The 2016 running of the Monaco Grand Prix was an event which two drivers deserved to win, though ultimately, the rational nature of sport meant only one could emerge victorious. This was a weekend in which both Daniel Ricciardo and Lewis Hamilton were electric around the streets of the Monte Carlo and La Condamine districts of Monaco, as wet weather and strategic decisions played out in intriguing fashion.
Hamilton had been supreme during Thursday morning’s opening practice session on a dirty circuit but come the afternoon Ricciardo had surged clear, clocking a lap time which had both Mercedes drivers worried, and the consensus that the Australian was a very real threat. Ricciardo, using Renault’s upgraded engine, estimated to be worth in the region of 0.2s per lap in Monaco, then bolted out of the blocks in Q3 and set one of the quickest ever laps around the Principality.
If Mercedes was left mouth agape by Ricciardo’s lap, it simultaneously had its own problems to battle. The short, sharp nature of the Monte Carlo Street Circuit, added to the heat, caused both W07 Hybrids to suffer a fuel pressure issue. Hamilton realised the problem as he trundled along the pit lane and had to be retrieved by his mechanics, while Nico Rosberg was left stranded in the garage, as Mercedes worked on a solution. Once clear, both drivers filtered back onto the circuit out of sync, Rosberg with two hot laps available and Hamilton just the one. Rosberg was unable to match Ricciardo as Hamilton lit up the timing screens, but faded in the final sector and was only third. Rosberg improved on his second run, but Mercedes’ run of four straight Monaco poles ended in the hands of the brilliant Ricciardo. Rosberg accepted second best, whereas Hamilton insinuated that there were now deeper rooted problems within the Mercedes camp.
Hamilton had hoped that wet weather would influence proceedings and when he looked out from behind the curtains on race day he was happy with the scene which greeted him. Throughout the week in Monaco, the forecasts pointed towards a day of wet weather, though pinpointing the timing of the rain, and the quantity, remained tricky. Some were sure it would arrive on Sunday evening, whereas others were convinced it would hit during the morning; saliently every weather forecast indicated a dry window at some stage during the race.
Showers fell sporadically during the morning but with around 45 minutes to go until lights out the heavens opened and the streets were soaked; so much so that the reconnaissance laps proved an adventure, with Haas’ Romain Grosjean perilously close to an embarrassing shunt at the Loews hairpin.
The rain kept falling and the wise decision to start behind the Safety Car was given, meaning that the grid order of Ricciardo, Rosberg, Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Nico Hülkenberg, Carlos Sainz Jr. and Sergio Pérez would be maintained. After an agonising eight laps behind the Safety Car – caution is forgivable, but this was far too long – the green flag was flown, then almost immediately retracted when Jolyon Palmer suffered a sizeable accident along the pit straight. Palmer struggled for traction in the recalcitrant Renault and encountered wheelspin in fifth gear as he drove across a zebra crossing, the absence of grip on the slippery white lines sending Palmer hard left into the barriers. Palmer’s stricken Renault continued onwards as he suffered a secondary impact at Sainte Devote, though fortunately the youngster was able to clamber from the wreckage of his car.
The Virtual Safety Car was implemented, denying Ricciardo the opportunity to profit from clear air, but once the race resumed he surged clear, pulling away from a struggling Rosberg. The Mercedes driver, who arrived searching for a fourth straight ‘home’ win, could not work his brakes effectively, which had a chain reaction, robbing him of tyre grip and, crucially, confidence. Ricciardo leapt clear at a rate of knots as Hamilton sized up Rosberg, identifying the outside of Massenet as a potential passing place. Meanwhile Mercedes urged Rosberg to improve his pace, with the warning that failure to do so would result in team orders. Rosberg could not go quicker, and thus the message came through to cede position. This was not a spur of the moment call from Mercedes, moreover a pre-existing agreement between both drivers and team, to which Rosberg dutifully obliged. It displayed the respect between the pair (they warmly embraced in the Mercedes motorhome post-race, a genuine scene, not an orchestrated opportunity in front of the attending media) and the team spirit of Rosberg; not many drivers would allow their greatest title rival a free pass.
Hamilton immediately lit up the timing screens but Ricciardo’s 12 second lead would prove difficult to eradicate, with both drivers a class apart from their rivals. Strategy, and fortune, would therefore need to come into play.
The torrential rain had eased before the restart and the Intermediate tyre range came into operation.
Ricciardo came in on lap 23 and dropped only to second, on account of the next group all having made their stop for Intermediates. Hamilton stayed out, his strategy now resting on the circuit drying within the following handful of laps. Ricciardo slashed Hamilton’s lead but was unable to find a way through, the reigning World Champion planting his car in right positions, until a handful of drivers experimented with slick tyres. Hamilton dived into the pits on lap 31 for Ultra Soft tyres, though it was by far from Mercedes’ quickest stop and as Hamilton tried to get heat into his rubber, Ricciardo continued onwards, setting quick times.
