Sunday, 25 May 2008

Monaco Grand Prix Race Report: Tears and Cheers on the Streets of Monte Carlo

Lewis Hamilton has taken his first victory on the wet streets of Monaco in a truly epic two-hour race. It was a race of drama, of bravery, of fortune and of heartbreak as the often processional race in Monaco was transformed by the changeable conditions. The win moves Hamilton to the top of the standings as current leader Raikkonen had a dismal race for Ferrari, much to his own cost and that of the true hero of the race Adrian Sutil.

The drama of the race began way before the allotted 2pm start time. With around half an hour to go before the start the track was fairly dry and there was no rain in the air, but everyone could see the rain clouds closing in rapidly from the mountains above Monte Carlo. The key question would be one of tyre choice, and all teams and drivers were leaving it as late as possible to make their decision as the rain finally began to fall with just minutes to go before the start. Some were even to leave it TOO late, as we would find out later.

In the end everyone bar Nelson Piquet began the race on Intermediate wet tyres, which seemed like the right choice given the greasy conditions. As they began the formation lap disaster struck for Heikki Kovalainen as his car appeared to stall on the grid. His pit crew pushed him frantically back to the pits so they could restart him at the back of the field. After his accident in practice he did a superb job to get his car onto the second row, but all that good work was undone in an instant.

The start would be a voyage into the unknown for the whole field, as they attempted a racing start in the wet for the first time since the ban on traction control. Off the line Massa and Hamilton both got away superbly, but Raikkonen caught too much wheelspin and bogged down off the line. By St Devote Hamilton was ahead and Raikkonen sensibly let him slot into the Ferrari sandwich. Thankfully, good sense prevailed throughout the field and nobody tried to be hero into that treacherous first corner. There was no contact or incident to speak of, for which all the drivers deserve huge credit.

As the drivers tip-toed around the opening couple of laps to get a feel for the circuit it was immediately apparent who was looking the most confident. Massa and Hamilton both began driving away from the rest of the field. Kimi Raikkonen in third looked distinctly unhappy in the slippery conditions and was much slower than his team mate and his other title rival Hamilton. Nick Heidfeld made an excellent start and was up to seventh and last year’s winner Alonso was showing his Monaco experience with some impressive early pace.

One of the heroes of qualifying Nico Rosberg was the first man to have an incident, and it was to be the first of many for the young German. He nudged the back of the car in front at the Loewes Hairpin and broke his front wing. The next major incident was for the pre-race favourite Lewis Hamilton who slid wide on the exit of Tabac and punctured his rear tyre on the Armco barrier. It seemed like disaster early on for the young Brit as he limped back to the pits, but such was the pace of the front two early on he was able to rejoin in fourth place after new tyres and a splash of fuel.

Alonso was pushing like mad, and put a superb move on Webber into Mirabeau. However, his over-confidence in the wet was soon to cost him as he slid into the barriers at the top of Massenet. He got away with it with just a broken rear wheel and no suspension damage. He came in to pit and decided on a full wet tyre, as the rain was worsening. In terms of pace it proved the right choice, but he was unable to exploit the advantage as he had lost so much track position after his crash.

Alonso wasn’t the only man to struggle at Massenet, as first Coulthard then Bourdais slid off into the barriers in quick succession. There was no reprieve for either driver as both cars were wrecked and the safety car was required to assist in the clearing of debris. Meanwhile Kimi Raikkonen was given a drive through penalty for not having his tyres on the car three minutes before the start of the race. It was an awful school-boy error from the Ferrari team. Kimi stayed out for as long as possible to minimise the hit from his penalty, but is was still costly for him.

As the race settled down again Massa was leading Kubica who was impressing in the BMW. Felipe was looking strong but a slight loss of concentration on the way into St Devote was to cost him dearly. He out-braked himself slightly and ended up down the escape road. He spun the Ferrari round quickly, but not quick enough to save him from losing his race lead to Kubica.

While all eyes had been at the front of the field, and on those who were hitting the barriers, young Adrian Sutil had incredibly crept his way up into sixth place in the Force India. He kept his head while many other more experienced drivers were losing theirs, and showed some superb car control to man-handle his sluggish Force India up the grid. It was a great performance from the youngster, and looked in a strong position to get some decent points.

