Monday, 4 June 2012

Formula 1 - Monaco Grand Prix 2012

Circuit de Monaco
See this map? It should be engrained in your mind as a car/motorsport fan. Despite being too narrow to feature a great deal of overtaking, it is one of the world's great racing circuits. Situated in the most glamorous setting there is, the incredibly tight Monaco Grand Prix track features 19 turns in 2.075 miles, some of which - the Harbour Chicane, Grand Hotel/Loews Hairpin, the tunnel section - are among the coolest and most iconic pieces of road in F1's history. A modern F1 car takes around 1:14 to get around this short-but-relentless lap in Qualifying, the driver only travelling in a straight line for 10 seconds a lap (even the start/finish straight isn't straight) and needing absolute concentration from the braking zone of turn 1 to the exit of turn 19 if they want to get a good lap and not crash into the tall, close barriers that line the entire circuit. The only run-off areas are escape roads at turns 1, 5 and 10, as well as the insides of the two chicanes in the Swimming Pool Section (T13-16), so get it wrong anywhere else and you're on your own... until a swarm of cars turn up behind you angered that you blew their lap. It's tough, it's challenging and it's dangerous. No wonder the drivers love it so enthusiastically. It's part of motorsport's highly-prestigious "Triple Crown", along with Le Mans and the Indy 500 (the latter of which takes place on the same day).

Personally, I just love that Formula 1 still races here. If it wasn't on the calendar and you tried to get it there, they'd say "no, don't be silly, it's far too tight and dangerous", but we've had 70 runnings of the Monaco Grand Prix (including this one) because of how iconic it is, and of course because of how rich the principality of Monte Carlo is, and the subsequent business opportunities that arise there. The world's most expensive sport in (formerly, at least) the world's richest place is a showcase of why money is worth having. But enough of all that. There's a race to talk about. Chiefly, will we get an unprecedented six different winners in the first six races?

The headline in qualifying was that Michael Schumacher set the fastest time in Q3 at a track at which he's won five times. Alas, his 5-place grid penalty for hitting Bruno Senna out of the Spanish GP meant that he was demoted to 6th place despite his efforts, putting Mark Webber of all people on Pole Position, with Schumi's team mate Nico Rosberg promoted to 2nd place ahead of Lewis Hamilton, Romain Grosjean and Fernando Alonso. While Webber was at the front, Sebastian Vettel chose not to set a Q3 time and start the race on the more durable yellow Prime tyres instead of the faster red Options everyone else used. Despite not setting a time, he started 9th instead of 10th, as Pastor Maldonado was given a 10-place grid penalty for "using his car as a weapon" against Sergio Pérez in the third practice session, by purposefully driving across the front of the Mexican's Sauber C31 after being upset that Pérez had ruined his flying lap. This put him in 19th, until he needed to change a gearbox and went right to the back, where he would start alongside Pérez, who hit the wall in Q1 and also needed a fresh gearbox, promoting Maldonado up to 23rd. Yippee.

The Grid:
1st - M Webber, 2nd - N Rosberg, 3rd - L Hamilton, 4th - R Grosjean, 5th - F Alonso, 6th - M Schumacher, 7th - F Massa, 8th - K Räikkönen, 9th - S Vettel, 10th - N Hülkenberg, 11th - K Kobayashi, 12th - J Button, 13th - B Senna, 14th - P di Resta, 15th - D Ricciardo, 16th - J-E Vergne, 17th - H Kovalainen, 18th - V Petrov, 19th - T Glock, 20th - P de la Rosa, 21st - C Pic, 22nd - N Karthikeyan, 23rd - P Maldonado, 24th - S Pérez.

As the five lights went out, chaos quickly ensued. Mark Webber finally got off to a good start, but behind him Romain Grosjean bumped wheels with Fernando Alonso, bounced off to the left and connected with Michael Schumacher, who had nowhere to go, causing a collision that spun Grosjean's Lotus round in front of several cars suddenly looking for a way around him. While many used the pit exit that skips the first corner, Kamui Kobayashi tried squeezing around the outside and bumped tyres with the stricken Lotus, shooting three feet up into the air and landing hard on all fours in front of Jenson Button and causing suspension damage that took him out of the race by lap 5. Meanwhile at the back, Pastor Maldonado had run into the back of Pedro de la Rosa, knocking a wing off both cars, before coming to a stop at the Grand Hotel hairpin and ending a truly miserable weekend for the hero of the Spanish Grand Prix. As his Williams FW34 had to be hoisted out of the track, the Safety Car was called and the field settled down behind the grizzly AMG SLS for a couple of laps while De la Rosa pitted to retire the car. You can't just pull off and slap on a rear wing like you can a front one.

