MONTE CARLO, Monaco — Lewis Hamilton never seemed convinced he was going to win the Monaco Grand Prix — he did so, holding off an impressive attack from Max Verstappen to open up a 17-point championship lead.
Hamilton’s frustrations came at the end of an emotional week for Mercedes and, although his radio messages may have sounded genuinely concerned, it was a remarkable drive in the circumstances — his tyres looked to be knackered by the end of the race — and its worth considering whether many other drivers on the grid could have replicated it.
Mercedes’ mistake makes for thrilling race: Even in his post-race media session, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff couldn’t give a proper explanation for his team’s tyre strategy. There was nothing strange about the decision to pit under the Safety Car on lap 11, but the choice to fit the medium compound instead of the hard didn’t stack up. In Monaco, track position is key and if you hold first place you must do everything to keep it while limiting all other risks. Mercedes retained the lead after the pit stop, but with 67 laps left to run the safest tyre choice was quite obviously the hard compound and not the medium.
Pirelli only advised going 60 laps on the mediums and suggested that anybody stopping between lap 10 and 18 ought to fit the hards. Mercedes data told them they would be safe, but as Hamilton’s front left tyre started to grain and open up it became increasingly obvious the chosen strategy was going to be very, very marginal. The only possible explanation for not going for the hards was that Mercedes was worried the compound’s long warm-up phase might leave them vulnerable to Max Verstappen or Sebastian Vettel if they chose the mediums — but even then, it’s unlikely the tyre advantage would have been enough to force an overtake.
Hamilton recognised the issue as early as lap 21 when he asked whether Mercedes strategist James Vowles shared his concerns that the medium would not go the length of the race. The tone of the radio messages got increasingly fraught over the remaining 57 laps and as the race wore on Max Verstappen loomed in Hamilton’s mirrors.
For Mercedes it was a horrible situation. There was no way of rectifying their decision and they had put Hamilton in an incredibly difficult position. For the rest of us, it turned what could have been a dull race into a thriller as Verstappen hounded Hamilton around the streets of Monaco.
The fact that Verstappen had a five-second penalty hanging over him only added to the situation as he faced being demoted to fourth if he failed to pass Hamilton but had the potential to win if he found a way past and pulled a gap. The narrow Monaco circuit may not allow for easy overtaking, but in cases such as this the tension of a battle where a pass could happen more than makes up for it.
“Lewis saved us,” Wolff said after the race. “His driving really saved us.”
A fitting tribute to Niki: There was a nice moment directly after the race, when the top three had parked up on the start-finish straight. Hamilton had revealed a Niki Lauda tribute helmet shortly before the start — a replica of the lid Lauda wore in 1984, when he won his third title with McLaren. Vettel had done similar earlier this week, tweaking his usual design to include something along the lines of the helmet Lauda used at Ferrari in the 1970s.
It created the great photograph below: a great tribute from two F1 legends to another.
Mature Max spices up the show: Max Verstappen has matured a lot over the past 12 months. The Dutchman turned in a great display and was unlucky to be bumped off the podium due to the five-second penalty which hung over his head for most of the contest — he was unsafely released into Valtteri Bottas during the frantic pit-stop window which occurred during the race’s only Safety Car period.
“I think as a team we did everything right, it was just unfortunate,” he said. “I didn’t know there was anyone next to me because they released me and it all gets a bit tight, we were ahead but of course it was a shame that we touched. But I couldn’t see him.”
The nickname ‘Mad Max’ was used to describe Verstappen in some of his formative years and in the past such a penalty might have distracted him — on Sunday, the Dutchman said it had the opposite impact.
“It fired me up. As soon as I heard the penalty I was pushing Lewis, because initially he was driving so slow. Then I heard the penalty so I just kept pushing him, then of course he had to push and he destroyed his tyres. So that was my only way of trying to get by.”
Verstappen harried Hamilton for most of the race, often getting agonisingly close through the hairpin section but failing to match the Mercedes’ burst out of Portier and through the tunnel, meaning he was too far to try anything at the chicane.
He eventually tried a move three laps from the finish, but it was optimistic — there was contact, and Hamilton retained the lead. Verstappen crossed the line 0.5s behind the Mercedes but had been shuffled behind Vettel and Bottas by the time the official result came in.
