pricipality thanks to its relative deficiency in slow corners was confirmed, as the FW38 of Valtteri Bottas was the first car to miss out in the session. Felipe Massa fared no better in 14th. Magnussen punched his card, slowest of the 16.
Q3 was but a few seconds old when Hamilton brought his car to a halt before exiting the pits, leaving the field to his rivals as the Mercedes mechanics rolled him back down the pitlane. This time it was a fuel pump issue brought on by heat soak while the car was stationary between sessions, and Rosberg’s car was similarly afflicted, but he was still in the garage when the problem manifested itself so received a quicker fix.
Ricciardo drew first blood with a sizzlingly fast 1m13.622s lap, to which neither Rosberg nor Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel ultimately had an answer. Kimi Raikkonen faced a fiveplace grid drop in the second Ferrari for a gearbox change, but in any case he could not summon the same pace as his team-mate, let alone match those at the head of the order.
Hamilton made it onto the track with just over five minutes to go, but that would only leave him room to do one run. Traffic prompted him to back out of his first hot lap, but he gathered himself and then shot again: fastest of all through the first sector, he lost ground over the remainder and posted himself third, between Rosberg and Vettel. The other pole position protagonists took second runs but none of them could improve upon Ricciardo’s earlier time.
Asked what had given him the bigger boost this weekend, Red Bull’s superb chassis or the newly upgraded Renault engine, the first-time polesitter quipped, “Big Australian balls…”
Hamilton, for his part, put his faith in the accuracy of the weather forecasts. “Hopefully it’ll rain,” he said.
Hamilton got his wish as Sunday dawned murky and thunderous, and both support races were red-flagged early owing to multi-car accidents. Wisely, therefore, though the court of public opinion might not agree, FIA race director Charlie Whiting dictated that the grand prix should start behind the safety car.
After half a dozen laps in a conga line behind Bernd Maylander several of the drivers began to chafe openly on the radio at the lack of racing, and Whiting duly released them on lap seven. Ricciardo streaked into the lead, leaving Hamilton worrying the rear wing of Rosberg, who looked much less confident in the conditions.
Although the passage of cars had
cleared some of the standing water from the racing line it was still treacherous, amply demonstrated when Palmer’s Renault spun up its rear wheels as he went over a zebra crossing on the pit straight, spearing him straight into the wall. Two laps later Raikkonen was next to join the retiree roster, sliding wide at the hairpin and deranging his front wing, and in trying to carry on he managed to squeeze Grosjean’s Haas into the outside wall as the steering-impaired Ferrari lurched around the right-hander before Portier.
As the lap count entered double figures and the rain abated, several teams began to consider a gamble on fitting intermediate tyres. Predictably, the first to roll the dice were the ones whose drivers had the least to lose. Magnussen had been first in when the race went green, followed by Button and Nasr, but once in traffic they found little advantage. Quicker cars then joined in. On lap 12 Red Bull brought in Verstappen, who had started from the pitlane with Nasr and already fought his way up to 12th, and a lap later Ferrari pitted Vettel from fourth place, briefly elevating Nico Hulkenberg to that spot until Force India brought him in. Fernando Alonso, the only Mclaren driver to make it through to Q3, also took on new rubber.
The pits were not the only venue for tactical manoeuvres, for on lap 15 Rosberg slowed at the exit of Ste Devote to allow Hamilton past. They were already 13 seconds behind Ricciardo. By lap 18 the Red Bull had a 21.4-second gap to Rosberg – nearly enough margin for a pitstop – but Hamilton was homing in, and Rosberg was soon to become irrelevant to the outcome of the race.
A dry line began to form as a leading group of six drivers yet to stop – Ricciardo, Hamilton, Rosberg, Carlos Sainz and Sergio Perez, with Felipe Massa a further 20-odd seconds down the road – ran ahead of intermediate runners Vettel, Hulkenberg, Alonso, Gutierrez and Button. But the Williams was struggling and would provide a game-changer for Force India as Vettel became stuck behind Massa.
