Saturday 28 May 2016

Monaco Qualifying - A place for stars...

In a place known for attracting stars, today was one for possibly F1's very brightest. Daniel Ricciardo's sheer sparkle in and out of the car is not to be denied and today he made good on the former at least in qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix. That most important pole of all, for more reasons than one, is his. And is his in stupendous style.

The bright star of Daniel Ricciardo took his first ever F1 pole
Photo: Octane Photography
"My time" concluded the triumphant Australian on his cool down lap. Not only was that apt but was another thing that could have more than one simultaneous interpretation.

Given everything you had to remind yourself it was in fact his first ever pole in F1. "It's been my time for a little while" Ricciardo added picking up the theme later, "and here it's the most rewarding place as you know, sure we've got a great car and the upgrade has helped us this weekend with the power unit, but there's that bigger percentage of driver difference here than at any other place on the calendar, so that's a nice little one". All was said with his habitual broadest of smiles of course.

But his lap time too, from his first effort in the vital final part of qualifying, sent reverberations up and down the pit lane - a 1m 13.622 mark that at the time Nico Rosberg could only get to around three tenths of and Sebastian Vettel barely within a second. Ricciardo promised in advance he would be "ragging it" in Monaco. I'm uncool and therefore not sure what that means, but from watching his astonishing and danger defying commitment through the final turns of that crucial lap he may have provided a clue. It certainly was on the ragged edge. "Just dynamite" was how his boss Christian Horner summed it up.

It also was in a lot of ways not surprising. There were some reasons to think beforehand the Mercedes could finally step down this time on pure pace and to the Red Bull - the RB12's chassis is though to be the best out there, particularly at low speed, and any power deficit is not exposed so much in Monaco's confines, though even so Ricciardo had a Renault upgrade reckoned to be worth around two tenths per lap. And indeed Ricciardo's looked the quickest thing out there in Monaco this weekend almost from the point a wheel was first turned in free practice. To a degree that this time not even Mercedes cranking everything up especially for qualifying was enough to dash the hopes of the pretender.

Ricciardo's lap for pole was stunning
Photo: Octane Photography
Perhaps with our eulogies over his precocious team mate Max Verstappen and his recent endeavours - justified though they were - we forgot about Ricciardo too readily. Let us not forget that after the Mercs taking each other out the race in Spain was in the Australian's hands; indeed he'd qualified four tenths quicker than young Max. That is before Red Bull decided to get funky with his strategy and which tilted the race to Verstappen.

And all of this appeared to be in Ricciardo's mind later judging by his words: "I knew coming into the weekend we'd have a shot at it. It looked good from Thursday. I sort of had it in my mind the whole time coming into the weekend.

"I think also after Barcelona, the last few races, I felt like... I've been driving well but haven't quite got maximum rewards. I came into this weekend with a lot of confidence and a lot of belief that I could be in this position now. I'm very happy to have fulfilled that. It feels good. I've always enjoyed this place. The car's good, we've got a good package behind us now, it's nice to make the most out of it."

The only minor note of regret from the qualifying session is that we just might have been denied a titanic scrap for pole. For the first time in a good while we entered a quali hour with genuine expectation of a multi-car battle over the top slot, between the Red Bulls (particularly Ricciardo's as noted), the Mercedes (natch) and perhaps Vettel's Ferrari, which had topped the Saturday morning practice session. Yet, we thought, as noted Merc tends to find a little extra for the important bit of qualifying...

Max Verstappen's qualifying session ended in the barriers
Photo: Octane Photography
It looked for a time that something like that would happen too, at least in Lewis Hamilton's case. Verstappen after his Spain high had rather an Icarus moment in Q1, removing himself from the battle after tagging the barrier and binning his RB12 - the latest to discover that millimetres mean a lot at this circuit - meaning he'll start from the pit lane. The pole battle distilled further, particularly in Q2 when Hamilton whizzed round to set a 1m 14 flat, which was around half a second quicker than anyone else was managing at that point. It looked like his pole, perhaps with Ricciardo the only likely challenger.

But, about as astonishing, for the third time in six qualifying sessions in 2016 Lewis's engine faltered at the start of Q3. It wasn't it appeared a repeat of his previous MGU-H woes but rather, according to Toto Wolff, a "fuel pressure problem" that affected both cars. Niki Lauda added that it was related to "temperature".

