Sunday, 29 May 2011

Formula 1 - Monaco Grand Prix 2011

This has to be the only on-track roundabout in Formula 1
After a surprisingly eventful race, Sebastien Vettel has lucked into his first Monaco GP victory. He did his usual trick of running away from the big scary grid in the first part of the race as hell started to break loose behind him, with Michael Schumacher going into Anti-Stall on the grid (a system that intervenes if it detects that the driver is about to stall the engine and cuts the throttle) before tackling 9th-place Lewis Hamilton going into the very tight first corner and taking those little black extensions off the bottom of his rear wing. A mere four corners later, he overtook Hamilton on the tightest, slowest corner of any race track in the world, the ~30mph Grande Hotel hairpin. This was a skilful move, one that Hamilton would later try to copy when stuck behind Felipe Massa, but leave too late and end up driving into his left rear corner all the way round the hairpin - a fairly long wheelbase on these cars means that the turning circle is a little large for such a manoeuvre if you leave it too late. Later in the race, after Schumacher made the gutsy move, Hamilton made an even gutsier one by throwing his McLaren down the inside of turn 1 and giving the Septuple World Champion a hair's width between the Brit and a looming tyre wall. Impressive driving from both opportunist Hamilton and wise old Schumacher, who managed to avoid any contact on either side of his Mercedes-Benz.

Mark Webber's start wasn't smooth sailing either, because not only did he fail to get past Jenson Button in the first corner, he was once again passed up the inside by a surging Fernando Alonso, who snatched 3rd from him in so doing. The day didn't improve for him either, with Red Bull showing a rare sign of weakness in the pits. Vettel's tyres took too long to come out of the garage, delaying Webber's immediately following stop even further when he subsequently had to wait for his own set of tyres. The Australian's race would become a long-run battle with Kamui Kobayashi, who maintained a highly impressive 4th place for most of the race, before Webber took back the place two laps from the end. Still, 5th place is a career best for the plucky Japanese driver, whose Mexican team mate Sergio Pérez suffered a highly severe crash in qualifying, losing the back end over a bump on the tunnel exit and sliding sideways at high speed into a (cushioned) divider at the infamous Harbour Chicane. He suffered a bruised thigh and light concussion and was deemed unfit to start the race today by the FIA Doctor. He is looking good to recover in time for Canada in two weeks though, which is good news.

Harbour Chicane. And some girls.
It all seemed to be falling into place for Jenson Button. The Red Bulls had botched two pit stops (one for each driver), he was 14 seconds ahead of Vettel and pulling away, at one point tallying the 10,000th leading lap for a McLaren just before pitting in and dropping to 2nd place. Then his team mate threw a spanner in the works. After trying it on at the tight hairpin, Lewis Hamilton overtook Felipe Massa once and for all in the tunnel on the same lap, wherein Massa was forced onto the dirty area of the track just at the kink where the long right-hander tightens, sliding him straight into the wall and causing the Brazilian's first Monaco retirement since 2002. On the same lap, Michael Schumacher's car decided it would rather be sipping champagne on a yacht, as it ground to a steaming halt just in front of the pits at Rasscasse, meaning his best post-comeback qualifying position of 4th place wouldn't amount to anything.

This brought out the Safety Car and of course, bunched the field up, closing the gaps right up between Button, Vettel and Alonso. Button kept putting the pressure on, but at this point he still hadn't used both types of dry tyre compounds, each time using the red-striped Super Soft tyres (available for the first time this season) in the pits. This forced him onto a 3-stop strategy, meaning he had to pit in one more time for a yellow set of regular Soft tyres, dropping him down to 3rd place. Who knows, maybe if Hamilton and Massa hadn't battled in the tunnel, Vettel's tyres wouldn't have had time to cool down behind the Safety Car and he could've had to pit again, putting Button (and maybe even Alonso) in front of him. Alas, he never had to pit again after his first stop at lap 16 of 78 and made those yellow tyres last longer than anyone had seen this season, although the teams did expect this track to be relatively light on tyre wear, and indeed it was, hence the decision to use Soft and Super Soft compounds rather than the usual Soft and Hard, so that's an important contributing factor as well.

Button spent the rest of his race hunting down 2nd place Alonso, who enjoyed a few laps of just focussing on attacking Vettel on a track that will never truly lend itself to overtaking (that doesn't stop it being a classic though), before having to deal with an attacking McLaren on younger tyres behind him. This was shaping up to be a brilliant chase: Three recent World Champions (well, Alonso's WDCs were 5 & 6 years ago) all looking to add a Monaco win to their CV, with Vettel hoping to win here for the first time in his F1 career. If they kept wearing him down, his tyres would "fall off the cliff", i.e. quickly lose the majority of their gripping abilities all of a sudden, due to Pirelli designing them to do just that. Then he would either have to pit or be forced to hold his lead on degraded tyres that would surely cause a mistake and perhaps send him into the barriers, or wide enough at the Harbour Chicane that he perhaps cuts across it and has to yield, or wide enough into Rasscasse or the first corner to be overtaken by one or both of them. As the tension rose, it seemed like only a matter of time...