Rosberg pitted on lap 20, followed by Massa, Perez, Sainz, but while Rosberg and Perez returned to the action ahead of Vettel in third and fourth – now 43 seconds off the lead – Sainz dropped to seventh behind Hulkenberg.
Ricciardo was next to break for intermediates but Hamilton, implausibly, remained out, somehow keeping his full-wet tyres alive even as the dry line extended and widened. Would he be able to hang on for slicks?
After eight laps in the lead – with Ricciardo right on his tail – Hamilton pitted on lap 31 and departed with Pirelli’s purple-logoed ultra-soft tyres installed. Perez had gone too, fitting the soft compound, followed in short order by Vettel, who made the same choice. There were, after all, more than 40 laps still to run. Rosberg pitted right after Hamilton but by then the damage had been done: track position is everything in Monaco and Ricciardo was leading from Hamilton, with Perez still ahead of Vettel and Rosberg now 10 seconds behind the scarlet car. To exacerbate Rosberg’s woes, Alonso imposed himself between them after a very impressive stop by the Mclaren crew.
It was high time for Red Bull to bring Ricciardo in for whatever slick compound they chose. This message appeared not to have filtered down from the pitwall to the garage, because when Ricciardo pulled up in his box the tyres – super-softs, as it turned out – were conspicuously absent for several seconds. To employ vernacular the Australian would use later, his race had been “screwed” – for the second grand prix in succession.
Hamilton shot past as Ricciardo departed the pitlane and that was that. The gap expanded and contracted over the remainder of the race, and Ricciardo even managed to get his nose alongside at the chicane exit, only for Hamilton to edge him towards the wall. As the clouds rolled in again and a smatter of rain fell in the closing laps, both drivers were able to make their tyres last until the chequered flag, but the chase had exhausted Ricciardo’s and he finished 7.252s in arrears.
“We were quick in the wet, we had a comfortable lead, pitted for inters, got stuck behind Lewis and effectively put ourselves in a race we didn’t need to be in,” grumbled Ricciardo. “Then I got called into the pits and the tyres weren’t ready. Everybody was running around like headless chooks…”
Hamilton took the credit for the decision for him to stay out on the wet tyres, saying, “Nico I heard had pitted [for intermediates], and Sebastian, and they weren’t lapping much faster than me, if at all. My tyres weren’t really degrading, so I was saying ‘I gotta stay out’. The team were saying we should move, but I knew I would drop behind Daniel, so I eked it out [for a few more laps] and then we were lucky.”
Perez drove brilliantly to keep a margin between himself and Vettel, thoroughly deserving his first podium of the year, while Rosberg remained bottled up behind fifth-placed Alonso for the duration, then was mugged by Hulkenberg on the final lap and dropped to seventh.
Button gained four net places from his grid position of 13th to finish a lapped ninth, 17.3s behind Sainz; perhaps not quite on par with teammate Alonso, who gained five positions, but still impressive given the conditions. Rounding out the top ten, and three seconds further down the road from Button, Massa salvaged some points on a depressingly poor weekend for Williams.
It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall in the Red Bull camp that evening, for not only would Ricciardo have been fulminating at length, Verstappen would no doubt have been on the receiving end of some tough love from Red Bull’s racing advisor Dr Helmut Marko. Verstappen made great progress, getting as high as ninth before locking a wheel over the crest at Massenet and striking the barrier in a repeat of his accident in Saturday’s practice session.
Still, there is little prospect of his promotion to the senior team being reversed, because Daniil Kvyat failed to shine for Toro Rosso. After twice visiting the pits with an electrical problem under the safety car, Kvyat lost his cool and took out Magnussen in a clumsy move at Rascasse that terminally damaged both their cars. ■
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Perez’s podium was his sixth in F1 and came after an impressive showing