In-Depth Monaco GP Analysis From Peter Windsor
May 31, 2011 – Of course we’ll never know – Seb will never know, Adrian Newey and the rest of the Red Bull team will never know – what would have happened had the 69th Monaco Grand Prix not been red-flagged after 72 laps (with six to run). Seb’s Pirelli primes at that point were 56 laps old and fading fast; Seb was driving on a knife-edge, with Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari filling his mirrors, while Jenson Button’s McLaren was doing a similar thing to the Ferrari. Jenson’s primes were comparatively new (24 laps old); Fernando’s had done 38 laps.
My gut feeling is that Fernando would have won had the race run through to lap 78 without a break but I have no real evidence for such a statement and I could very well be wrong: what we do know is that in a cacophony of noise, scraped metal, tyre-troubled Force India (Sutil), shunted Toro Rosso (Alguasuari), heavily crashed Renault (Petrov) and damaged McLaren (Hamilton), Petrov was evacuated to the medical centre (where he was diagnosed to be ok) and the race was paused. They pulled onto the grid exactly in the order (back-markers and all) on which they crossed the line.
There was considerable confusion at this point. The regulations used to say (still say?) that no race is re-started if more than 75 per cent of its distance has been covered; at Monaco, the FIA ruled a re-start. F1 wanted a chequered flag, a raised arm. And, as it happened, pressing “play”, and restarting the pack behind the Safety Car on fresh tyres, with everyone “equal” again, altered the top end of the race not a jot. Seb Vettel took off as he had from the original grid and paced Fernando and Jenson through to the finish. Seb Vettel, World Champion, won his first Monaco Grand Prix. It did, however, take poor Pastor Maldonado out of the proceedings (Lewis punted him off Ste Devote at the restart, thus robbing the Williams driver of a well-earned fifth or sixth place) and it did give us another dose of brilliance from Kamui Kobayashi: with Lewis all over him – literally – on the final lap, Kamui kept his cool and finished P5 – his best result yet.
So we could say, if we wanted to, that Seb won on all counts: he won the race through to lap 72; and then he endorsed that with a sprint win. The bottom line is that Seb won the pole with a devastating burst of brilliance in Q3 – and winning the pole at Monaco, adjustable rear flaps or not, is but a short step away from winning the biggest F1 race of the year.
Seb was fun to watch from the start of practice on Thursday, when he wore his new Monaco-spec helmet (complete with “Monaco” postage-stamp logos and graphics) and flung his RBR7 around the streets as if he wanted it to be anything but neutral. He braked too late, he locked the fronts, he flicked the rear, he played with understeer. And then he strolled back down to the motorhome to talk to his Dad and say hi to the gathering throng. No acolytes, no heavies. Just Seb, enjoying his motor racing and very much enjoying Monaco.
Saturday morning was foreshortened. Nico Rosberg, spearheading Mercedes’ more diligent approach to race trim homework, was out on a full load of fuel, his (prime) tyre pressures deliberately set down a little to allow for the extra build up in heat and pressure. Out of the tunnel, in seventh gear, already pushing hard, he hit the brakes as his Mercedes bottomed out over the pronounced ripples that had developed over the new track surface there. The left rear, still spongey, grabbed and locked, immediately flicking the car to the right, into the guard-rail.
Debris flying, the Merc eventually came to rest well past the chicane, narrowly avoiding the air-filled barrier that marks the beginning of the fencing that runs up to Tabac. It took a while to clear up the mess; the MGP boys, amazingly, had the car (new bodywork, front suspension, floor, gearbox) ready for the closing minutes of Q1.
Another accident (Vitantonio Liuzzi) stopped FP3 early; no-one completed their heavy-fuel programmes. Given Nico’s shunt – and given the empty track that followed FP3 – it is astonishing, I think, that FP3 wasn’t extended. Rules are rules, though (two hours must separate FP3 from qualifying) and no-one wanted the GP2 race to be delayed because Saturday night at Monaco is party time. Priorities are priorities.
Seb perfectly managed qualifying. He did what he needed to do in Q1, suddenly looking neat and supple where on Thursday he had been all tyre smoke and rapid wrist movement. In Q2, on super-softs for the first time, he broke free from all except McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton; he was out early for Q3 and dug deep for a defining lap, committing earlier by a few feet into Casino Square, teasing the throttle earlier into Tabac and then leaning on the super-softs – left, right – into the swimming pool. Into La Rascasse, that innocent, tight right-hander, Seb was Kimi-like: brake late and deep to the inside, hold the rotation until just before the exit. Straight line up the slight hill; flick right over the hump. And then clean and load-free, avoiding a bobble, as he accelerates, rear flap down, towards the start-finish line. 1min 13.556 sec.
