Monday, 26 May 2014

Monaco Grand Prix – The Race

The clouds of war are gathering

The Monaco Grand Prix of 2014 was one of those rare Monaco races. One which was thoroughly engrossing and tension-packed from start to finish and full of flat out racing. There was even a smidgen of audaciously brilliantly overtaking, most outrageously Hulkenberg on Magnussen at Portiers. No one EVER in the history of Monaco has overtaken at Portiers. Normally you only get epic Monaco races when there are monsoon conditions or multiple pile-ups decimate half the field throwing up a leftfield result.

The top three from qualifying, Rosberg, Hamilton and Ricciardo, ended up on the podium in exactly the same order (admittedly only just and the tightest battle in the closing stages was NOT between the two Mercedes cars). We had yet another Mercedes 1-2 (for the fifth race in a row) and just like last year, Nico Rosberg drove immaculately to lead the race from start to finish.

Rosberg driving serenely to victory around Monaco

And yet the Monaco Grand Prix was so much more thrilling and unpredictable than those stark facts suggest. Rosberg’s victory was the perfect shot in the arm for the title race. Given the immense superiority of the Mercedes and the huge tally of points their drivers have accrued, it is probably already a two horse race for the title. Rosberg’s win in Monaco finally arrested the runaway momentum of Hamilton’s 4 consecutive race wins and not a moment too soon. But far more importantly the controversial events of qualifying (don’t worry, I’m not going there again!) seemed to rattle Hamilton’s fragile psyche to such a point that he openly criticised his team during and after the race. Damon Hill wasn’t far off the mark when he said the only person who could beat Lewis Hamilton was Lewis Hamilton himself. Behind the top 3, there were some remarkable drives and performances and the joyous scenes of a team winning their first points ever in Formula 1 at Monaco of all places.

The start of the Monaco Grand Prix

I was as nervous at the start as I have been for a very long time. And of course after all the talk and hysteria there was no Senna-inspired vengeful coming together between Hamilton and Rosberg in the run to turn one. The fact that Rosberg led coming out of Ste Devote was hugely significant to the eventual outcome but the fact remains he drove faultlessly for 78 laps around the mean streets of Monaco under extreme pressure from his team-mate for almost the entire distance. One error or lock-up or lapse in concentration and Hamilton would have been ready to pounce.

The other crucial development in cementing the order that the two Mercedes cars came home was the decision to delay bringing in both cars to the pits until after the Safety Car was deployed following Sutil’s crash on lap 25. Hamilton was quick to berate his team for not bringing him in earlier and remarked pointedly I can’t believe we just had to pit. Can you just inform me of what options I have? We should have pitted on that lap before but I knew you wouldn’t call me in, guys.

No Monaco GP is complete without an appearance from the Safety Car

When asked to elaborate after the race he explained that Mercedes have a centralised strategy and the car in front gets priority. Lewis pointed out it had been completely different at McLaren where they had the luxury and advantage of one strategist each per driver. Imagine how chuffed Mercedes must be to hear themselves upbraided by one of their drivers in front of the world’s media. Not cool Lewis and most definitely not the kind of thing Ayrton Senna would have done. Senna was a team-player through and through. Presumably when Lewis was in the ‘car in front’, he benefited from Mercedes’ rule in Bahrain and Spain. So really he needs to get over himself.

Lewis piling the pressure on Rosberg but he was unable to find a way past

The battle raged on for lap after lap and the outcome was by no means certain especially when we heard that Nico was having to save a lot of fuel. With just over ten laps to go, the cat and mouse race abruptly tailed off as Lewis Hamilton suddenly dropped back. Lewis told the team he had something in his eye affecting his visibility and he was trying to open his visor and clean it out at slow-speed corners. When Mercedes updated Lewis on the gap to Ricciardo in 3rd place, Lewis retorted that he wanted information on the gap to Nico not Ricciardo.

Turned out that he had far more reason to worry about Daniel Ric who sensed a chance of second place and was driving like a man possessed! Monaco being Monaco, it was nigh on impossible for Ricciardo to overtake but for the first time this season we saw another team almost matching Mercedes wheel for wheel in a race. What an impressive season Daniel Ricciardo is having! Totally outshining, out-qualifying and out-driving his teammate which is all the more mind-bogglingly brilliant as said teammate is the not-too-shabby Sebastian Vettel (of four back-to-back drivers’ titles fame). Vettel’s difficult and frustrating unfortunately season continued at Monaco when he was forced to retire on lap 8 after a string of techical problems.

The immensely likeable Daniel Ricciardo celebrating his first podium at Monaco

Fernando Alonso was the best of the rest in 4th place with what Brundle rightly called an anonymous race. Kimi Raikkonen had a phenomenal start to move into 3rd place only for his race to disintegrate when he suffered a puncture just after pitting under the safety car. Desperately bad luck and you sensed his frustration when he attempted a dubious move on Kevin Magussen that ended up terminating his race.

Nico Hulkenberg was an impressive 5th, Button 6th, Massa 7th and Grosjean 8th (a quite remarkable achievement in the twitchy Lotus). The second biggest talking point though of the day was the tremendous result for Marussia with Jules Bianchi finishing in 9th place. You wait 83 races for a single point and then two come along together. In the best place to celebrate on earth! Bianchi actually crossed over the line in 8th place but was awarded a 5 second penalty which dropped him down a place. It is a result which could be worth over £20m to the team when prize money is divvied up at the end of the season. On a day where #magicofmonaco was trending, it was wonderful to have a feelgood, heartwarming story in the paddock. And with so much talk of rivalries and the dog-eat-dog world of F1, it was lovely to see a congratulatory tweet from Fernando Alonso to Jules Bianchi on his fantastic result.

Jubilant scenes at Marussia as they celebrate their first points finish in Formula 1

Oddly, as a massive Benedict Cumberbatch fan, I felt slightly disappointed that he was on interview duty. This was really a race that deserved the incisive questioning of Martin Brundle or even some off-the-wall “Lewis, how gutted are you to come second?” lunatic prattle from Eddie Jordan. But then like gridwalks, Monaco doesn’t really do podiums. Lewis scuttled off presumably to lock himself into a darkened room even while Brundle was still interviewing Daniel Ricciardo. Ideally I think drivers should give other drivers on the podium the small courtesy of waiting until they have been interviewed.

Lovely Benedict manning up though a UN peace-keeping envoy might be advisable for the next race

I think many expected the rivalry at Mercedes to intensify during the season but no one expected relations to implode so spectacularly as they have done. Even Prost and Senna didn’t declare war on each other after only 6 races of a season. After the race Lewis made clear his feelings on Nico Rosberg to the assembled media “We are not friends, we are colleagues”.

Rosberg’s view – "We've always been friends, we always will be friends but friends is a big word. What exactly is friends? We have a good relationship and work well together."

Nico and Lewis - the early years

It was glaringly obvious after the race that the two Mercedes drivers did not shake hands or even acknowledge each other. It is hard to see a way back from this for Hamilton and Rosberg. The boyhood friendship which dated back to when they were 13 is well and truly over. The accusations have already got too personal and this weekend we have witnessed a seismic shift in their relationship. The huge challenge now for the Mercedes Team is how to best harness the considerable talents of two drivers at war in a title-winning car without jeopardising the team as a whole. We may well still see one of the drivers take a ‘page out of Senna’s book’ before the end of the season.

Next up it is the fantabulous Canadian Grand Prix which usually is a cracker. For the statistically minded it is where Lewis Hamilton won his first race and he has triumphed there 3 times in total. Does that give him a slight psychological edge?

To be continued…

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