It wasn’t a surprise to hear Sebastian Vettel complaining about the slow pace of the Mercedes. After all, after no-one anticipated Mercedes even making the podium. But few would have expected the reigning champion to be moaning about the W04s pace on the formation lap. Perhaps it was an omen for the rest of the race…
Fernando Alonso sent the home fans into a state of delirium as he firstly dispatched with Kimi Raikkonen and then Lewis Hamilton to slide up into third place. Nico Rosberg valiantly held on to his lead, while Vettel set about trying to pass his compatriot.
The first round of stops arrived much quicker than everyone expected. Alonso used the undercut to usurp Vettel and the Spaniard rapidly got rid of Rosberg’s ailing Mercedes. The German’s tyre troubles were exposed and he slipped out of contention. Team-mate Hamilton was having an even worse time as the Brit dropped out of the top 10 and voiced his displeasure at being passed by a Williams.
Alonso subsequently had a seamless run at the front of the field. It was, surprisingly, a Ferrari 1-2 as Felipe Massa had recovered from ninth on the grid to act as rear-gunner to Alonso. But entering the picture was Raikkonen. After a brief battle through Turns 10 and 11, The Finn passed Vettel down into the first corner and soon took chunks out of Massa’s advantage. While Ferrari opted to stop four times, Raikkonen pulled off a three stop strategy and secured second position. He was unable to challenge Alonso, but was ultimately comfortably ahead of Massa.
Ah, to three stop or to four stop? That was the question. The tyres. The bane of Formula 1, apparently. Pirelli’s brief was to spice up the racing in the face of rock hard Bridgestones 2010-spec. Motorsport director Paul Hembery admitted post-race that four stops was a little extreme and pledged to aim for two or three stops in the future. He was probably right, although some lamentations were extreme. Team principals will spout the usual ‘it’s confusing for the fans’, but in reality they have a political agenda. In a sport where the terms ‘Coanda exhaust’, ‘DDRS’, ‘wing stalling’ and more are used regularly, counting the number of stops really isn’t challenging. Such an approach is a little disingenuous. Finding a balance where the tyres assist the racing, but don’t define it, is what Pirelli now have to do.
Vettel attempted a three stop strategy but was forced into an extra stop and ended up in fourth, acknowledging that the tyres were his limitation “The first three cars were a little bit too fast for us and regarding looking after the tyres, they did a better job. We need to catch up; we’re not going the pace of the car, we’re going the pace of the tyres and obviously we do something to make the tyres wear more.” Team-mate Mark Webber was fifth, having recovered from a bad start to finish within 10 seconds of Vettel. Rosberg defended well from Paul di Resta during the closing stages to hold on to sixth but expressed his frustration.
“I thought we would be in a better position. It was really difficult out there, but why? Why on one lap are we so fast and on a long run so slow? It’s strange, and it’s not just one axle, it’s front and rear. Both are struggling and there’s no explanation," said Rosberg.
Having batted away questions about his future at the team, McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh saw his cars finish in eighth and ninth place. Unlike in Bahrain, Jenson Button and Sergio Perez opted not to battle and it was a good recovery from Button after an awful start left him in seventeenth. Perez admitted he didn’t do a good enough job. “I didn’t maximise the full potential of our car today, so I wasn’t happy in that respect, but, having said that, I think it’s been a stronger weekend overall for us,” he said.
Daniel Ricciardo raced well to take the final point, narrowly ahead of Esteban Gutierrez. With Sauber reserve driver Robin Frijns starring in GP2, Gutierrez decided to stop hitting things and put in a drive worthy of a Formula 1 racer. A dejected and confused Hamilton eventually came home in twelfth, ahead of former friend Adrian Sutil, who lost time in the pits. “It was all going to plan until the first pit stop when there was an issue and I lost so much time,” said Sutil. “The team told me to switch the engine off while they sorted the problem, but it cost me the chance of points”. 2012 race winner Pastor Maldonado languished down in fourteenth place. The situation for the Venezuelan couldn’t have been more different than a year ago, although without a drive through penalty for speeding he could have scored a point.
Nico Hulkenberg’s struggles continued as he limped home in fifteenth. The Sauber man was released into the path of Jean-Eric Vergne, ending any hopes of points. Vergne came off worse as he was forced to retire courtesy of damage. Valtteri Bottas had an anonymous race, holding off Charles Pic by only two seconds, while the Marussias struggled at the back. Giedo van der Garde had held the advantage and was even keeping up with Button’s McLaren, but a disastrous pit stop resulted in a loose front wheel, retirement and a fine for Caterham. Joining Van der Garde and Vergne on the sidelines early on was Romain Grosjean, after a suspension failure on his Lotus E21.
Alonso swept across the line to record the 32nd win of his career and his third at home, after Barcelona 2006 and Valencia 2012. The crowd erupted and Alonso picked up a Spanish flag, waving it as if there was no tomorrow. Rather incredibly, the FIA investigated him for transgressing Rul4 43.3 of the sporting regulations: ‘receiving an object after the end-of-race signal’. Mercifully, common sense eventually broke out and no further action was taken.
The result leaves Formula 1 with a championship set to be fought out between Vettel, Raikkonen and Alonso. Placing money on any three of them would be a difficult proposition, although Alonso is confident, even if he is still not fully pleased with the Ferrari F138.
“This year we have a package that is still not the fastest but we are working on it. Definitely on Sundays it is a competitive team package. We are not the quickest over one lap, we maybe do not set the fastest time in the race, but we have fantastic pitstops, starts, tyre degradation... many ingredients to have a competitive car to fight for the championship.”
With Mercedes rapid over a single lap and Ferrari, Lotus and Red Bull in the hunt over a race distance, getting it right around the streets of Monte Carlo will certainly be a challenge…