One could say it was luck, one could say it was skill, but there is no doubt that Sebastian Vettel used both of those precious elements to take yesterday’s Monaco Grand Prix.
Two safety car periods and late race red flag were unable to stop the reigning champion from picking up his fifth victory of the season – if anything, they helped Vettel’s cause.
As the German crossed the line to a jubilant Red Bull reception, a resigned Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button followed behind – clearly unable to close the gap to Vettel in the final segment of what was a fantastic Grand Prix.
Such is Vettel’s stellar form at the moment, he led with ease from pole position, building a four-second lead over Button in the early stages, while the McLaren man held off Alonso’s roving Ferrari.
Having qualified 4th, the Spaniard needed a good start and he got it, having jumped the other Red Bull of Mark Webber off the line.
Michael Schumacher also had a poor getaway. The Mercedes veteran launched from his grid slot – and then halted – and then pulled away again, dropping to 10th from 5th.
On the approach into the first corner, Schumacher nudged the rear of Lewis Hamilton, splitting shards of silver-coloured carbon fibre across the tarmac. The McLaren – slightly unsettled – would soon be passed by Schumacher into Loews hairpin; a move expertly executed.
Hamilton took the place back on the 10th tour, as Schumacher’s rear tyres fell apart, before Rubens Barrichello (Williams) demoted Schumacher even further the next time by. His pace gone, the 42-year-old pitted for a new front wing and set of supersoft rubber on lap 13.
Nico Rosberg was also finding his Pirelli’s a tough prospect in the second Mercedes. The German jumped to 5th from 7th on the grid, but was soon under pressure as he struggled for grip. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), Pastor Maldonado (Williams), Vitaly Petrov (Renault) and eventually Hamilton all drew to the Mercedes and it was Massa’s impatience that curtailed Rosberg’s struggle.
A half-hearted move into St Devote on lap 15, saw the Ferrari pilot clip the rear of the Mercedes, spreading yet more debris across the racing line. The destabilised Rosberg quickly became easy meat for both Massa and Maldonado, before the Mercedes driver darted for the pitlane.
Changing the Race
Also in the pits was Button. Being the first of the leaders to stop would be the first key turning point of the race – whereas the McLaren crew were quick and clean, the Red Bull team left a lot to be desired.
As Vettel pulled into his box, neither his pitcrew, nor his new set of softs were ready. Amidst the calamity, Button jumped Vettel, effectively gifting the McLaren driver the lead.
The disaster was not yet over for Red Bull. Webber entered the pits, also to be met my missing tyres and unprepared mechanics, causing the Australian to fall deep into the pack.
Alonso’s fed in just behind Vettel after his 18th lap stop, but as the field filtered out, Button led from Vettel, Alonso, while a distant Massa ran 4th.
Now it was Button’s race and the Englishman grabbed the initiative with both hands. Soaring on his supersofts, Button built a huge gap over the chasing pair – on lap 19 it was 6 seconds; lap 22 it was 9.7 seconds; and by lap 25 it was 11.6 seconds.
It would take until the 30th tour before Vettel began to peg Button’s pace – by which time, the McLaren driver possessed an advantage of 14 seconds.
While Button’s race was coming together nicely, Hamilton’s was dissolving before his very eyes. With one-third of the race run, the former-Champion was locked into 7th place – stuck in a battle with Maldonado (5th) and Petrov (6th); neither of whom were pitting soon. Desperate for clean air, McLaren ordered Hamilton in on lap 23 – only to not be ready for him.
The scramble for four tyres would be crucial – despite running slower laps on old tyres, Massa still managed to emerge ahead of Hamilton when the Brazilian finally pitted on lap 27. Worse still for Hamilton, Webber cleared the pair of them.
When Maldonado and Petrov did eventually stop (on laps 26 and 29 respectively), both filed in behind the McLaren in 13th and 14th spots.
Getting it Right and Very Wrong
Force India’s Paul di Resta was another driver spending far too long in the pitlane, only this time the error was his won doing. The young Scot attempted an ill-advised move on Jaime Alguersuari (Toro Rosso) into Loews hairpin for 15th place, clattering the Spaniard in the process – it would earn di Resta a drive through penalty for the error and further add to what was becoming a disappointing weekend.
Schumacher would show how to make the move at Loews on lap 30; although the veteran had a more willing victim in this instance as he passed Rosberg. Sadly for the veteran, his race would not last too much longer – a fire inside the airbox of the Mercedes stopped Schumacher at the pitlane entry on lap 35.
The Mercedes pilot wasn’t the only driver to pull off. Timo Glock suffered a damaged suspension on the 34th lap – it gave the Virgin pilot no option to retire, once again leaving Glock watching from the sideline.
Little of this mattered to Hamilton, yet one could argue that the Englishman should applied some of Schumacher’s tact at the tight Loews hairpin.
Trapped under the wing of Massa on the 34th lap, the McLaren pulled an over-enthusiastic move down the inside of the tight turn, only to smack the left sidepod of the Brazilian. As the Ferrari took the corner, Hamilton had not drawn fully alongside Massa, making the collision inevitable.