Red Bull called Ricciardo in one lap later but as he entered the pit box his Super Soft tyres had not been prepared, a miscommunication issue exacerbated by the quirky nature of Monaco’s pit garages. Ricciardo sat in the pit box as his mechanics rushed through with the tyres, the mistake robbing Ricciardo of nine seconds. Ricciardo came out of the pits marginally behind Hamilton, the enormity of Red Bull’s blunder clear to see. Ricciardo, however, was not going to give up without a fight and lapped traffic came into play, the pair at one point coming across the line separated by just 0.143s.
Ricciardo’s pressure eventually told as on lap 37 Hamilton slithered wide at the Nouvelle Chicane though recovered to make the third of the four apexes. With his line compromised Hamilton had to be on the defensive and he placed his car in the centre of the track on corner exit, as Ricciardo dived to the right. Unfortunately for Ricciardo the line he adopted was still damp, accentuated by the dirt and marbles which had collected themselves off-line, and he had to save a hairy oversteer moment. Stewards investigated whether Hamilton’s approach was legal, and deemed that it was; the Briton walked a tightrope but any suggestions he gained an advantage can be quashed by visual evidence of the closed gap. Ricciardo’s oversteer moment implied Hamilton had closed the door, but while alongside he had left sufficient room – though it was close.
Ricciardo kept coming for Hamilton, loitering within a second and hoping that he’d either make a mistake, or that his Ultra Soft tyres would wear out. With Ricciardo on Super Softs and third-placed Soft-clad Sergio Pérez only 10 seconds back, Hamilton could not afford to make another stop, meaning that his Ultra Soft tyres would have to make it to the end of the race.
Hamilton kept plugging away at the sectors, followed by Ricciardo, as the lap count gradually rose. With further rain on the horizon Hamilton kept pushing on his Ultra Soft tyres in order to preserve his momentum, and ultimately it was Ricciardo who drifted back across the final few laps. Rain began to trickle from the sky once more during the closing minutes but Hamilton held on to cross the line 7 seconds ahead of his rival.
Hamilton had spoken in the build-up of his desire to have his car dancing around the streets and he did so with aplomb, though Ricciardo was also excellent, a point which Hamilton was keen to recognise.
“He drove phenomenally all weekend,” said a gracious Hamilton. “Just one of the best drivers I’ve raced against, really he did a fantastic job today. That was a lot of pressure I was under and it was incredibly close, particularly on those re-starts but he did a phenomenal job. So I’m looking forward to many more battles with him. I’m sure he’s not that happy, since he started pole and it’s never great to start pole and come second, but he should feel proud of the way he drove.”
Hamilton, of course, had his own Monaco opportunity hoisted away in cruel fashion 12 months ago, and Ricciardo cut a similarly glum figure on the podium, having tersely told Red Bull to “save it” when they offered their apologies on the slow down lap.
“Two weekends in a row I’ve been screwed now. It sucks. It hurts,” explained Ricciardo, referring to the three-stop strategy in Spain which dropped him from first to fourth.
Ricciardo was still disheartened when he arrived for the post-race press conference.
“I think I took Barcelona on the chin and then took it well but two in a row now, and it’s not like we’re in Mercedes’ position, we’re not able to win a race, so to have an opportunity to lead two races in a row and especially here in Monaco,” he explained.
“I put it on the front and you wake up and you see thunderstorms and it’s like, OK, there’s a few curved balls coming my way today but I felt I dealt with them as well as I could have and had the pace in the wet at the beginning and again I thought I was controlling everything I had to.
“Obviously a big part of it is relying on the team and the strategy but yeah, to get it wrong twice now it definitely hurts. I’m not sure where to go from here, what to do. Obviously they’ve got to understand what’s going on and learn from it but this win I’ll never get back, that’s a fact.”
Ricciardo could at least draw solace from his own impressive performance, which wasn’t applicable for championship leader Rosberg.
Rosberg still ran in third during the wet phase of the race but traffic in the pits cost him dearly as he slipped to sixth, thereafter stuck behind McLaren’s Fernando Alonso once the feeling of the car had come back to him. The last lap rainfall stymied Rosberg once more and he was agonisingly overhauled by Hülkenberg on the run to the flag, dropping to seventh. It meant his title advantage was slashed from 43 to 24 points in one swoop, as Hamilton ignited his quest for a fourth championship.
“I’m sitting here I just can’t believe… whilst being able to brush off the negative of the feeling of the season so far, knowing that we’re that far down… when you keep falling it’s hard to always come up with innovative ways to keep yourself motivated, to keep believing,” he said, referring to the first five Grands Prix, which were plagued by unreliability and contact.
“I’m only human so I think that for everyone we always have battling those demons and those thoughts in your mind and then coming out with a day like today, it just confirms the thoughts, the positive thoughts that I had.”