Asked if it was a fun or frustrating race: “It was fun! I was trying to get ahead of Lewis because I knew that if I would get ahead I could drive off [to win], because we were much faster and his tyres were destroyed, so he had no grip. I was trying everything I could.”
He wouldn’t be Max Verstappen if he hadn’t tried it. It was great racing and another reminder that at the moment Mercedes are being let off the hook by the fact he’s in a car not capable of fighting on equal terms.
Sainz and McLaren on point: McLaren hasn’t had the best of time recently from a PR perspective following its rather embarrassing handling of what was supposed to be Fernando Alonso’s second Indy 500 this weekend — in case you missed it, here are the staggering reasons behind why he failed to qualify last weekend.
Sainz gave the team a great story on Sunday — making one of the best starts you are going to see at a Monaco Grand Prix, passing Toro Rosso pair Alexander Albon and Daniil Kvyat on the hill up to Casino Square, before a brilliant lap to stay in front of Kvyat after the Russian had made his one and only pit-stop. It was even more timely for McLaren given the fact Renault and Haas both left with less points than they should have.
💪🏼 YES! P6 in Monaco! No image can describe the feeling at T3! But hope you enjoy this view! @McLarenF1 @EG00 #carlo55ainz #monacogp pic.twitter.com/koGFVSJRlT
— Carlos Sainz (@Carlossainz55) May 26, 2019
A homecoming to forget: Charles Leclerc was always going to have a frustrating afternoon after Ferrari bungled his strategy in qualifying on Saturday. It doesn’t matter how fast your car is around the streets of Monte Carlo — if you’re behind another driver, there are very few places to get by.
One opportunity is at Rascasse, the slow right-hander which bends around to the final corner. Leclerc made one move stick beautifully here on lap 7, squeezing his red Ferrari alongside Romain Grosjean’s Haas — the Frenchman called Leclerc’s move “kamikaze” — but he had less luck replicating it the next time around.
After closing in on Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, the Ferrari driver tried to do exactly the same again, but tagged the inside wall with his right rear tyre. That left him with a puncture and left chunks of debris from his car, including a large piece of floor from his Ferrari, scattered around the area. It wasn’t long before he retired from the race.
Hulkenberg himself summed it up well.
“I think he was a bit impatient and frustrated after yesterday, but that’s Monaco, doesn’t work like that always,” the Renault driver said.
Asked if Leclerc had been too aggressive, Hulkenberg said: “Yeah he was.
“He came first of all from quite far back and then I didn’t leave much of a gap anyway and saw that he launched. I played fair, I opened the steering, and tried to let him some space, tried to let us both live, I think he spun into his own axis, he just kissed me but sliced my rear tyre open and that’s where basically it all started to go wrong. But I think he was definitely too ambitious in that moment.”
Nightmare for Saturday’ stars: Kevin Magnussen and Daniel Ricciardo were two of the star performers of qualifying — where they finished sixth and seventh — but both were caught out by the early Safety Car period. While the leading drivers all decided to pit, so did both of those men, who by that time had swapped position, meaning they emerged deep in the midfield among a group of cars who had a long way to go until pitting. Both would have realised their race was ruined fairly early on — they were both stuck behind Kimi Raikkonen, at one point, when the Finn was at the tail-end of a mighty long stint on old tyres.
Magnussen was in a philosophical mood at the end of the race despite the big points lost.
“I don’t really know what happened,” Magnussen said. “We’ve done a very good job this weekend… the team, and I, together, perfect weekend until the race, so a shame, a big shame.”
“The car has been great, flawless, so very disappointing to finish 12th.”
Ricciardo said: “It it was not the right call, so… I’ll settle and sort it out as a team what we could have done better. For now we have to have a look and see what they saw at the time, and why they called us in.
“If it was to cover Kevin or whatever, but obviously we both came in and just handed everyone else the positions. So it is a shame because we had a great start. Kevin was our target, and we had a good Turn 1 and got up to fifth. That was really our place, so it is a shame because we could have had a real big result today.”
Ricciardo managed to salvage something from his and Renault’s afternoon, finishing ninth after Magnussen’s teammate Romain Grosjean served a post-race penalty.