...and then Lady Luck threw him another rope.

It was at this point, at lap 70, that the three leaders had caught up with traffic. In amongst it all was a frustrated Lewis Hamilton, who already had a drive-through penalty for hitting Massa in the Grande Hotel hairpin. He was scything through the other backmarkers just ahead of the leaders, overtaking Vitaly Petrov at Tabac (left hander after the Harbour Chicane). Still ahead of Hamilton was Adrian Sutil, who slid wide and hit the outside barrier, pulling the tyre off his right rear wheel. As he started limping to the pits, he cut the chicane - validly, as he could no longer drive at race pace and had to get out of the way - and ended up just ahead of Hamilton, who slowed on the exit as he sighted a route round the stricken Force India. This lead to Toro Rosso driver Jaime Alguersuari hitting the McLaren's rear wheel and ripping his front wing off. Avoiding this collision immediately behind this pair was Alguersuari's team mate Sebastien Buemi and Petrov. As Buemi avoided smacking into his team mate, he ended up colliding into the side of Petrov as the two of  them smashed into the wall, with the Lotus-Renault driver bearing the brunt of the impact as he hit the wall at quite a steep angle. This didn't just bring out the safety car with 8 laps to go. Because Petrov wasn't getting out of the car, the ambulance was called, and the race was eventually Red Flagged on lap 72, meaning the drivers had to line up behind the safety car on the grid and wait for the race to either be restarted or cancelled. We later found out that Vitaly felt a lot of pain, including in his lower back, and briefly could not feel his legs. It was better that medical staff extracted him from the car, which they duly did, already having practiced the day before with Sergio Pérez.

As the drivers sat there on the grid, their cars were allowed to be worked on by teams. This included changing tyres, although who had tyres this late-on worth changing into, I don't know. It did give the McLaren team time to replace the broken endplates on Lewis Hamilton's rear wing, the right of which had been broken off its lower support by Alguersuari. The drivers had time to cool off and rest their tired selves after about 65 laps of hard graft, getting right up close to the barriers that characterise the Monaco circuit without hitting them, finding those rare opportunities to overtake, spending only 10 seconds of each lap not steering, and the rest of the time behind the Safety Car, trying to keep tyre and brake temperatures up. As the BBC commentators mentioned, this also gave the adrenaline in their bodies time to fade away, which could take the edge off their driving and perhaps make it just feel like hard work if and when they got going again...

Clearly Button & Alonso enjoyed the race a little too much and needed to
cover their, ahem, gear sticks. Vettel has no such insecurities...
Get going again they did, as the AMG SLS Safety Car fired up its 6.2 litre, 563bhp V8 and lead 18 F1 cars out of 23 starters (each with 2.4 litre, ~750bhp V8s) around for one warm-up lap before peeling off and letting them get on with it. Vettel bunched up the field and then shot off as he ran away from trouble once more. The gap between them which had previously been mere tenths of a second became 1.5 seconds or so, effectively ending the chase, as it takes a lot longer than 5 or 6 laps to close down 1.5 seconds and pass the car ahead, especially at Monaco. As a result, Vettel could stop worrying about tyre wear and just bring it home. There was still something for us TV-watchers though, as Hamilton was in the wars again going into turn 1 of the restart, colliding with Williams rookie Pastor Maldonado, who had been doing very well in 6th place, during an attempted overtake. The Venezuelan was spun sideways into a tyre wall on the corner exit.

Hamilton claims - as he did with Massa - that the defending driver "turned in on him" and that it wasn't his fault. All the same, he was penalised after the race by having 20 seconds added to his race time, although this didn't change his position, as 7th place Adrian Sutil was lapped during the race, and Hamilton wasn't. Lucky in a way, but it only dampened his spirits further as he gave a moody interview after the race, claiming that he always get penalised: "I've been called into the Steward's Office five times in six races. It's an absolute fricking joke ... I always get the penalty". Strong words - and not the strongest he used, either - but it's fair to say that he was very frustrated after losing the chance to set a decent qualifying lap and then being demoted to 9th before starting a race with a botched pit stop and a drive-through. While some of what he said's understandable, some of it was in the heat of the moment and something he'll regret saying (jokingly playing the race card immediately springs to mind, even if he didn't mean it).

None of this affected Vettel, Alonso and Button, who get to take home a trophy the same shape as the famous street circuit. Now they get some time off to party in Monte Carlo - home to many F1 drivers past and present - before joining their teams in America's Hat for the return of the Canadian Grand Prix at Montréal. This will be the first circuit to have not one, but two DRS zones. How will that affect the racing? Can it help the McLarens or the Ferraris knock Vettel off his pedestal? Find out on the weekend of the 10-12th June!

Points tables follow (click to enlarge). As always, I do not claim ownership of the above images. Maybe one day I'll buy a ticket to Silverstone and take my own pictures...

1 comment:

  1. Awesome.. I would like to attend to the next Monaco GP. I'm getting Monaco Grand Prix Tickets.