And the impediments this entailed for Hamilton, given where we were, were multiple. The Monaco qualifying hour challenges like no other. It's all about building up rhythm and momentum meaning time on track is precious; the track's increase in grip as running continues is almost like a cliff edge meaning healthy looking times can drop quickly down the order like a lead balloon. Add to this that qualifying probably does more to frame the race result here than at any other venue. In other words, while Lewis did get back on track before the end his challenge was rather a vast one.

He also ended up cruising for several laps, which led most to believe that whatever his problem was it hadn't cleared up. But it transpired he was doing things in the style of Carlos Reutemann, building himself up gradually for one last effort where he put it all on the line. It looked like it might even get him all the way back to the front but an iffy final sector meant P3, behind Ricciardo and Merc team mate Rosberg, and three tenths off the pace, was his lot.

Lewis Hamilton was not happy at a pole chance lost
Photo: Octane Photography
It was a save, but not thought by Lewis as much more as evidenced by his glum demeanour afterwards. "Pole was there for the taking I think", he mused.

"It was a difficult qualifying, I don't really know what to say at the moment" he added. "The good thing is that I did get out to do a lap at least, it wasn't as bad as some of the races have been in that respect with the engine problems. I'm grateful to be up in third."

His words though betrayed what he thought of his third-placed starting slot. "I will do what I can in the race tomorrow to salvage what I can from today's result." Salvage.

Rosberg looked more content with second, as well as might as his words indicated that he wasn't in the fight with Ricciardo. "I don't think it went away from me" he said of his pole chances, "it never was with me. Daniel was just quick today. So they got a well-deserved pole and that's it. Just wasn't quick enough." At least one 2016 chief theme continued though, that Rosberg progressed serenely and picked up the pieces discarded from others' fumbles.

It got even better for Ricciardo in today's round. Monaco's lack of overtaking is legendary of course, but so these days is its lack of race strategy options. Even though the two softest compounds will be run both are thought to last easily - indeed some reckon they could do a whole race on the super-soft if the regs allowed such a thing. For Lewis too options look limited, short of getting past his team mate off the line, given Merc's practice of prioritising the car ahead. Plus in any case given the frequency of safety cars here teams are likely to wait for an opportune appearance of one to make their solitary stops.

Ferrari had another bewildering qualifying hour
Photo: Octane Photography
But one thing that may jumble things is the Virtual Safety Car, which in the first of the GP2 races this weekend really shuffled the deck and helped someone who started 15th win the thing.

Yet this is all assuming it stays dry of course, and showers have been forecast for Sunday for a while. But then again, given Ricciardo's skill, judgement and bravery allied with a Red Bull - always strong in the wet - you wouldn't bet much against him in those circumstances either.

Ferrari's rather underwhelming 2016 continued. As mentioned Vettel topped the times in FP3 but that owed something to getting in a lap late in the session without Monaco's habitual traffic getting in his way, and in any case someone pointed out that Vettel had topped three out of the last five FP3s but hasn't gone on to qualify on the front row in any of them. This run continued today as he'll start tomorrow in fourth. Worse his best was near enough a second slower than Ricciardo's. Vettel's was a face that could stop a clock afterwards. But he's in a better place in every sense than his team mate Kimi Raikkonen who was sixth in the order but adds five to it for his starting slot due to a gearbox change.

Nico Hulkenberg could be well pleased with his
qualifying effort
Photo: Octane Photography
Others to have a better day were Force India and Toro Rosso. Nico Hulkenberg grabbed an elevated slot of fifth, and his is a tale similar to Ricciardo's in that he's a highly-rated pilot but one perhaps we're guilty of forgetting about particularly as he struggles with sub-standard machinery. The fine-handling Toro Rosso showed up well too and another man sometimes forgotten too readily, Carlos Sainz, qualified seventh and will start sixth following Kimi's penalty, and ended up half a second better off than his team mate Daniil Kvyat, who starts eighth after the Kimi drop.

Monaco's a place for stars as mentioned. But possibly in F1 - lived only in the moment; fads formed and conclusions jumped to quickly - we neglect occasionally to look towards some of those that shine brighter than most. After today though, we have no excuse at all for ever ignoring Daniel Ricciardo's considerable light.


  1. What happened to the camera man when he was filming Karun Chandhok? He (the camera man) was like a 4 year old on Coke, E#, and 10kl of chocolate! If he keeps doing that trick with the camera work I'll watch east enders!

    1. I didn't see but have heard a few people talking about it, so I'm now desperately trying to find a video of it... :)