Sunday 29 May 2016

Monaco GP Report - Fortune favours the brave

It's a pity really you can't have two winners of a Grand Prix. Today's really would have merited one. In a wet-to-dry Monaco Grand Prix, forbidding barriers nearby as ever, the sport's two best wet weather drivers (probably) disappeared into a race of their own. One thought of Jacky Ickx, Pedro Rodriguez, Zandvoort...

There could only be one victor, and it was Lewis Hamilton
Photo: Octane Photography
But just as was the case in the Netherlands dunes 45 years ago, in F1 there can only be one winner - no sharing; no honourable draws. And it was Lewis Hamilton that claimed the prestigious in-more-ways-than-one victory. The at least as impressive Daniel Ricciardo was the one this time to miss out.

Lewis had luck, though you could argue that given how his season has gone so far he was due some. He was also bold, particularly in almost uniquely choosing to skip a stop and go straight to the slicks from the full wet that everyone started on in the streaming conditions, in order to get track position on pole man and pace-setter Ricciardo. He also was bold in his driving, not to mention quick. Perhaps fortune favoured the brave today.

Not that's much compensation to Ricciardo, nor is it any slight on his own fortitude today, which also was considerable. As while there was no travesty in Lewis winning this one there was in Ricciardo losing it. From the off the Australian simply left everyone to be a spec in his rear-view while Lewis was bottled up by his team mate Nico Rosberg. Eventually after some synchronised swimming on lap 16 Lewis was allowed by and made a race of it, though by this time after just eight laps of green flag racing Ricciardo was 14 seconds up the road.

Yet even after Lewis got ahead by eschewing a switch to inters, Ricciardo seemed to have things well under his command, especially when Lewis did pit for slicks and Ricciardo put in a swift in-lap on his warm intermediates, giving his crew plenty of time to bolt slicks on and for his lead to be retained.

Hamilton getting track position on Ricciardo. including in a
lengthy stint on wet tyres, proved vital
Photo: Octane Photography
Unfortunately they took that time and more. Astonishingly the team simply wasn't ready with new tyres, the stop took a whole 13.6 seconds, and underlining just how much had been in hand he only just made it back out behind the Merc. It didn't have the usual explanation of a late call or the driver taking his team by surprise, "I was called into the box. I didn't make the call. I got called. They should have been ready" said Ricciardo pointedly afterwards. Christian Horner some time later explained that there was a last minute decision to put on super-softs rather than softs, which is where the trouble crept in.

From then on it was still tight, but effectively show over. Monaco remains Monaco; track position remains nine tenths of the law (or 9.99 tenths) and come the end Lewis was indeed still ahead. It got tight a couple of times, particularly at the chicane on lap 38 when Lewis under pressure cut it and then rather cut up his opponent on the way out. The stewards investigated it in fact but agreed no action was required, which in the humble opinion of this author was just about right (Lewis was naughty but not sufficiently so to merit a penalty in my view). The only source of doubt really was that Lewis had put on ultra-softs (compared with Ricciardo's super-softs) and they would need careful nursing to make it the 47 laps to the end. This though Lewis did to a nicety. Indeed he managed to stretch his advantage over his pursuer out to more than seven seconds in the late laps.

Lewis was delighted, in contrast to his glum demeanour yesterday. And it got better for him from the championship angle as Rosberg had a difficult day and ended up seventh. Lewis, all of a sudden and after all of his 2016 woe, is within a win of Nico at the championship summit.

Lewis was delighted to take the flag first
Photo: Octane Photography
"I don't know how it looked, but it felt incredible" said the pleased Lewis afterwards, "one of the hardest races, it was the hardest race I ever had to do. The rain is always the trickiest and Monaco is always horrible in the rain."

On it being his first win in upwards of seven months, "I don't feel relieved at all, today I went out there and took what I needed to get...of course it has been a long time, but I just feel incredibly proud of the job we did; the decision that I made to stay out; not crashing...

Lewis insisted too the one fewer stop was a call all of his own. "The team were like 'others are boxing, the intermediate looks quicker, box this lap' and I was like 'no, it's drying real quick so if you box me now I'm going to be coming back in in 10-15 laps anyway and probably going to grain the tyres'.

"Then I started to push. I didn't really have any graining of the tyres, and I was like 'if I can eke it out a little bit longer I might be able to do one stop and come out on slicks'."

