Everyone figured the Monaco Grand Prix was decided before the race was even halfway over with Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton making short work of increasing the gap on teammate Nico Rosberg. Not so. Here’s how Hamilton lost his first-place finish in one pit stop.
The Monaco Grand Prix was initially exciting only in the back of the field. Both Felipe Massa and Nico Hulkenberg had bad luck early on. Massa came in early with a tire puncture from contact at the start, and a tap from Alonso put Hulkenberg into the wall at Mirabeau.
Pastor Maldonado retired early with a brake-by-wire failure early on for the fifth time in this year’s six races. He’s having quite the miserable year. Verstappen clipped the slower Lotus, but only lost wing endplates. The Toro Rosso driver continued on with a more understeery car, but Maldonado was forced to retire shortly thereafter.
Unfortunately for the front of the pack, Maldonado wasn’t the only car experiencing brake woes. Hamilton was having trouble with too much heat in his brakes.
“Front left brake is still on the warm side so more management would be good,” radioed in the team to Hamilton.
Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel was closing in on Rosberg, trying to snatch second place from the other Mercedes. Hamilton’s job was to keep them both well behind him, yet he was not able to push as hard as he would have liked with his brakes overheating.
“What can I do to save these brakes?” Hamilton asked over the radio.
Finally, Hamilton’s brakes received a bit of a break. The leaders started to catch the back of the field towards the end of the first third of the race.
“We’re going to lose a lot of time in that traffic,” complained Hamilton over the radio. Fortunately for him, Rosberg was the one who lost considerably more time working his way through the backmarkers.
Rosberg pitted shortly afterwards, managing to stay ahead of Vettel. Hamilton made his first stop of the race after Rosberg, rejoining in the lead. By now, the race looked like your typical Monaco processional, where pits and retirements seem to decide more positions than overtakes.
McLaren driver Fernando Alonso was one of those retirements. Alonso pulled off at St. Devote with his gearbox overheating. It was reminiscent of a retirement he’d made earlier in the race weekend, where his hybrid system was acting up. His team’s engineers told him to park the car, so Alonso had his first Monaco retirement since 2004.
Hamilton, meanwhile, added more and more time on Rosberg as the race went on. Rosberg still had to fend off Vettel, but it looked pretty solid that Hamilton was in for the win with twenty laps to go.
One incident changed it all. Toro Rosso driver Max Verstappen had the nastiest off of the day on lap 64, heading at speed into the barriers at St. Devote. Fortunately, Verstappen was unharmed, but the incident brought out a virtual safety car immediately.
Hamilton pitted then, as he had a nineteen-second gap on Rosberg, but then the physical safety car came out, slightly changing the game. The virtual safety car limited everyone everywhere, while the regular safety car allowed everyone to move much faster along the pit straight before the safety car itself was released ahead of the field at the safety car line.
Rosberg and Vettel stayed out on the harder tires as Hamilton pitted for a fresh set, but it was bad luck for Hamilton. Hamilton was unable to rejoin ahead of the two before the safety car line, which moved Hamilton into third place.
Once the safety car went back into the pits, Hamilton complained on the radio on lap 75 that it was “impossible to pass.”
After three more laps, it was decided.
Rosberg became the fourth person ever to make three consecutive wins at Monaco, joining the likes of Graham Hill, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. Sebastian Vettel took second, and Hamilton rounded out the podium in third place. Further back in the field, Jenson Button scored the first points of the year for McLaren with an eighth place finish.
“I know it was a lot of luck today,” said Rosberg in the post-race podium interviews. “Lewis drove brilliantly and would have deserved to win but I am happy.”
Any happiness for Rosberg’s win at Mercedes was tempered by the fact that they lost an easy 1-2 finish for the team. Hamilton should have won, and even Rosberg knew it.
“I’m just enjoying the moment now, but I need to work hard because Lewis was a little bit stronger this weekend,” admitted Rosberg after the race.
The team also admitted fault in their decision to bring Hamilton into the pits.
“We have lost Lewis [Hamilton] the Grand Prix with our decision [to pit]. We misjudged the gap and all we can do is apologize,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff after the race. “I’m so sorry for a win for Lewis to be taken from him.”
Hamilton looked somber up on the podium, knowing that it was a screw-up on the team’s part that cost them the race. He walked off during the champagne celebration to have a moment alone to collect himself before returning for the podium interviews.
Hamilton kept things short and reserved during the podium interviews. “I’m sure we’ll sit down afterwards and try and think of ways we can improve,” said Hamilton when Martin Brundle asked him about the pit stop snafu.
Hamilton finally opened up in the post-race interviews, admitting that he may have contributed to the screw-up:
I can’t really express how I feel, so I won’t really attempt to. You rely on the team and I saw a screen and it looked like the team was out.
I thought the guys behind were pitting so when the team said stay out, I said these tires would drop in temps. I was concerned they were on options, so with that thinking, I came in with the full confidence that the others had done the same.
That, unfortunately, is how you lose a race in one pit stop. He came in just a bit too early, allowing Rosberg and Vettel to stay ahead of him until the end of the race.
I can’t imagine this post-race debrief among the Mercedes staff is a place anyone wants to be, either.
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