After The First Lap & Safety Car Period:
1st - Webber, 2nd - Rosberg, 3rd - Hamilton, 4th - Alonso, 5th - Massa, 6th - Vettel, 7th - Räikkönen, 8th - Schumacher, 9th - Hülkenberg, 10th - Senna, 11th - Di Resta, 12th - Ricciardo, 13th - Kovalainen, 14th - Button, 15th - Glock, 16th - Pic, 17th - Vergne, 18th - Pérez, 19th - Karthikeyan, 20th - Kobayashi, 21st - Petrov, DNF - De la Rosa, DNF - Maldondo, DNF - Grosjean.

The 21 survivors got away cleanly at the restart on lap 3 of 78, with Lewis Hamilton already under pressure from the two Ferraris, although of course you need to do more than apply pressure to get past at Monaco. Heikki Kovalainen capitalised on the first-corner chaos to squeeze ahead of Jenson Button and thus reach 13th place, which was important to Caterham as the highest position a car from the three younger teams had managed thus far was 14th by a Marussia, and when you don't score any points all season, highest finishes are how your World Constructor's Championship position is decided and, of course points (or equivalent) mean prizes. 10 laps later, the only position change other than everyone behind Kamui Kobayashi going up one place was Charles Pic passing Narain Karthikeyan for 19th place. There was nearly a pass by Sergio Pérez on Jean-Eric Vergne at the Harbour Chicane, but while they turned in side-by-side, Vergne couldn't make the second apex without hitting Pérez and so skipped it, which meant the Toro Rosso driver subsequently had to surrender the place to the Sauber by order of the race stewards, much to his disgust.

On lap 17, something of interest happened, as Vitaly Petrov came into the pits. His crew weren't exactly in a hurry, and it turned out his Caterham had an electrical fault, making him the fifth retirement of the race already. Then, for the next 10 laps, nothing of interest happened apart from Sebastian Vettel missing the same apex as Vergne, but he was alone at that point and didn't gain an advantage so it didn't mean anything. Rain was threatening, but not actually falling, as Nico Rosberg was the first to blink and pit in for Prime tyres on lap 27. Two laps later, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton pitted, coming out in the order they were beforehand (1st and 3rd respectively), with Rosberg returning to effectively 2nd place. Kimi Räikkönen's exit from his pit box was aggressive, with a spinning rear wheel passing within inches of a Force India mechanic waiting for Nico Hülkenberg. They exited in the order they came in, narrowly ahead of Bruno Senna, but Michael Schumacher, who was between the two of them, stayed out a little longer. But then, an actual position change happened!! Fernando Alonso set a blistering time in the first two sectors of his in-lap and exited the pits ahead of Lewis Hamilton, getting effectively 3rd place. Predictably, Felipe Massa then tried to do the same thing, but didn't quite manage it...

The two front-runners who still hadn't pitted were Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel. Schumacher was simply making his Options last a very long time, but Vettel was doing the race's standard one-stop pit strategy in reverse, meaning he would pit a lot later and at this point was comfortably leading the race on his Prime tyres. Because of all the slow-speed corners here, the track is quite low on tyre wear and brake wear, so the current trend for three or even four pit stops a race was bucked this time. Schumacher pitted on lap 35, and came out away from the Ferraris ahead but ahead of Kimi Räikkönen, who he was challenging for a place before the pit stop phase. Rain continued to threaten, but the track remained dry.

On lap 36, Sergio Pérez, Kimi Räikkönen and Nico Hülkenberg were line astern going through Rascasse. Kimi tried to get alongside Sergio in the tiny straight before the last corner, but Pérez then ducked into the pit lane, blocking Räikkönen and allowing Nico to sail past both of them. This would later get Pérez a drive-through penalty. Meanwhile, Jenson Button pitted for a set of Option tyres, having started on Primes too, and exited the pits with Heikki Kovalainen right alongside him. The Finn in his Caterham then got a fast exit out of turn 1 and squeezed back past the Brit in his McLaren, which probably annoyed Button quite a lot, as he had to sit behind Kovalainen for lap after lap again. Jenson has complained about a lack of balance in his car since the previous race, when McLaren added a higher nose, and doesn't seem to be having a great time of it after a very strong start to the season and winning the opening race. Meanwhile, his team mate Lewis Hamilton was suffering from a bizarre problem where letters from the pit board kept falling off and hitting him in the head. He later explained the the racing line through the last corner means that, unusually, the pit board is held out right above him. Maybe the air displaced by the car or cars ahead was causing the letter pieces - shiny cards of plastic which bend slightly to fit in the slots - to shake loose. First wheel nuts, now this. Very odd...

