That was a typically dramatic Monaco Grand Prix weekend! F1’s ‘jewel in the crown’ is sometimes criticised for producing processional racing but at the end of the day, I can’t imagine a World Championship without a race in Monaco. The whole weekend builds up to a crescendo in Qualifying because track position is so important but more often than not, we end up with some form of drama on race day.
Monaco is also a fantastic driving challenge and one of the last few steps into the past. I used to love watching the videos of Senna and Schumacher hustling their cars around the streets prior to racing here as it just gave me a massive buzz knowing that I would have the chance to drive on those same iconic parts of the principality. I hated all the razzmatazz and the events around the track because they were just a distraction. The best part of the weekend was always when the track was closed to the public, the pitlane went green and you had to flirt with the barriers around F1’s most famous roads.
The biggest story coming into the weekend was the passing of F1 legend Niki Lauda. A triple World Champion who played a key role at Ferrari, Mclaren, Jaguar and most recently at Mercedes apart from finding the time to start two airlines along the way was an irreplaceable person in the paddock. The loss was certainly felt across the board but nowhere more of course than at Mercedes.
The silver cars were on fine form all weekend and actually Valtteri Bottas looked like he had the measure over Lewis until the final run of Qualifying. Getting the front tyres into the right window was a big challenge for the teams and there were debates up and down the pitlane about whether the drivers should attack on their first or second timed lap. With Qualifying and track position being so important, this decision and the way you handled your outlap was very important. Unfortunately for Valtteri, after nailing a brilliant opening run in Q3, he didn’t quite get the out lap he wanted on the final run and got beaten to pole by the smallest of margins.
The race seemed pretty straightforward for Lewis until the leaders all came in for their pitstop and Mercedes opted for the medium tyre while their rivals at Ferrari and Red Bull went for the harder option. This proved to be the wrong call but crucially, they had track position. We heard Lewis all through the second half of the race complaining about the tyres, saying he didn’t think he would be able to finish on that set.
I must say at that time, I did really admire the patience that his race engineer Pete Bonnington and the team’s chief strategist James Vowles had with dealing with their star driver. If it was me, I would have just gone back with “Right Lewis, you can pit now and change tyres, but you’ll finish 5th. Instead, why don’t you just drive around slowly and defend the position and you’ll win.” Thankfully for Lewis, those guys have more patience than me and they did a great job of trying to keep him calm. It was all quite dramatic if you were listening to the team radio chatter, but if you were watching the race on mute, it all probably looked quite calm and sedate until Max decided to have a lunge towards the end!
Lewis was lucky to get away without a puncture after that bit of contact at the chicane to be honest. The Englishman drove a very smart, defensive race and made sure that his rear tyres were in good shape to give him traction out of Portier and the final corner. This meant that Max was never close enough to challenge at either the chicane or Ste Devot, the only two real overtaking spots on the track.
One thing that was noticeable this year was that the overtaking opportunities have reduced even more. This is partly because we have these big wide cars now but also because the cars are braking so late that the chances to actually outbrake someone in such a short distance are very slim.
Max drove extremely well all weekend. Like Bottas, his final run in Q3 was compromised with some traffic on the out lap which meant he didn’t get the tyres in the right window but apart from that he drove extremely well and was clearly the closest challenger to Mercedes all weekend. I think it’s fair to say that a year on from his tale of woe in Monaco last year, he’s been the standout driver in Formula 1 over the past 12 months. He’s been consistent and absolutely relentless with this speed at every session in every race weekend. If and when Red Bull start to unlock the secret of performance of their front wing, he’ll be winning races regularly.
Ferrari’s weekend was once again a messy one. They were clearly behind Mercedes and in fact it did look like there was a pretty good chance that Max would be ahead of the red cars as well. The mistake with Charles in Qualifying was a bizarre miscalculation that frankly shouldn’t happen with any team at this level. Charles had made an error at Rascasse on his first run which clearly cost him a chunk of time. With 5 minutes to go, he was 8 tenths clear of being knocked out but the midfield teams were out there lighting up the time sheets with personal bests.
When Grosjean found 8 tenths on his second run to jump out of the drop zone, I thought that Ferrari would immediately send the local boy out as it was way too risky to just sit in the box. Instead, they did decided to make that very choice in an effort to save an extra set of tyres for later in the session. It just seemed a basic error to make where data over-ruled gut feeling – sure having one set less would hurt a bit, but not making it to Q2 was shocking. In the race, Charles’ moves were full of desperation and it became clear pretty early that there was no chance he would finish that race without incident. As much as Ferrari took the blame for the Qualifying error, I do think that he will take away two valuable lessons – (a) be more forceful with your opinions if you think you need to go again in Qualifying to be safe ; and (b) points mean prizes and finishing in 8th would have been better than not finishing at all.
Vettel would be relieved to go home with second place after that weekend where he too had a messy run. A crash in the final practice session put him on the back foot and in Qualifying, he never really looked quick enough to challenge the top 3. A fairly dull and straightforward run to second was probably more than he expected to get this morning.
From the tight and twisty confines of Monte Carlo, we now head to another street circuit, but a very different one. Montreal is a track that rewards straight line speed and power and from everything we’ve seen so far about the relative strengths of the two cars, the Ferraris should be closer to the Mercedes drivers than in recent races.
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