What could Lewis do?
Nothing. He had waited. Now he was out there. He knew the target.
And then Sergio Perez did on light fuel what Nico had done on heavy. Unlike Nico, though, Perez’s Sauber hit that pneumatic barrier hard. Q3 was red-flagged to a halt.
Sergio was heavily concussed, bruised but ok; he wouldn’t race on Sunday. In a rehearsal of what was to come, then, Q3 was restarted. There was time for but one flying lap. There was not time enough to make it work. Lewis’s only consolation? With no flying lap to his name, he could start on the Pirelli yellow (the harder of the two compounds) and perhaps out-strategize them on Sunday.
Fernando was also wonderful to watch. There were no Seb-like antics on Thursday: here was a Fernando wholly different from the Ferrari driver who in 2010 trashed his chassis on Saturday morning and thus dialled himself out of a podium. (He was different in appearance, too: gone for this race was the familiar blue-based helmet; he wore instead a gold-themed Schuberth that will be auctioned after Singapore, where he will also use it. Fernando created the design himself, overseen by his wife.) Smooth and polished in 2011, Fernando worked hard with his job list. By the end, he had qualified fourth, even though he had been saving it for one, final, blistering run. I asked Felipe Massa afterwards how the Ferrari, on a street circuit like this, on tyres as sticky as the new super-softs (Pirelli reds) in his view compared with the McLaren. “I think the gaps are still about the same,” he said, bouncing his leg nervously as he sat on a stool. “It helps a lot that we are in the range of the two compounds here; we have a car that feels much better.” For his part, Fernando thought that he could have managed maybe a 1min 14.0 sec lap. Maybe he could have been P3.
Jenson Button looked a winner from the first laps he drove – but not a poleman, if you get my drift. His softer, later approaches are particularly obvious around Monaco. They work well on Monaco Sunday, when anything can happen; they makes his corners longer – his lap longer – in qualifying. Jenson’s P2 in qualifying was a testament to both his consistency and to his relaxed, confident frame of mind.
Video Race Analysis of the Monaco Grand Prix
And to Mark Webber’s ongoing woes. He missed all of FP1 due to a chafed wiring loom near the gearbox. He recovered pretty well in FP2 but by FP3 it was clear that Sector One – the approach to Ste Devote in particular, where more of those ripple-waves had developed – was going to make it difficult for him to match Lewis, let alone Seb. Mark, like Fernando, was leaving his best to last – but never got to do it. He might have beaten Jenson but then Mark did not look as comfortable as he did in 2010: on Pirellis, with his body mass and weight, he is definitely finding it difficult over some of the bump waves.
Of the others, Pastor Maldonado drove exceptionally well not only to qualify the Williams eighth but also to beat Rubens (who is quick around Monaco, Jenson-style) by 0.3 sec. It’s one thing to have a strong lower-rung record around Monaco; it’s something else to translate that into a decent grid position, particularly if your car is a bit of a handful; Michael looked good – fast and precise, fluent and lean – but Kamui, like Mark Webber, seemed to be struggling over the bumps, particularly into Ste Devote and Tabac. It was not a total surprise, given the Sauber’s ride over the bumps, that Sergio lost his car out of the tunnel. He was off-line, the car was skewed – and he hit the brakes hard. For his part, Kamui (who didn’t make it to Q3) was actually undergoing one of the FIA’s random dope tests when the accident occurred. He had been great to watch through Casino Square – extremely precise and supple – but the detail of the slower corners had cost him half a second (relative to Perez).
It was a clean start, although Mark was gazumped by Fernando (again!) and Michael sputtered away, cars swirling around him.
Seb then spoke clearly, in ways that everyone understood: he drove another of those trademark, Jim Clark-style opening laps, building daylight with every corner entry, with every exit. He was immaculate. He led by a massive 2.4 sec after one lap. He extended that quickly to 4.5-5.0 sec – but then he backed off, protecting his tyres, for on Pirelli reds his first stint was always going to be shortish.
