Race Review: Monaco 25th-28th Of May, Round 6

Introduction

So here we are then, the world famous Monaco street circuit for round 6 of the Formula 1 calendar. This place literally oozes history and wonderful memories as an ever present in the sport since 1955 and constructed as far back as 1929. The tight winding barriers have changed much over the years, including an addition of the swimming pool chicane and the widening of Rascasse. But one thing is constant: to be quick around here is a proper statement of a driver’s ability and sheer courage, with the aim to scrape the barriers as close as possible, with often only lightning reactions keeping the walls at bay. The sharp turns including the Hairpin, which is the slowest corner on the whole calendar, have been mastered by many greats during the sport’s history. Stirling Moss clocked three wins in the 50’s before Graham Hill’s 5-win domination from 1963 to 1969. Hill then remained the master of Monaco until the 10-year period of 1984 to 1993 where Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna incredibly won all ten of the races until the shattering impact of Senna’s death. Prost chalked up 4 but it was Senna who is the undisputed king round the principality: his 6 wins is still the record for the Grand Prix. Since then the fixture has been more disputed, but modern day heroes such as Michael Schumacher, David Coulthard, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg have all clocked 2 or more race wins. As you can see, this race is a huge scalp for any driver and is the main reason why Daniel Ricciardo was so sore over his team’s mess up in the pit stops last season, which handed Hamilton the win. Everyone wants to win the Monaco Grand Prix, it is part of the ‘Triple Crown’ of motorsport and the absolute ‘Jewel Of The Calendar’ above all else. Some people think that F1’s cars have outgrown the race-track and want it to be scrapped. I vehemently disagree; it is the epitome of driver endurance and concentration set within a rich tapestry of historical sporting excellence.

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Race winner: Sebastian Vettel.

Speaking of the Triple Crown, this weekend also marks Fernando Alonso’s participation in the Indy500 over in America. Many have been glued to the coverage of his inaugural oval race that he is currently undertaking on track at the time of this being written. I plan to write a short review, encompassing my thoughts on his time over at Indy and what I, as an F1 fan thought of the American variant of open wheel racing. That should be out soon, so it would be great if you could join me for that as well. But back to F1, Fernando’s absence means the one race return of a certain Jenson Button, another favourite of the sport. Jenson has spoken of how he is grateful to return for this race despite not wishing to contest in 2017 at all. I have my doubts that he is overjoyed to drive such an awful car, but how he does is just one thing that we will explore below. For this post I am going to make a slight departure from my usual method and try to cover qualifying in a little more detail: this is after all Monaco and more often than not where a driver qualifies usually helps to dictate finishing position. Overtakes are rare, but with the ever present possibility of a safety car and the heightened importance of track position then we see a keen focus on teams strategy as they try to edge their men up the field. I will try to explore all of these aspects and more below.

Ferrari (1st & 2nd)scuderia_ferrari_logo_red-bgnd[1]Sebastian Vettel, P1: I am a little stuck on what to think of Vettel’s race. Whilst he showed good turns of pace and was completely consistent throughout, I cannot get the bitter feeling out of my mind that he was somewhat handed the race win by his team at Raikkonen’s expense. For the majority of the weekend he was actually left in Kimi’s wake, most of all in qualifying. On one hand you can point to Vettel’s excellent execution of well timed ‘pushing’ laps around the pitstop section and say that his win is legitimate. But on the other side it has to be admitted that going long around Monaco is always a good option in order to maintain track position and it was the team’s call to let Vettel have that option ahead of the leading Raikkonen. It is a hard one to call, but something just feels off for me: whilst his pace and performance were good enough for the win, I would have just preferred him to win in a less dubious manner. Regardless of opinion he is now a full race win ahead of Hamilton in the points, due to the Brits struggles.