By lap 45, Sebastian Vettel had still managed to avoid the pit lane on his Prime tyres and was leading by over 17 seconds. He would need 20 seconds or so to pit and come out in the lead. Alas, he wasn't going to get it, as his lap time started to drop off and Red Bull Racing quickly reacted. He pitted on lap 46, coming out narrowly ahead of Lewis Hamilton to take 4th place from him. Meanwhile, his team mate kept on leading the race, with Nico Rosberg close behind him but not close enough to really do anything. Hamilton was advised that his old sparring partner Felipe Massa was saving his tyres to attack at the end of the race, so Lewis said he'd try to do the same, something he did manage at the previous race when he started last and gained 16 places to finish eighth. And so the race pounded on...

On lap 62 of 78, Jean-Eric Vergne chased Michael Schumacher down the pit straight, but as BBC commentator David Coulthard pointed out, that Mercedes-AMG W03 wasn't sounding 100% healthy as it went past his commentary box, and Vergne sailed past Schumacher without really having to do anything. Two laps later, both Force Indias overtook the septuple World Champion in the same place, with Kimi Räikkönen getting past him before turn 3 of the same lap. It turned out to be a fuel pressure problem, which put him out of the race on lap 65. Quite the come-down after setting the fastest quali time. Mean while, the bottom part of the track was starting to get rained on. Would the cars be able to get to the flag on slicks, or would a frantic change to intermediates be needed in the last 10 laps or so? By lap 70 Webber, Rosberg, Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton and Massa were all within a car-length of eachother as lap times started to drop off. Surely none of them would gain anything from pitting at this point? Jean-Eric Vergne became the one to test the water, so to speak, by pitting in for intermediates on lap 71. If everyone pitted, he'd pull a blinder. If it proved unnecessary, then he would've dropped from season-best 6th down to 11th for no reason...

At this late stage in the 78-lap race, it was all starting to kick off. A frustrated Jenson Button went for a move on Heikki Kovalainen into turn 15 of lap 72, but got it wrong, sliding through the braking zone (it's unclear if he actually tagged the Caterham) and winding up backwards inside turn 16. So ended another former champion's miserable weekend. Lap 75 saw Kovalainen tussling with another driver, as a penalised Pérez tried going down the outside of the Finn into turn 1, only for Heikki to lock his brakes on the greasy surface and make Sergio take the escape road. He did a quick half-donut and continued without losing a position. Back at the front, the top six drivers were still very close together and in the same order, all braving it out on worn slick tyres as the rain stayed light. The track started to come back to the drivers as the 78th lap was started. Rosberg had the smallest gap to the car ahead with only 0.4 seconds separating him and Webber, but there was no room to make a brave move, and so despite being pressured all the way to the flag, Mark Webber became the sixth different winner in six races, something that has never happened before in Formula 1. Once the race finished and the track-shaped trophies were given out, it started to pour it down. Good timing.

So Red Bull Racing become the first team to get two wins this year (as well as their third Monaco GP in a row) and now lead the constructor's championship by 38 points. However, because of the unpredictability of the championship, combined with Alonso's third place finish, neither of their drivers are leading the World Drivers Championship. Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso went into the race tied on 61 points, but it's the Ferrari driver who now edges ahead by a mere three points. Who would've predicted that at the start of the season? It's perhaps fair to say that the completely random Malaysian Grand Prix which saw Fernando's only race win thus far (as well as SebVet having a puncture) is a major contributor to that, but nonetheless the Spanish warrior has outperformed his car in the early stages, helped to improve it by asking for a stiffer rear end and causing Ferrari to add a stiffening arm*, and has been determined to finish as high as possible every single race, so all power to him. IMO, if Formula 1 had DRS in 2010, he would've secured his third championship at the final race Abu Dhabi instead of being stuck behind Petrov all race, so it'd be cool for him to win it this year, but there are absolutely zero guarantees of anything in Formula 1, so with fourteen races still to go, it would take either a brave or a daft person to bet on who'll be the 2012 F1 World Champion.

*Rumours that the F2012 got a "stiffening arm" by looking at naked Fiat Puntos cannot be confirmed or denied.

And so this is what the 70th Monaco Grand Prix looks like on paper, and what it means for the championships (click to enlarge). Next up is Canada, host to an all-time epic last year but likely to see protests this year, who knows what will happen this weekend? We'll have to wait and see. With all due respect to over-taxed and undermined student protesters, I'm not worrying about whether the race will happen or not. It will. At any rate, I doubt we'll see seven different winners, as there are now six people vying to be the first repeat winner, four of which are regularly at the sharp end of things. As I say though, there are no guarantees in this sport, so anything could happen once the five red lights..... go out.

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