Sunday 28 May 2017

Monaco GP Report - Making it work

In F1 even fairy tales tend to be stalked by a wicked witch. There scarcely was a dry eye in the house as Kimi Raikkonen bagged his first pole position in nine years yesterday, and here in Monaco, the most important pole of the year. Yet there was an inevitable accompaniment.

Sebastian Vettel triumphed in the Monaco Grand Prix,
and extends his title lead
Photo: Octane Photography
'Will Ferrari issue a team order in the race?' Or rather 'when will Ferrari issue a team order in the race?' After all from the championship side for the Scuderia it's all about Sebastian Vettel, who lined up alongside the Finn on the grid. The consensus remains that Mercedes will improve. And titles have been lost by far less than the seven-point difference.

As it was the red team did something between issuing an order and not. It gave Seb an opportunity. And he seized it magnificently.

Kimi led Seb off the line, and for the opening stint it was nip and tuck between the two imperious red machines. Kimi quickly established a lead of two seconds or so, but Seb then periodically took bites out of it. Later, particularly as they hit traffic, he got it to under a second.

Against the more cynical predictions Kimi got his new boots at his solitary stop first, giving Vettel a clear track. Initially it didn't look like it would do much to change the order as the Finn was marginally quicker. But then Seb really cut loose, setting first a 1m 15.5, upwards of a half a second quicker than Kimi, then an astonishing 1m 15.2...

Raikkonen led Vettel off the line
Photo: Octane Photography
Seb then was boxed, five laps after Kimi, and retained his lead comfortably. And that was pretty much that. Seb indeed underlined as much by being upwards of 10 seconds clear of his team mate 10 laps later. Despite dramas elsewhere towards the end Seb's victory was never threatened.

Whatever the huff and puff that will come also inevitably, this race found a worthy winner. Seb simply was the quickest out there by a way and was so just about all weekend. And whatever the huff and puff, Seb was offered no sort of gimme by his team; he could only make the switch work with stunning pace. Which he delivered.

"This is one of those rare times where the 'overcut' [stopping after a rival] is positive," Seb noted later. Indeed - in Monaco rhythm counts for a lot and tyre degradation is near-nothing. For what it's worth too Ferrari missed out on a win here in 2012 from not having enough faith in it.

And it cannot be denied that Ferrari's presence adds froth (we can but speculate on the reasons for this). After all, think of the team that twice asked its 'number two' driver to clear out the way of its 'number one' in Bahrain a few weeks back, then in Spain used the said 'number two' as a literal back up man, leaving him out on worn tyres to get in the way of an opponent. That was Mercedes. And almost nothing was said.

Whatever the complaints, Vettel was clearly the
fastest this weekend
Photo: Octane Photography
Seb of course afterwards had his cherubic smile in full beam. "Unbelievable, it was a very intense race," he added.

And he knew which bit of it was vital. "I had a couple of laps where the car was really good, pushed with everything I had as I knew there was a chance to win and that's it, so was able to use that [and] came out ahead. I could control the race.

When asked if the strategy was planned to get him ahead, Seb insisted "no not really...[you] couldn't plan much, the plan was to try and pull away, which we did.

"I had a bit of a gap, nothing to lose in P2, tried to push as hard as possible - within two laps I was surprised myself to be able to pull a gap to be able to come out in front."

Kimi meanwhile was non-forthcoming on the matter (though it's worth reflecting that he tends to be non-forthcoming even in triumph). "I don't know. Obviously it didn't work out very well for me," said the Finn.

"Other than that... not much I can say about it. It's still second place, but it doesn't count a lot in my books at least.

Raikkonen was non-forthcoming afterwards
Photo: Octane Photography
"It doesn't feel awfully good - that is how it goes sometimes. One of those days we should have had a bit more."

Bottom line too, Seb got a 19-point swing on his title foe Lewis Hamilton today, taking his advantage from a tiddly six to a towering 25. That's why it made sense. And the bottom of the bottom line is that F1 is a tough business.

Today also ended Ferrari's uncanny 16-year drought at this venue. And with a 1-2 in quali and the race. That's the way to do it. Once again, this red machine isn't looking like leaving the stage any time soon.

The next three - Valtteri Bottas's Merc and the Red Bull pair - were close to each other and pretty close to the Ferraris throughout. And just like the red duo their order was resolved at pit stop time.

Max Verstappen pitted first, Valtteri Bottas came in a lap later to cover him off, and Ricciardo like Vettel stayed out and pumped in some great lap times to emerge ahead of them after he pitted (perhaps we should cry conspiracy in Red Bull's direction too...). They finished in that order, with Max particularly annoyed. Ricciardo however gave Kimi little peace for the rest of the way, and finished just six tenths behind in completing the podium.

Daniel Ricciardo completed the podium
Photo: Octane Photography
While Lewis did a yeoman job to finish seventh, which even he said was about as much (or more) that could be expected from starting 13th. He didn't look much more potent in the race initially than in qualifying but ran long before pitting (another one), and seemed to improve as the day went on. Indeed he was harassing sixth-placed Carlos Sainz by the end, the Spaniard once again hardly seen but utterly brilliant.

Haas meanwhile got its first ever double-points finish. Romain Grosjean ran in the top ten throughout and got eighth, while Kevin Magnussen stayed out of trouble to get the final point.

This trouble concentrated in the race's latter half. Jenson Button was frustrated, as his scheme to switch tyres after one lap and run to the end from there was scuppered somewhat by Pascal Wehrlein doing the same thing and running just ahead (aided by an unsafe pit release, for which the German got a time penalty which was of no immediate use to Jenson). On lap 60 the frustration culminated in Jenson taking an ill-advised lunge at Portiers and removing himself as well as leaving Wehrlein's Sauber literally on its side. Wehrlein thankfully was OK, but equally out of the race.

Haas got its first ever double-points finish
Photo: Octane Photography
Daniil Kvyat and Sergio Perez collided late on after Checo also took a frustrated lunge at his opponent, this time at Rascasse, which put Kvyat out and Checo into the pits for a new front wing (his second switch of the day - after first lap contact required an earlier than ideal first pit stop - which may have contributed to the Mexican's mood). On fresh tyres though Perez had the minor consolation of setting fastest lap twice...

It all contributed to only 13 cars running at the end. While in a reverse of the usual scenario Williams scored a point today - Felipe Massa finished ninth - while Force India didn't get any.

"The plan was to win," noted Seb, returning to Ferrari's strategy matter. And that's what it did. And will remain the case long after any bickering has died down.

And it's that and everything that went with it which should be occupying ithe Italian team's rivals. Not least the previously-haughty Mercedes.

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