Kimi Raikkonen, P2: Regardless of Kimi’s fate in the race I feel that we should put aside a little time to focus on what was simply a stellar qualifying lap. So far this season I feel that Kimi has quietly been getting used to the car behind Seb; but this weekend that work paid off and he really came into his own as he recorded his first pole position since France 2008. His last Q3 attempt found even more time where there appeared to be none to find, so was pretty Senna-esque in style. In fact even the king himself would have been happy with the hustling showcased in sector 3. Yet Kimi’s efforts weren’t good enough for Ferrari apparently, who effectively handed Raikkonen a bum deal in the race: pitting him first but into traffic and letting Vettel gain clean air to pump in the lap times. This swapped the drivers and gave Sebastian the win. Call me old fashioned, but Kimi was the fastest on Saturday and should have been allowed to reap what he sowed. I am not happy with Ferrari from a sporting point of view in this regard: the data would have told them that leaving a driver out longer was more beneficial. As the lead driver in the race Kimi should have received this strategy and he should feel very hard done by. He deserved the win and predictably backed off in demotivation as he saw Vettel emerge from the pits in the lead.

Team Summary: Objectively this was a triumphant weekend for Ferrari, they not only retook the lead of the constructor championship but built a big gap of 17 points to Mercedes. Vettel’s win coupled with Hamilton’s struggles also increased his gap at the top at a vitally important time. The only problem for Ferrari will be appeasing a rather miffed Raikkonen, whether they choose to do this sooner or later is up to them.

Mercedes (4th & 7th)
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Valtteri Bottas, P4: Bottas’ qualifying was a perfect showing on how close Mercedes and Ferrari are to each other, just 0.002 seconds split the Finn from Vettel ahead of him. The gap is frighteningly close and just one slip up here or there can make all the difference and if those add up then races and championships fade away. Bottas actually showed Lewis up this weekend in many ways, being quicker all the way through practice and qualifying. However, in the race Valtteri was jumped by Ricciardo’s strong pace in the pit-stop phase and fell one place to 4th, which is where he stayed to the conclusion despite Verstappen’s attempts to get past him with fresher tyres

Lewis Hamilton, P7: Contrary to Raikkonen, Hamilton’s qualifying was pretty dismal and unfortunate in equal measure; topping off what was a bizarre series of mistakes by Mercedes throughout the weekend. The team themselves admitted that they got set up of Hamilton’s car wrong on Thursday, meaning he was playing catch up on Saturday morning in FP3 before qualifying even began. The result seemed to be that Hamilton’s car, in his own words, was “like a bucking bull” and had a huge deficit on rear-end grip. Indeed, he had a number of scary moments at the top of the hill in Casino Square, meaning he had to abandon two timed laps in Q2. As we know it never rains but pours, so when Lewis finally did string a lap together that might have been more representative it was thwarted when Stoffel Vandoorne hit the inside barrier at the second pool chicane. Hamilton was behind him on track and the subsequent yellow flags meant that there was no time left in the session for the Brit to have another go. Amazingly, Hamilton started this race in P13 due to Jenson Button’s penalty which spookily enough last happened in the same fateful race as Kimi’s last pole: France 2008. In the race Hamilton was predictably ordered to stay out for the long haul and coupled with a move off the line on Vandoorne managed to rise to 7th, which is where he stayed throughout the safety car period and to the end of the race. A tough race weekend for the Brit and he needs to start clawing back the gap to Vettel, starting next time out.

Team Summary: On the flip side this was a disastrous weekend for Mercedes and it was entirely by their own making. Their inability to find the right set up for Hamilton’s car meant that they were playing damage limitation from Saturday morning onwards. The result is the loss of the constructor lead and that their leading driver is beginning to look out of touch with Vettel ahead. There will be plenty of opportunities to address both of these problems, but they need a good weekend in Canada to avoid poor morale across the board in all of team, mechanics and drivers.

Red Bull-Renault (3rd & 5th)
_em_logo_soc001Daniel Ricciardo, P3:
Strangely in Q3, Red Bull chose to only send Daniel out once. This was hardly helpful for building up pace and a feel for the track conditions. On top of that, Red Bull inexplicably put Daniel out in traffic when there was clear air behind him, which he called a “stupid, silly error” afterwards. When all was said and done it meant that at the start he was looking at the back of Max’s car, which was in P4. A strong show of pace in the race around the pit stop phase meant that the Aussie climbed from 5th to 3rd, helped by his team mate’s misfortune of pitting too early. He then set about trying to reel in Raikkonen until the safety car on lap 60. Following the safety car Daniel had a scary brush with the barrier down in turn 1, but he held on to the podium places despite the resulting challenge from Bottas.

