Saturday 24 May 2014

Monaco Qualifying - Escape road to victory

One way or another this Monaco weekend has been all about Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Talk of their relationship; talk (albeit slightly tenuous) of Lewis questioning Nico's 'hunger'; lots of perception that the previous amicability had been showing incremental strain in their head-to-head pursuit of supremacy. Some even talked of a burgeoning Senna-Prost like rivalry (not really helped by Merc reportedly getting Prost in to advise on how to handle the combustible situation).

Nico Rosberg has the pole - via some controversy
Photo: Octane Photography
But even with this no one could quite have predicted how it would all kick off in the Monaco qualifying session.

Given the adages we know about Monaco's capacity for lottery many foresaw that this would be the weekend in which the Mercs would be finally required to step down from the front. But Lewis and Nico even here continued 2014's way and were the quickest guys out there, and while as is often seen at Monaco the rest were closer this time, Daniel Ricciardo especially close, pole once again turned into a private battle between the two guys in silver.

It seems a few forgot perhaps the Principality's oldest adage of all. That even here, the quickest car remains the quickest car.

Come the final vital Q3 session Nico pipped Lewis by the blink of an eye after their first goes, Rosberg reckoning he 'really nailed' the lap. But then partway around their final efforts with Nico ahead on the track he braked too late for the Mirabeau turn and disappeared down an escape road. It however worked in his favour, as the resultant yellow flags meant the quickly-on-the-scene Lewis had to back out of it, ensuring that pole was Nico's.

The end of the session was just the start. As you can imagine the air almost immediately was thick with frenzied claim and counter-claim.

Lewis Hamilton wasn't pleased afterwards
Photo: Octane Photography
For my part however it looked far more a cock-up than a conspiracy; a genuine mistake from a guy pushing too hard. And that a guy fighting for position on his final run in Q3, desperate to beat a mighty team mate, and that this is Monaco, should be pushing too hard, getting it wrong, isn't the most unlikely of outcomes.

Perhaps it's the hardest thing to accept that (in Donald Rumsfeld's words) stuff happens; people do goof up. Perhaps it's especially hard to accept in this sport wherein not only is everything sought to be controlled to the nth degree, but some of its players have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of conspiracy in the past.

In this case too we had an unfortunate parallel from the very same venue and indeed in the very same session (and, from the conspiracists' viewpoint, to the very same end) back eight years ago in 2006 - that infamous case involving Michael Schumacher seeking to defend his pole via a deliberate accident. It's understandable to an extent that some are determined that they won't be fooled again.

But from my perspective it just felt different this time. Nico's detour didn't look odd as was the case in 2006 with Schumi. Also Nico himself looked different to Schumi then in the subsequent press conference, there was none of the guilty exterior on show that time (Mark Webber who'd qualified third eight years ago noted that Schumi's hands were shaking), so unless Nico's a very good actor...

Daniel Ricciardo once again performed fantastically
Photo: Octane Photography
There's also an important consideration too that people are innocent until proven guilty, and in our absence of compelling evidence that Nico indeed did pull this stunt deliberately then it's necessary not to brand him a 'cheat'.

And to be brutal too, Nico doesn't have the previous for such an intentional act as Schumi did. As Martin Brundle noted on television afterwards, 'I don't think it's in the boy'.

So, to borrow from Bob Dylan in Idiot Wind, Nico can't help it if he's lucky. If one is to be harsh Idiot Wind is an appropriate term for some of the cries of conspiracy.

The stewards picked up on the matter, and there was chat too that as well as the incident in itself and Nico's related intent they were also looking into whether Nico should be punished for reversing out of the escape road (that he did so and as Lewis was approaching ensured the yellow flags continued). That would have been ordinarily a halfway house judgement that stewards often are attracted to, though in this case it's hard to see how they could have used it, given Fernando Alonso did similar in FP1 without penalty or even an investigation. Certainly if I were in the Nico camp that's what I'd have been arguing. It transpired subsequently too that reversing on track doesn't break any rules (only doing so in the pit lane does).

And while no one though has ever got rich second guessing that motley crew, the stewards having examined the video and telemetry eventually agreed that there was nothing doing here, and Nico's pole stands.

Fernando Alonso again was the top Ferrari
Photo: Octane Photography
Nico, while full of contrition afterwards, was equally convinced that it was a genuine error and did not represent foul play: 'it'll be clear in the data that nothing's majorly different from the lap before, I just braked that little bit late and deep and locked up and that's it.'

Lewis as you might expect though at the same moment had a face that could stop a clock. While some used this as an implement with which to beat him, perhaps we can understand his demeanour too. He's just lost the most important pole of the year, he wasn't able to complete his final effort, and there was at least a possibility in his mind that his team mate's just pulled a fast one on him. Of course he's going to be annoyed.

He refused to be drawn explicitly on the deliberate or not deliberate matter, but even so his exterior and muttered asides that it was 'ironic' and the like as well as saying 'who knows?' when asked if he felt his team mate had done the dirty, didn't really leave much that was ambiguous. Ricciardo not for nothing called the atmosphere between them in the top three press conference 'a bit awkward'.

It seems clear that there's trouble at t'mill between the two Merc pilots. We'll see what happens subsequently, but even with as mentioned that the relationship has got distinctly less cosy in recent times, today felt a little like a watershed. And with Toto Wolff at the top of the team nailing his colours to the mast (calling the claims that it was deliberate on Nico's part, um, BS), as has Niki Lauda, Lewis may need to be delicately handled.

With all of this diverting our attention what happened behind got almost completely forgotten about. There was a clear pecking order in the first six places all the way through qualifying with the Mercs followed by the Red Bulls and then the Ferraris. And that's how the top six ended up.

Jean-Eric Vergne impressed and will start seventh
Photo: Octane Photography
Once again Ricicardo was the top Bull, getting under Vettel's mark by two tenths (although Vettel had an ERS problem). I said in advance of the weekend that if Ricciardo could demonstrate Monaco pace then it'll tick another box on his 'complete F1 performer' form. The box has duly been ticked.

And Alonso continued his good form of the weekend by beating his Ferrari team mate Kimi Raikkonen by seventh tenths. Kimi may have cause for relief that the pace gap converted only to one place on the starting grid.

While Jean-Eric Vergne looked quick for much of the hour (even topping Q1, albeit aided by softer tyres than many of those behind) and he made good on it with a Q3 time enough for him to start in seventh. Qualifying in the dry has always been his major bugbear and this may be just about the first time that he's got it right. He'll hope that this represents him turning the page.

If only for Mercedes's sake soothing some of the bad feeling created by today was as simple as a mere page turn. Given Nico stays where he is for tomorrow's race start the run to Ste Devote will be worth watching... But with Lewis tending to get the better starts this season as well as with some feeling that second place is on the grippier side, all might not be yet lost for Lewis. A lot depends on who leads into turn one at Monaco.


  1. All said and done, I found it a bit rash and pre-2014 Lewis when he said in few interviews, he "Liked how Senna handled the issue with Prost, and would take a page out of his book" , hopefully that's not a precursor to doing something stupid.

    1. Hi Seamus. Yes, agree it was a rather odd thing for Lewis to say. I'd say reacting to this in the same way as Senna did with Prost would be to dig in for trench warfare and possibly deliberately punt him off the road. Not the best way of reacting in other words!