A third of the way into the season, and here’s Monaco. It takes brains to win at Monaco. It also takes luck. And more luck. This year’s race was a showcase of what’s awesome about this antediluvian Grand Prix, and also of what makes Monaco so terribly irritating, for 2011 was a teeth-gnashing coitus interruptus of a mind-blowing Grand Prix. Warning: spoilers.
Perhaps the best way to understand the glamour and weirdness of the Circuit de Monaco is to look at the Grands Prix it’s inspired over the years. The gentrified docks of Valencia Street Circuit produce tedious races like no other track. The Hungaroring is just as tight and twisty as Monaco, with yachts and glitzy women replaced by a dusty bowl and, well, other sort of women on the outskirts of Budapest. Singapore looks pretty from a helicopter.
What all of these tracks are missing are the vertiginous elevation changes of Monaco and its history, which goes back to 1929. Subtract both and you end up with a narrow track that’s impossible to pass on. Is Monaco a good racetrack? Probably not. It’s very technical, yes, but the racing is much better at Interlagos or Spa. Try to match it for a sense of occasion, though, and only Monza comes close.
The tight, twisty, treacherous track is usually host to races full of various incidents, and this year was no exception. Nico Rosberg was first in line to turn Formula One cars into interesting-looking pieces of carbon fiber wreckage, but he would not be the last. During qualifying, Sergio Pérez messed up his exit from the tunnel even worse than Rosberg had, and he crashed sideways into a barrier by the harbor chicane. He suffered nothing worse than a concussion, but he couldn’t take part in the race—a shame, because he’d taken his Sauber all the way to Q3 of qualifying.
Pérez’s crash initiated the chain of events which led to Lewis Hamilton having yet another Signature Lewis Hamilton Weekend, which roughly translates to a toxic mixture of aggression, bad luck, more bad luck, and manic fights for low points. Because he’d not set a qualifying time before Pérez crashed the Sauber, he was forced to make a go at it in the two-plus minutes left on the clock after the track had been cleaned up and the barriers repaired. On cold tires, out of focus, he cut a chicane on his only fast lap, relegating him to ninth—after leading the first two sessions of qualifying. Not something you want on a track which is barely wider than a Formula One car. Up ahead, Sebastian Vettel claimed his fifth pole from six races, almost half a second ahead of Jenson Button, with Webber, Alonso, Schumacher, Massa, Rosberg, and Maldonado all ahead of Hamilton.
If anything, Vettel’s pole position was an understatement. He flew off the line with such gusto that he’d already built up a visible lead by Casino Square, and was leading Button by 2.5 seconds after the first of 78 laps. Behind Button, Alonso made yet another great start to speed past Webber into third, while Schumacher let his best qualifying of the season go to waste and slid down to tenth. He then quickly regained a place by passing Lewis Hamilton at the 30 mph Grand Hotel Hairpin.
Monaco turned out to be a showcase of what the movable rear wing had been intended to do: make impossible passes possible with hard work. Hard work is what Lewis Hamilton proceeded to perform. He followed Michael Schumacher for ten laps, opened his wing in the very short start-finish straight, and dived down the Mercedes’s inside at Sainte Devote
corner (above). By this time, both Mercedes were struggling on the Pirellis, and Rosberg, running ahead of Schumacher, was passed as well.
The sequence of events that led to the Grand Prix’s nail-biting endgame began on lap 16, when Jenson Button pitted very early for another set of the super-soft tires everyone in the top ten (with the exception of Hamilton) had started on. It was a genius move. Returning to clear air, his McLaren was suddenly the fastest car on track. Red Bull reacted to his move a lap later, but it was too late, and a fumbled pitstop with a sticky tire cozy didn’t help either: Vettel emerged from the 40 mph pitlane to the sight of something silver, red, and going past him in a hurry. He was also on soft tires instead of super-softs. Mark Webber had an even worse pitstop, coming in right after Vettel, and he dropped back into the heavy traffic of midfield.
In the clear air up front, Jenson Button was running fastest lap after fastest lap on his way to his first win since the 2010 Chinese Grand Prix. On his way, that is, if we were to assume another 60 incident-free laps, but good luck with that in Monaco.