It was enough to push Massa into Webber, hampering the Ferrari through Portier. As Hamilton got alongside Massa in the tunnel, the Brazilian slid offline on the tyre marbles and hit the barrier – hard. Safety car.
For Hamilton, the penalty came – deservedly – a drive through on lap 44 the result, dropping him to 9th position, back behind Maldonado and Petrov. Déjà vu.
The disadvantage would be all McLaren. Having pitted for new supersofts at the beginning of the lap, Button suddenly found himself in 3rd in the middle of a bunched-up pack.
Alonso too pitted on lap 35 (as did numerous others), dropping behind the Englishman; however while Vettel and Alonso had used both tyre compounds, the McLaren pilot still had to taste the soft Pirelli’s.
What advantage Button may have had under racing conditions, was now disappearing – there were even three lapped cars between he and the leader.
Yet Red Bull seemed keen to play a curious game. Having stopped early, Vettel was staying out – it gave him the lead of the race, but would mean he would suffer the soft tyres for the duration.
A Challenge Halted
As the race returned to green conditions on lap 39, Vettel took advantage of Button’s difficulties with traffic, by pulling a four second gap on the McLaren.
Not for long though.
As Button emerged from the lapped trio, he upped the pace, pulling to the rear of Vettel by the 43rd tour – were Button to take this race, he would have to pass for the lead.
Vettel for all his youth and relative inexperience soaked up the pressure – Button was not getting passed any time soon. Alonso, meanwhile, was some six seconds in arrears of the leading pair, but as Vettel’s tyres aged, the pace at the front dissipated and Alonso drew himself slowly back into contention.
Button stopped for the third time on lap 48, this time making the mandatory change to soft tyres – it dropped him to 3rd, but gave him instant pace.
It was clear now that neither Vettel nor Alonso would need to stop again – if Button wanted to win, he would have to take the leading pair on track and at Monaco, that does not come easily.
As the McLaren emerged, the gap was 19.9 seconds; however Button – undeterred by the task – began setting purple sectors everywhere.
The fight for 4th place was becoming equally frantic, but for very different reasons. Having started down in 14th, Force India’s Adrian Sutil stayed out on his initial set of tyres until the first safety car – his pace steady, but not startling – it would bring him to 4th place by the 45th lap.
On his rear was Kamui Kobayashi in the Sauber on an identical strategy – in his case, the Japanese driver had started 12th and made his way to 5th. Sadly, Kobayashi was flying solo in the race – his rookie teammate, Sergio Perez, having been injured during the latter stages of qualifying.
Behind this pair, Webber had stayed on track during the safety car period, enabling the Australian to recover to 6th, not far ahead of the Maldonado / Petrov / Hamilton fight. Of the chasing foursome Webber (lap 56), Maldonado (lap 55) and Hamilton (lap 50) all made their final stops, giving Petrov enough clean air to catch the Sutil / Kobayashi battle.
The cracks shun eventually. A half-dive down the inside of Mirabeau saw Kobayashi nudge Sutil’s rear every so slightly – with the Force India slowing considerably, Kobayashi finished the move to assume 4th.
With fresh rubber and determination, Webber wasn’t hanging around either. Moves on the gripless Petrov (lap 66) and the bruised Sutil (lap 67) brought the Australian to 5th – the chase to Kobayashi was on.
Pressure Cooker Racing
Up front, the distance between the leading trio was shrinking considerably with each circulation of the track, as Button set about putting fastest lap after fastest lap. From 19.9 seconds, the gap had already closed to 14.5 on lap 53 and 7.5 on lap 57.
Alonso was also closing in on Vettel. As Button drew in on the leaders, the Ferrari was already on Vettel’s rear wing. Like in Barcelona seven days previously, Vettel was going to have to soak up some serious pressure, while Alonso crawled all the Red Bull, searching for a way passed.
But… Vettel defended hard and fairly. His repeatedly good exit from Anthony Noghes, gave Vettel ample breathing space into St Devote. It was the same at the end of the tunnel, where a solid exit from Portier denied Alonso an opportunity to get by.
As much as Vettel’s Pirelli tyres were degrading, Alonso – and soon Button – could do nothing. By the 62nd lap, the trio were line astern around the Monte Carlo circuit, but no one had enough of an advantage to strike out.
Come lap 69, everything was annulled. As the leaders pulled up to the back of 4th-9th place battle, Sutil’s right rear tyre shredded.
A slow hop over the kerb’s at the Swimming Pool back the entire field into eachother, causing a pile-up that would see Hamilton slow severely, before being rear-ended by Alguersuari, who was in turn clumped by Petrov.
The Renault then turned in on the barrier, knocking the Russian unconscious momentarily. Broken suspension bars invaded the monocoque, causing severe bruising to Petrov’s legs – for certain, Petrov – like Perez the day before – is a very lucky boy. For three laps, the safety car circulated, but when it became clear the medical staff needed room, the red flag was thrown.