Max Verstappen, P5: It was much to Verstappen’s frustration that he went backwards in the race from his 4th placed qualifying position. Much of the issue revolved around a poor decision from the team to try to undercut Bottas into third, which lost Max a lot of time and actually meant that he was jumped by both the Finn and his own team-mate. Later in the race he pitted again under the safety car and tried to use new tyres to get past Bottas into 4th, but was not able to find an opportunity. Fundamentally, in comparison to Max’s only previous two outings at Monaco, this is a marked improvement; this time he at least finished the race and kept it out of the barriers.

Team Summary: At this point it is clear that Red Bull are fighting Force India behind them rather than Mercedes or Ferrari ahead of them, due to their power deficit. So much like McLaren-Honda this low speed track was a big chance for good points for Red Bull against their rivals. In this they achieved their aim in spades; a strong podium and an extra 10 points from Verstappen came at a perfect time where Force India struggled.

Force India-Mercedes (12th & 13th)
SaharaForceIndiaEsteban Ocon, P12: Qualifying this weekend marked the first chink in Ocon’s hugely impressive armour this season. Whilst Perez managed to get 7th place on the grid, Esteban languished down in P16 and was unable to manage a strong showing. However, all of this might be explained by the crash he suffered in FP3. In Monaco it is vital to carry momentum and confidence throughout the weekend’s duration. His shunt in practice will have surely affected him negatively in terms of pace as well as meaning a slightly different car. His weekend then only got worse as he was forced to make a second pitstop on lap 40 due to a left rear puncture. This left him down in 17th and that was all they wrote for the young Frenchman who only rose in the standings to his final 12th place due to retirements and Perez having a late shunt.

Sergio Perez, P13: For most of the race Perez was looking good to chalk up a few points after a strong qualifying up in P7. However, to some extent he was the orchestrator of his own downfall with his ill-timed over taking attempt on Kvyat down in Rascasse on lap 72. Whilst his opponent was forced to retire, Perez also had to make an extra pit-stop and as such finished the last of the finishers. Fundamentally this was a far cry from his 2016 Monaco outing, where he achieved an impressive podium.

Team Summary: After being heralded as the height of consistency on this blog and in many other places, Force India rather dropped the ball this time around. However, this was mainly an unfortunate weekend rather than signs of a decrease in performance. They will still be comfortable and won’t slide too much following this result. Canada’s power dependent nature will suit their car well also.

Toro Rosso-Renault (P6 & DNF)
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Carlos Sainz, P6: A thoroughly consistent weekend from Carlos Sainz really has very little to write about in terms of excitement or meaning. However, this is exactly what Sainz needs to do and all that he can do with the machine he has been given. He is exhibiting exactly the kind of form that is needed to reach a bigger team. There were some rumours that Sainz might be being looked at by Williams should Massa retire again. But on the current pace of the Williams cars I think Sainz might be looking for a better prospect, not just a famous historical fixture.

Daniil Kvyat, DNF: Kyvat had a rather mixed weekend from day to day. Despite  was another driver who was scuppered by Vandoorne’s crash at the swimming pool in Q2. With only a smidgeon needed to breach the gap, Kvyat was shown dejected by the Sky cameras as he got out of the car after abandoning his lap. Up to that he had been fairly solid and he might have rivalled Sainz all the way up in P6 on the grid. His race was looking to be going in a better direction for the most part as through some strategy work he found himself in the points. However, his race was cruelly ended early by a poorly executed shunt from Sergio Perez down at Rascasse on lap 72.

Team Summary: Even if by a little Toro Rosso have extended their lead over Williams and also made very slight inroads to Force India’s points tally. Not much to write home about, but every little helps. Canada might be a little more challenging though.

Williams-Mercedes (9th & DNF)
d8QULJvFelipe Massa, P9: Massa did very well to turn his poor qualifying of 15th into a solid 9th placed finish. However, as will be explored later in the race analysis this was not to do with on-track over-taking expertise and more with consistency of lap times and opportunism with strategy. Nevertheless Williams will be happy that they have something to show for their efforts this weekend.

Lance Stroll, DNF: Stroll is another driver, like Palmer, who is obviously baffling me. Whilst Monaco is a difficult challenge for any driver let alone a young one like Stroll, the Canadian punctuated his bad pace and poor qualifying with his customary crash. Bizarrely he blamed his mishap, which occurred on the entry to Casino Square, on the fact that he often makes the same mistake on the PS4. Now, Stroll’s critics have jumped out of the woodwork at this, labelling him callow amongst other things. He needs change soon and Canada, his home race, would be a perfect time to do this. 