On lap 33, Timo Glock’s Virgin suffered suspension damage, and had to pull over to the side of the track. Anticipating a safety car, Jenson Button pitted from the lead, and returned to the track behind Vettel. But Glock’s Virgin didn’t block the track, and the safety car stayed
put. What did block the track was the wreckage of Felipe Massa’s Ferrari, created half a lap later after he’d crashed into the Armco in the tunnel. The safety car came out and Button was stuck in third, his clever first pitstop a fading memory.
Before Massa crashed the Ferrari, Hamilton had run into him at the Grand Hotel Hairpin, and the stewards punished Hamilton with a drive through penalty. He returned 9th, yet another dollop of frustration in his afternoon.
At the front, Vettel and Button were fighting for the lead. Button was right up on Vettel’s tail, barely a second behind him, but he couldn’t make a pass stick even with the movable rear wing. He was also facing at least one more pitstop: he’d elected to use super-softs in both of his pitstops, which meant that he hadn’t used both kinds of tires in the race, which is mandatory. Ahead of him, Vettel had accidentally changed from super-softs to softs on his lap 18 pitstop. Theoretically, using his Pirellis as if walking on eggshells, he had the option of driving to the end of the race.
After a few tries, Button let Vettel go and entered the pits on lap 49 for his mandatory set of soft tires. While slower, the tires would also be 30 laps younger than Vettel’s, crucial in the waning laps of the race. Alonso passed him during his pitstop, and Button returned some 20 second behind Vettel. With 29 laps to go, he started flying after the leaders, eroding Vettel’s lead by a second or two each lap.
By lap 62, the stage was set for a gripping finale. Leading the race was Sebastian Vettel, running on a set of soft tires 44 laps old. Behind him was Alonso, also on soft tires after his second stop. Faster then both of them, in third, was Button. Until this point, one could assume that both Vettel and Alonso were looking at another pitstop, giving Button the victory, but as they chased after each other lap after lap, it became clear that Vettel would try to finish the race without another stop, and Alonso too. Button would have to pick them off one by one.
It could’ve been a repeat of Nigel Mansell versus Ayrton Senna in 1992 (left). It could’ve been an epic three-way duel for the ages. What it became instead was a train wreck. With nine laps to go, the leading trio caught up at the Grand Hotel Hairpin with a chain of seven cars about to be lapped. Everyone cleared the tunnel, then Adrien Sutil wobbled, Jaime Alguersuari jumped a kerb and landed in Lewis Hamilton’s rear wing, and Vitaly Petrov ran into the back of Alguersuari and continued into the Armco, crashing heavily and blacking out. The leaders made their way across the debris field, the safety car was out, then, observing the mess and the fact that Petrov required medical attention, the stewards red-flagged the race.
With six laps to go, the cars returned to the grid, where the pit crews were allowed to work on them. Hamilton got his rear wing fixed, everyone got new super-soft tires, and the magnificent duel up front was gone up in smoke. With Petrov safe and the track clear, the race was restarted, but who could catch Sebastian Vettel on fresh tires? No mortal racer, that’s for sure, and he crossed the finish line comfortably ahead of both the Ferrari and the McLaren for his first win at Monaco, his 15th total.
This is why Monaco is such a conflicting race. Sure, Vettel is imperial this season, and he absolutely deserved his win, but he also got lucky many, many times. Button could have won
this, but he got unlucky with safety cars twice. And Hamilton could also have won it, but he got unlucky in qualifying, he got punished for an aggressive move on Massa, he got a twenty-second penalty for another aggressive move on Maldonado at the end of the race (which put an end to Maldonado’s race), and all his manic, aggressive, banzai driving was only good for 9th. Alonso, in a bit of a silver lining for the terrible clouds over Ferrari, got second.
So there you have it. A roller coaster of asphalt and emotions, an anachronism of a track which teases with a great race then takes it all away, and yet another win for Sebastian Vettel, who leads the championship with 143 points ahead of Lewis Hamilton with 85, Mark Webber with 79, Jenson Button with 76, and Fernando Alonso with 69. Second place is all up for grabs, but it would take divine intervention to beat Vettel to the championship now.
Race #7 will be at the wonderful Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in two weeks’ time. See you then.
Photography by Vladimir Rys/Getty Images, Mark Thompson/Getty Images, Paul Gilham/Getty Images and Ker Robertson/Getty Images. Gallery curated by Natalie Polgar. Illustration by Peter Orosz.