He stopped for reds – the softer tyre – on lap 16. Jenson had recharged the lap before with another set of reds; RBR wanted to “cover” the McLaren. Fernando was given the yellows – but the plan at Ferrari was always to stop again.
Seb’s pit stop was slow, however. RBR’s radio system – like everyone’s smart phone – fell foul of the Monaco high rises and mountains. The crew scrambled for both Seb and Mark; Seb was given the harder yellow tyres in the confusion. Jenson took the lead.
And he pulled away, of course. The track in front of him was for the most part clear and the (used) Pirelli reds offered him a second-a-lap advantage over the yellows of Seb and Fernando. Jenson looked composed and rhythmic. Without error, and meticulous with his corner exits – with the ways he sometimes lightly grazed the barriers as he squeezed on the power – Jenson pulled out a 15-sec lead.
He was always going to have to stop again, of course – and he did so on lap 33, or on the 18th lap of that second stint. Surprisingly, McLaren gave him another set of reds, thereby adding focus to what Seb now had to achieve: with Jenson now obviously going for three stops, Seb could win it by being ever-more conservative on the tyres he had been given in error.
Conservative in terms of acceleration and placement over bumps. Aggressive, though, he remained as he lapped slower cars and danced through the swimming pool section. By the time Jenson was finally on new yellows – in synch at last with Seb and Fernando, who had lost little time with his second stop, after a Safety Car period chimed in to perfection – it came down to this: Seb had to eke out a total of 62 laps from his yellows; Fernando had to do a total of 44 laps on his; and Jenson – quickly able to catch the leaders after his extra stops – was left with the relatively simple task of running a total of 30 laps on the hard tyres to the finish.
Fernando caught Seb; Jenson caught them both. Could Seb possibly pull it off? After his pit stop, Seb’s engineers had thought it unlikely. Now Seb was proving that it could be done. On the radio, Jenson asked whether Seb (or Fernando) was going to stop again. McLaren didn’t know; they suspected, though, like the rest of us, that Seb is today capable of any trick of magic that at any moment he might consider. Fernando began to dart about in Seb’s mirrors; Jenson hung back a little, watching and waiting. Seb’s laps became longer; the finish seemed a decade away.
Then came the swimming pool carnage. Then came what could have been an early finish. An ambulance arrived for Vitaly. The race was red-flagged.
So we could say, if we wanted to, that Seb was saved by the situation. Jenson’s strategy (red-red-red-yellow) had indeed been enough maybe to win it; Fernando, too, was right there, having raced impeccably on a two-stop strategy (red-yellow-yellow). And others had driven strongly through the chaos: Kamui Kobayashi again sculpted a one-stopper (a start on yellows followed by 34 laps on one set of new super-softs) and again showed up the so-called superstars. In terms of driving from 13th up to fifth, Kamui at Monaco did a much cleaner, much more effective job than Lewis Hamilton. (He even managed to run into trouble with Adrian Sutil and not receive a penalty, which suggests that he’s extremely smart, too!); Pastor Maldonado (red, yellow, red) was right there, high in the mid-field, until Lewis took him out at the re-start; and Sebastien Buemi recovered well from a disappointing Q2 to finish 10th from 16th. Lewis, as I say, from lights-out looked like a driver who felt he owned every piece of Monaco regardless of who happened to be ahead of him at the time, taking his frustration out on just about everything and everyone and being penalised twice for his efforts in the process. “Respect” and “sporting etiquette” were not words that sprang to mind as you watched him on Sunday – which is a shame, because he used to be much more discerning; and Felipe Massa – one of those that Lewis hit – ran onto the tunnel marbles (and thus guardrail) as an indirect result.
That we don’t know for sure what would have happened on this titanic afternoon is part-Monaco, part-Pirelli: the durability of the tyres for once produced an imaginative range of strategies (as distinct from a bucketload of pit stops). And Monaco, with every passing lap, produced variables that were both unpredictable and divisive.
Naturally, and in the tradition of the classics.
Video Race Analysis of the Monaco Grand Prix
Wednesday, June 1st, we will debrief the Monaco Grand Prix with F1 Fanatic’s Keith Collantine and special guest, Toro Rosso driver Sebastien Buemi on ‘The Flying Lap with Peter Windsor’. Every Wednesday, ‘Live’, 1800 UK, 1300 ET, via SmibsTV at: Smibs.tv | The Flying Lap