At the back end of the grid it was somewhat bizarre to see some world class drivers in quick cars battling it out fiercely for 13th, 14th and 15th place. Kovalainen, Alonso, Heidfeld and Rosberg were all in close company, along with Jenson Button and the two Toyotas. Glock had a particularly eventful race; he ended up beating his team mate despite having THREE spectacular spins throughout the race. A very lucky boy indeed.

With the clouds clearing and the sun beginning to shine, there was a distinct dry line beginning to show. It was getting towards the time where someone will take a gamble on dry tyres. Fernando Alonso was to be the guinea pig for the rest of the drivers as he skidded his way out through the pitlane puddles on grooved tyres to rejoin the race. After a scary moment on the Swimming Pool exit he gradually got his act together and was starting to show some pace. Piquet was the next to go to grooves. The rookie though barely made it through a single lap before binning his Renault at St Devote.

Webber was next up, and although the tyres gradually came to him he probably blinked too soon as he lost a position to Sutil, who was now sitting in an incredible fourth place. While all this had been going on Lewis Hamilton had quietly managed to cruise away at the front of the field. Incredibly, that early crash had actually worked in his favour as the extra splash of fuel he was able to put in was allowing him to stay out much longer than anyone else. Is lead was close to 40 seconds by the time he had to pit for dry tyres, and was able to emerge comfortable in front of the rest. Massa was fuelled to the finish but the strategy was not working for him as he had to make an extra stop for dry tyres and lost track position to Kubica.

It now looked like a straightforward cruise to the finish for Hamilton on a nicely drying track. However, his good friend Nico Rosberg soon put paid to that notion by proving that the track was still dangerous by stepping off the dry line at the Swimming Pool and slamming into the wall twice at speed. His car was a write off, and the safety car was needed to clear the masses of debris, although thankfully he was completely unhurt.

The field was bunched up again, and there would be a 10 minute sprint to the finish in the dry conditions. Hamilton got a great start from behind the safety car and started to pull away from Kubica. The young Pole seemed more concerned by his mirror-full of Ferrari than the McLaren up ahead.

Sutil was just a handful of laps away from a real fairy-tale result in fourth place, but would have his work cut out to keep a Ferrari at bay on the dry tyres. His job was cut cruelly, heartbreakingly short though, as Raikkonen lost it under braking for the chicane and clattered into the back of Sutil, breaking the rear end of his car. While Kimi was able to pit and continue to the end, Sutil’s day was done. Understandably he was utterly inconsolable in the pits. Kimi will certainly have some grovelling to do next time they see each other, as it really wasn’t clever driving from the World Champion.

So after two hours of frantic action, Lewis Hamilton was able to clinch his hard earned first ever Monaco victory in very trying circumstances. He will be the first to admit that he was a bit lucky after his crash, but I’m sure that won’t dampen his celebrations in the slightest. Kubica took an excellent second place, but will perhaps feel a little aggrieved as he was the only one of the top three who didn’t make a single mistake. The other two on the podium both made errors, but got away with them. Massa will be slightly disappointed to come away with third after starting from pole, but it was still a strong performance on probably his least favourite track, so not too bad overall.

As Hamilton now takes over the championship lead, I think the key question to emerge as the dust settles will be who from Ferrari will mount the biggest challenge to McLaren and Hamilton? Raikkonen is the team leader and reigning champion, but in the last few races he has been comprehensively out-performed by Massa. Today in particular was an awful day for Kimi. He made mistakes, but even worse than that looked slower than his team mate most of the afternoon and didn’t look confident at all. Massa is clearly the man of form. Will Ferrari be considering putting more weight behind a Massa title push? One more result like this for Massa and I think they will have to seriously consider it…

1. Hamilton
2. Kubica
3. Massa
4. Webber
5. Vettel
6. Barrichello
7. Nakajima
8. Kovalainen
9. Raikkonen
10. Alonso
11. Button
12. Glock
13. Trulli
14. Heidfeld
Ret Sutil
Ret Rosberg
Ret Piquet
Ret Fisichella
Ret Coulthard
Ret Bourdais

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