Team Summary: The Williams team have become famous for their ‘slippery cars’ during the current hybrid era. As such, they weren’t really expected to have a quick car in the tight streets of Monaco as they didn’t last year either. But 2 points is a doubling on their haul of last years time in the principality. Canada will doubtlessly be much more their kind of circuit.

Renault (11th & DNF)
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Jolyon Palmer, P11: I am finding it increasingly frustrating that the commentators on Sky Sports are failing to wake up to the fact that Jolyon Palmer’s ability should be under some scrutiny. They keep defending him with the same tired excuse “he is a GP2 champion so deserves to be in F1” time and time again. Whilst it is of no doubt that Palmer has in the past been a good racer, those cars he did well with in GP2 are hugely different to the beastly F1 cars we have in these new regulations. Palmer is clearly struggling, just like he did last year and as such is being absolutely battered by Hulkenberg in the same machinery. Of course, believers in the Brit will point to the fact that he finished P11 in this race and Hulkenberg had a DNF but Palmer mainly benefitted from the safety car and retirements of others above him. The real story of the inter-team rivalry can be seen in qualifying: the Brit was knocked out in Q1 a whole second behind Hulkenberg’s P12 time in Q2. Sooner or later something has to give. Formula 1 is brutal and Renault are allegedly looking to replace him.

Nico Hulkenberg, DNF: Another dominant performance in qualifying over his team-mate unfortunately didn’t translate into the race. But it wasn’t at all Nico’s fault: his gearbox terminally failed on lap 17 and he pulled up and retired at the portier corner. Nico won’t be too concerned and will just hope for better luck in the future.

Team Summary: Again, at risk of repeating myself from previous posts, Renault are not where they wanted to be at the start of the year. This race is an opportunity for teams performing at low power out-put, like Renault, for good points. However, the opposite happened and Haas’ good performance means that the French team and the Americans are now tied on points which will not be comfortable. This weekend above all they needed a competent second driver to get some points when Hulkenberg was  out.

Haas-Ferrari (8th & 10th)
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Romain Grosjean, P8: A competent race from Grosjean allowed him to remain in his strong qualifying position of 8th and simultaneously eke out a slighter bigger advantage to his team-mate in the standings. I think this result is even stronger as the Haas has been openly struggling with it’s brakes all year and Monaco is obviously highly brake dependant with it’s twists and turns.

Kevin Magnussen, P10: Magnussen did incredibly well to make two places on the start, in what was probably one of the few moments of on-track action in the race. The rest of his result was taken care of in careful strategy and again consistency. Magnussen is a good driver, but if he ever wants another chance in a top team following his year at McLaren in 2014, then he needs to start beating Grosjean on pace.

Team Summary: Finally we see a good joint points finish from the Haas team. It is the first time they have recorded one all season. Half of this was probably due to retirements and differentiation of strategy under safety cars. A large chunk was however due to their handy driver pairing and the favourable Ferrari engine. Next time out might be a little more of a challenge if history is to be believed.

Sauber-Ferrari (DNF & DNF)sauber Marcus Ericsson, DNF: Ericssons weekend was fairly predictably slow. He can only do so much in this car, but his DNF was rather bizarre. Under the safety car the field approached St.Devote, where the track had started breaking up a little in the race, Ericsson unlapped himself from behind the safety car and skidded on cold tyres into the barrier. It would have been like driving on ice, but it was still a little amateur.

Pascal Wehrlein, DNF: Wehrlein’s retirement was rather more spectacular than his team-mate’s. After pitting on lap 1 in an attempt to run to the end of the race on the harder super-soft tyres, the German found that Button had done the same. Wehrlein received a 5 second penalty to be given at the end of the race, but he didn’t get there as Button was frustrated behind him for 60 laps and finally tried to force through. Button chose an unusual place to pass in portier, but he was in my view well enough alongside and was right to go for the move. Pascal saw it otherwise and closed the door, spinning his rear wheel against Button’s front and catapulting him up and across. At first there was a lot of concern and he landed sideways against the barrier, but thankfully he was soon over the radio to dispel all fears.

