Issue 17: Monaco Grand Prix Review

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27 May 2014

Race Summary: Nico Rosberg won a lights-to-flag victory, closely followed by Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo. Fernando finished a fine fourth, but was largely anonymous in the race. Jenson Button delivered McLaren’s first points since the Malaysian Grand Prix. Kimi Raikkonen suffered a puncture after running as high as third place. Marussia scored their first ever points in F1 with Jules Bianchi claiming ninth place after starting 21st.

Daylight robbery in Monte Carlo

We were robbed in Monaco. Robbed, that is, of any meaningful competition for first place. Yes, the Mercedes drivers matched each other tenth-for-tenth in a tight duel until the dying laps when Hamilton suffered from impaired vision. However, Hamilton was denied any real opportunity to seize pole or the lead from Rosberg. In qualifying, Rosberg’s error – whether intentional or not – on his final flying lap brought out the yellow flags and forced Hamilton to abort his final attempt at pole position. In the race, Mercedes’ tactical decision to pit both their drivers on the same lap during the first safety car period scuppered any chance of Hamilton using the undercut strategy to pass his team-mate in the pits. His frustration was palpable. However, that’s the nature of Grand Prix racing at Monaco.

Overtaking on-track at Monaco!

Behind the leading pair of Mercedes, there were some exciting performance through the field. Curiously for Monaco, there also appeared to be more on-track overtaking than in recent years (there were nine overtakes for position in total). Adrian Sutil in his Sauber made some bold moves at Grand Hotel Hairpin before binning it on the exit of the tunnel, causing the first safety car period. However, Nico Hulkenberg produced an almost unprecedented overtaking move by going down the inside of Kevin Magnussen at Portier. That was unquestionably the move of the Grand Prix, not least for its audacity. And this was just one moment in a great drive around the streets of Monte Carlo. The Hulk hung on dearly in the final laps as the McLaren of Button and the Williams of Massa closed in remorselessly. On a circuit with overtaking opportunities, he might not have finished ahead, but round Monte Carlo he could fend off his pursuers.

Kimi Raikkonen also stood out in the first stint of the Grand Prix. The Finn hooked up his start-line getaway and incredibly, passed both his team-mate, who was baulked by a slow starting Ricciardo as well as the Australian to slot in behind Vettel in fourth place, which swiftly became third when Vettel retired after five laps. Raikkonen was on for a strong finish before cruel luck struck and forced him to pit under the safety car, albeit after almost everyone else had already pitted for tyres. His needless collision with Magnussen on Lap 74 added insult to injury.

The other top performer at the sharp-end, especially in the closing phase of the race, was Daniel Ricciardo. He put in a great recovery drive to claim third after harassing Hamilton in the final few laps. In closing on Hamilton, Ricciardo demonstrated again what Red Bull have managed to achieve in the last few rounds: the RB10 in the hands of Vettel and Ricciardo simply comes alive in the final stint and the relative gap in laptime between the lead Red Bull and Mercedes cars decreases. In fact, from Laps 68-73, Ricciardo posted quicker times than race leader Rosberg. Therefore, the Australian was able to close relentlessly on Hamilton. However, this being Monaco, shadowing the Briton to the chequered flag was as much as he could achieve.

A McLaren renaissance?

At Monaco, Mercedes had a noticeably smaller competitive advantage over the rest of the field compared with previous races this season. This is largely because the track layout did not favour Mercedes and the two safety car periods wiped out any margins that their drivers had built up. Hamilton’s troubles at the end aided Ricciardo in closing the gap, but the fact that he was able to follow one of the Mercedes home does not equate to Red Bull having closed down Mercedes’ performance advantage. I expect normal service to resume at the Canadian Grand Prix in two weeks’ time.

I said that I expected McLaren to perform better round the streets of Monte Carlo and they looked somewhat revived as a racing force. Only the next few rounds, particularly Silverstone, will tell us if this trend is here to stay or whether it was a one-off due to the MP4-29 being well-suited to the unique characteristics of Monaco. Either way, on Lap 74, Magnussen and Button provided some entertaining dicing with Button passing his rookie team-mate for sixth. Magnussen could certainly have finished higher than 10th had it not been for a temporary electrical issue.

Finally, the Monaco Grand Prix was the first race since the opening round in Australia where all three powertrain manufacturers encountered significant technical problems. Valtteri Bottas retired on Lap 57 with a powertrain failure, while Fernando Alonso reported further Energy Recovery System unreliability on the first lap. For Renault, Sebastian Vettel of course retired early on when his turbo failed. On balance, the powertrain reliability rate in 2014 has been astonishing. However, these failures were a clear reminder that this season’s engine formula is still in its infancy and the new powertrains are by no means engineered to perfection.

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