It was controversial of course, but under the rules, all the remaining drivers were allowed to change on to fresh tyres. Hamilton – who had received rear wing damaged – received a fix under stopped conditions. After a 20 minute delay, the signal to restart was given.
A (Very) Brief Run to the Flag
Naturally, the switch to fresh tyres negated any advantage that Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button had built up and as the race restarted, Sebastian Vettel took the final few laps easily, but not easily enough to lose the race.
In this instance, it really is difficult to fault Vettel – he had done everything that was asked for him and brought home twenty-five more points, but Alonso and Button may still lament the amount of luck that fell Red Bull’s way
Whether it be brilliantly timed safety cars or red flags, everything played to Vettel’s advantage – that he played it perfectly on track is simply icing on the Monegasque cake.
Alonso shadowed Vettel to the end, but there was nothing that the Ferrari driver could do. The Red Bull was too strong where it mattered, while the Ferrari was not strong enough where Red Bull were weak. The same could be said of Button too, who over a single lap had the pace to take the front two, but didn’t have the grunt in traffic.
Once again Kamui Kobayashi drove a very strong race for Sauber, but even he could not hold off Mark Webber after the restart.
As the Australian pressed the Sauber driver through Loews, then Portier and through the tunnel, Kobayashi missed his braking point approaching the chicane, cutting the corner slowly, giving Webber 4th in the process.
…and the Rest
As for Lewis Hamilton, his nightmarish Monaco Grand Prix came to a close amidst more controversy. While the McLaren driver laid pressure on the Pastor Maldonado, the Williams driver defended vigorously – possibly too vigorously into St Devote on the 74th lap.
Hamilton dived down the inside of the Williams, taking fully to the pitlane exit as Maldonado closed the door hard – there would be only one result and with a clatter Maldonado was sent into the barriers, while Hamilton continued on. It would give Maldonado a non-finish and Hamilton a 20-second post-race penalty.
Realistically, it was an ambitious move by the McLaren driver that wasn’t quite on – especially considering Hamilton had to take to the pitlane and hop the kerb’s to get close to being alongside the Venezuelan…
Adrian Sutil had a better weekend. A brief tyre change prior to the red flag left him 7th and one lap down, yet still ahead of the invisible Nick Heidfeld (8th, Renault), Rubens Barrichello (9th) and Sebastien Buemi (10th, Toro Rosso).
It was something of a consolidation prize for the Williams squad, who had scored no points until this race, while Buemi’s single points score goes a long way to securing his seat at Toro Rosso for the season.
Nico Rosberg and Paul di Resta took 11th and 12th respectively after difficult day’s, yet for Lotus, the Monaco Grand Prix held positives, with Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen coming home 13th and 14th ahead of Jerome d’Ambrosio in the Virgin (15th).
Both Hispania’s made it to the flag in 16th and 17th, led by Vitantonio Liuzzi. The pattered around the track for the duration about five-six laps off the pace, eventually losing three laps to the victors.
With round 7 in Montreal two weeks away, Vettel has a massive 58 point lead over Hamilton, with Webber and Alonso a further 6 and 9 points adrift respectively.
It is well known that Montreal is not a Red Bull favourite thanks to its concentration on power and lack of high speed-downforce reliant corners – if ever the following pack need to break the Red Bull spell, Canada may be the place to do it.
Race Rating: 4.5 out of 5
The Monaco Grand Prix Monte Carlo, Monaco 78 laps; 260.520km; Weather: Sunny Pos Driver Team Time 1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 2h09:38.373 2. Alonso Ferrari + 1.138 3. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 2.378 4. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 23.100 5. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 26.900 6. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 47.200 (*20-sec penalty) 7. Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 1 lap 8. Heidfeld Renault + 1 lap 9. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 1 lap 10. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap 11. Rosberg Mercedes + 1 lap 12. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 2 laps 13. Trulli Lotus-Renault + 2 laps 14. Kovalainen Lotus-Renault + 2 laps 15. D'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps 16. Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth + 3 laps 17. Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth + 3 laps 18. Maldonado Williams-Cosworth + 5 laps Fastest lap: Webber, 1:16.234 Not classified/retirements: Driver Team On lap Petrov Renault 68 Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 68 Massa Ferrari 33 Schumacher Mercedes 33 Glock Virgin-Cosworth 31 Perez Sauber-Ferrari DNS World Championship standings, round 6: Drivers: 1. Vettel 143 2. Hamilton 85 3. Webber 79 4. Button 76 5. Alonso 69 6. Heidfeld 29 7. Rosberg 26 8. Massa 24 9. Petrov 21 10. Kobayashi 19 11. Schumacher 14 12. Sutil 8 13. Buemi 7 14. Perez 2 15. Barrichello 2 16. Di Resta 2 World Championship standings, round 6: Constructors: 1. Red Bull-Renault 222 2. McLaren-Mercedes 161 3. Ferrari 93 4. Renault 50 5. Mercedes 40 6. Sauber-Ferrari 21 7. Force India-Mercedes 10 8. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 7 9. Williams-Cosworth 2