MONACO GP SPE­CIAL RE­PORT

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - BY STU­ART CODLING

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.

QUAL­I­FY­ING

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.

RACE

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. ■

A smart tyre call was key to Hamil­ton’s 44th F1 vic­tory

Alonso made up five places from his grid po­si­tion to fin­ish fifth

Lewis: “I prayed for this day”

Perez’s podium was his sixth in F1 and came af­ter an im­pres­sive show­ing

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