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Werhlein’s collision with Button ended in an unconventional crash

Team Summary: A poor weekend from Sauber, who like McLaren might have highlighted this as another opportunity for some points. Whilst Wehrlein’s retirement cannot be put down as his fault and was a racing incident, Ericcson’s was rather more conspicuous and will draw some questions. Canada will be another tough outing and expect them to qualify at the back as they did this time out as well.

McLaren-Honda (DNF & DNF)
imgres-2Jenson Button, DNF: It was a highly mixed one off return to the sport from Jenson this weekend. The good consisted of his qualifying performance where he drove the unfamiliar McLaren to P9: to get up to speed so quickly having not driven these new regulation cars all year is a testament to Jenson’s ability. But in true Honda fashion, the unreliability of the engine got in the way of progress. He started from the pit-lane this weekend as it was more prudent to avoid contact in turn one following an MGU-H change on Saturday morning which meant a 15 place penalty. From here Jenson was fated to run at the back until his finale yet again ended with a DNF as in Abu Dhabi last year. This time he rather clumsily hit Pascal Wehrlein and himself into retirement on lap 60 at portier. The collision left Pascal’s car on it’s side and Jenson’s with broken steering. The best part of Jenson’s return was undoubtedly Fernando coming over the radio live from Indianapolis at the start of the race and Jenson’s humorous response.

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It was nice to see Jenson back in the paddock briefly, even if to limited success.

Stoffel Vandoorne, DNF: Vandoorne’s weekend started very positively and he was showing a good turn of pace in practice and qualifying up until an ill-time bash of the barrier. Vandoorne got the entry to the second pool chicane all wrong and instead of brushing the Armco as is desired he turned in too early and broke the right front steering arm, catapulting him into the barrier opposite exactly like Verstappen last year. Coupled with a 3 place grid penalty from colliding with Massa in Spain, Vandoorne started 12th on the grid. His race looked to be a recovery job and one that he began to excel at, running in the points for the majority of the distance. However, the strange break up of the track down at St. Devote seemed to be the cause of his retirement in the race. Despite a strong showing, Vandoorne and McLaren have nothing to show for their efforts: when his race ended so did McLaren’s chance of a championship point.

Team Summary: This was McLaren’s best chance at a good points haul this year and as the race developed with retirements that became even more true. Unfortunately they missed their chance. It must be said that no one is really at fault forVandoorne’s retirement: it was merely unfortunate. However, I firmly believe that had Jenson would have scored points had he not had to drop to the back of the grid from his excellent 9th placed qualifying. This is of course Honda’s fault, as is most of McLaren’s predicament. There is not much more to say than that and McLaren will have to wait for less power sensitive tracks and hope that the excellent Alonso can drag the car to some points.

Race Review & Analysis

As is always the case with Monaco, most of the intrigue comes from strategy and collisions with the barriers and subsequent safety cars rather than over-takes on track. However, it is not impossible to pass, as showcased by Magnussen this time out on the start. Magnussen is the only example I can remember, along with Hamilton’s jump on Vandoorne at the start, which was clean over-taking. I think we rather saw the effects of the wider cars of F1 2017, as Button and Perez both attempted moves and both botched them. The most curious case is of Perez as there certainly would have been enough room for him to get past Kvyat last season had he attempted the same move into Rascasse: indeed Jules Bianchi famously passed Kobayashi in the same manner.

I think this race will be more remembered for another example of where a driver has had the race robbed from the ground under him. Hamilton saw the win vanish in 2015, Ricciardo was the same last year. This time round it was Raikkonen’s turn to be done over by circumstances. Vettel’s benefit however does put Hamilton and Mercedes incredibly on the back-foot so if the change of position WAS planned by Ferrari then I can understand the logic behind why they would have chosen that option. But I am just a purist and like to see the man deserving of the win, winning the race.

Constructor & Driver Tables (BBC infographics)
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Next Time Out: Canadian Grand Prix

So, it is farewell to Monaco for this year. We turn out attentions to Canada and The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve which is an entirely different kettle of fish. The fast paced flowing nature of the circuit has been suited more to the Mercedes engined teams in this hybrid era so far. Might Williams finally reap a good points haul from their drivers? Will Force-India close the gap to Red Bull, whose Renault engines might struggle? Will this track be beneficial to Mercedes, or will Ferrari can change the tone of recent history and again extend their lead further at the top of the tables? Join me next time to find out.

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