He accepted though that it needed something unorthodox like that to defeat Ricciardo this time. "Today I wasn't necessary the quickest in those conditions" said Lewis, "Daniel was incredibly quick, but they had more downforce than us this weekend".

Ricciardo's contrasting demeanour from
Hamilton's told its own tale
Photo: Octane Photography
Ricciardo's demeanour meanwhile had made the opposite journey to Lewis's from Saturday to Sunday, as in contrast to his delight post-quali post the race quietly he seethed. Don't let the usual smile fool you, as Karun Chandhok and others have pointed out there has long been a lot of the smiling assassin about Daniel Ricciardo. And any doubt that anything other than a determined and serious competitor lays underneath the exterior should have been expunged today at his attitude to two race wins on the bounce lost to matters without his (but within his team's) control, what with strategy costing him in Barcelona. There wasn't the tiniest hint of him being content with second.

"Nothing you can say will make that any better. Just save it..." he said to his team on his cool down lap.

His mood didn't improve. "I don't even want to talk about the race to be honest" he said after the podium ceremony, "[the race] shouldn't have been as exciting as it was to be honest. Two weekends in a row I've been screwed now. It sucks. It hurts.

"I thought I was quickest in all conditions, but second place doesn't really show it."

As for Nico? His lack of pace today seemed to befuddle even him. As mentioned Lewis was all over him like a bad suit early on, to the point that Nico agreed to let him by without rancour during or after proceedings, but even then third should probably have been his but when everyone pitted for slicks Nico was held in his box due to there being traffic around, and when it all played out he was down in sixth. He spent the rest of the race staring at Fernando Alonso's gearbox (again, Monaco being Monaco) and on the final tour it got worse as a late rain shower meant Nico Hulkenberg was able to mug him on the line even for that place. Rosberg spoke later of not being able to get his tyres into the 'window'.

Sergio Perez put in another fine drive to the podium
Photo: Octane Photography
"Definitely baffled by that lack of pace initially," he said. "Just felt completely, I don't know what, no confidence in the beginning on those tyres, and then it just didn't go my way in the pitstops. We had an issue at the pitstop.

"As a result of the delay with the issue in the pitstop, then I got traffic so I had to hold and lost even more as cars just went by. And when you're behind cars in Monaco, that's it."

There were plenty of impressive drivers out there behind the front two. Not least Sergio Perez who completed the podium. It is amazingly his sixth podium appearance in F1 and unlike most of the previous ones this didn't rely on stretching out tyre life in a tortoise-beats-hare approach, instead it relied on attack. Perez pitted early for slicks and was rewarded, then on soft tyres that would easily make it to the end he simply pushed, not only keeping the similarly-booted Sebastian Vettel out of his turbulence but also at times looking as if he may close in on the leading pair out ahead. Vettel was another to drive well.

As was the next guy up, in Fernando Alonso, who matched his best ever result back at McLaren of fifth by the old-fashioned expedient of staying out of trouble, pitting at the right time and never making mistakes. He had quite a queue behind him for a while - Nando was sufficiently honest afterwards to admit that the result was far better than his pace - but he was another that you always reckoned whatever else was going on had the thing under control.

Kimi Raikkonen's day was inauspicious though
Photo: Octane Photography
Fully 15 pilots of the 22 made it to the end in this just about modern F1 racing's biggest challenge, further testament to the skill of today's driver-line up. A few let the side down though. Kimi Raikkonen lasted but a handful of laps, first slapping the scenery at Station Hairpin then, his front wing under his wheels, gently sliding into the wall at the next turn too, taking a rather bemused Romain Grosjean with him. Hardly what the Finn needed as rumours of his future employment, or lack of it, continue to swirl. Max Verstappen's future in the sport is more certain but a lot like last season his Monaco weekend ran the gamut - superb pace and often giving the impression of being the only one doing any overtaking, but also unable it seemed to go very long without a prang. His day ended in the Massenet barriers.

Worst of all was the tragi-comic pathos in the Sauber team. Running well down as usual but line astern the team ordered Felipe Nasr to let Marcus Ericsson by. Nasr refused and the pair shortly afterwards decided to take each other out instead. It would have been funny but as we know the Swiss team is locked in a desperate struggle to survive right now.

A little reminder that for all of the front of Monaco, its ostentatious show and wealth, F1 has rather a few conspicuous problems lingering. Today though demonstrated not for the first time that driver talent is far from being one of them. Especially today at the front.

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