Webber gives Formula One six appeal: Monaco GP analysis

By on Monday, May 28, 2012

They waited for the rain. “We’re expecting it in 4 minutes mate” they said. Eventually the anticipated rain arrived, but not before Mark Webber completed a hat-trick of Monaco victories for Red Bull Racing and his second around the streets of the principality. It wasn’t the most exciting of Monaco weekends with very few incidents compared to previous seasons, yet it was an intriguing race that added another chapter to a perplexing season in which six different drivers have now tasted the winners champagne in six races; a new record in Formula One.

Grosjean didn't make it through Sainte Devote. Photo Credit: XPB

With track position being of vital importance in Monaco, it perhaps came as little surprise that there was a casualty before the drivers even braked for Sainte Devote. A contretemps between Fernando Alonso, Romain Grosjean and Michael Schumacher left the Frenchman spinning sideways before coming to a halt on the inside of Sainte Devote. It was sparked when Lewis Hamilton had a poor getaway from his third place grid slot; the 2008 world champion later exclaimed his bewilderment at such a terrible start to his McLaren team. Alonso, directly behind his former team mate, jinked left to avoid his rival and clipped Grosjean who, in the split second of uncertainty, ran slightly too wide and gave Schumacher no space. The Mercedes driver clipped Grosjean’s left rear wheel, breaking the suspension of the Lotus E20 and sending Grosjean spinning across the field. Schumacher himself was fortunate to continue having struck the Lotus as well as the outside wall on the pit straight. “We struggled to get off the line and it looked like Lewis [Hamilton] in front didn’t have the best start either” said the reigning GP2 champion. “Fernando [Alonso] pulled alongside him so I was then on the outside of both cars, and unfortunately Michael [Schumacher] was on the outside of me as well.”

Grosjean was now more than sideways as the field approached Sainte Devote “There just wasn’t enough room and next thing I’m facing all the traffic after just one hundred metres which wasn’t a nice feeling.” Sebastian Vettel, who crucially had vaulted ahead of Kimi Raikkonen when the lights went out, instinctively cut across the run-off and narrowly avoided Grosjean. Drivers jinked left and right but not all were fortunate enough to avoid terminal damage. The Lotus clipped Kamui Kobayashi, sending the Japanese driver into the air and causing irreparable damage to his suspension; Sauber retired Kobayashi as it was too dangerous to continue. In the ensuing melee, the midfield order was shaken up and one major casualty was Jenson Button; the 2009 Monaco winner almost had to take to the escape road to avoid the airborne Sauber and dropped behind Heikki Kovalainen’s Caterham. Pastor Maldonado misjudged his braking at Turn One and careered into Pedro de La Rosa, ending a truly miserable weekend for the Venezuelan in which his stock fell dramatically after his sensational win in Spain. If ever there was a case of a driver going from hero to zero in one race weekend, it was this; an astoundingly stupid piece of driving in practice left him with a grid penalty from which it would be nigh on impossible to recover. Maldonado has history when it comes to erratic, dangerous driving and the Venezuelan was lucky not to have been chucked out of the race weekend for his behaviour towards Sergio Perez.

Maldonado, driving without a front wing, stumbled onwards as did his first corner victim. While De La Rosa hobbled back to the pits, Maldonado made it only as far as the Loews hairpin. The rich and famous assembled at the Fairmont Hotel got to see the superb Monaco marshals in action as they lifted the stricken Williams into the air but the events resulted in the first – and as it turned out only – appearance of Bernd Maylander in the Safety Car.

Lewis Hamilton managed fifth

From there a game of cat and mouse ensued. Mark Webber led Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, Alonso, Felipe Massa and Sebastian Vettel, who made a storming start from ninth on the grid. Massa was all over the back of Alonso throughout the opening laps but, unsurprisingly, never made a move. Vettel remained a few seconds behind as he conserved his prime tyres but remained comfortably ahead of Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn was struggling for grip on his option tyres and created a train that consisted of several drivers. Crucially, Raikkonen’s slow pace – around three seconds a lap slower than the leading group – meant that the top six were comfortably ahead of traffic, something which would scupper Vettel’s chances of an unlikely victory.

Nico Rosberg was the first to blink and was soon followed in by Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton. Alonso, who had edged away from Massa, was just a few tenths behind his former team mate when Hamilton elected to pit. Alonso, now in clean air, reeled off a couple of stunning sectors to ensure that he leapfrogged the Brit into the podium places when he made his stop. A frustrating day for Hamilton had taken another wrong turning and it was about to get worse.

Vettel’s long game strategy meant that he stayed out on the prime tyre for as long as possible. For a fleeting moment, it looked as if his work would pay off and result in one of the most extraordinary of Monaco victories. He edged the gap out to Webber from seven seconds to seventeen over the course of a few laps, but from there the deficit stabilised. As soon as the reigning champion’s lap time dropped beneath his pursuers, Red Bull called him in for his only stop on Lap 45. Webber steamed past, as did Rosberg and Alonso. Vettel exited the pit lane fractionally ahead of Hamilton and did enough to prevent the Brit from getting past on the way to Massenet. A frustrated Hamilton was dissatisfied with his team for not informing him of Vettel’s strategy, and thus costing him fourth place, and also with parts from the pit board striking his helmet as he blasted onto the pit straight.

Webber took his second Monaco win

The rain that had threatened throughout the afternoon eventually arrived just as the leaders tyres began to fade. Webber, the first to encounter a damp track, backed off to the point where the top six were separated by five seconds. However, only once did Nico Rosberg get close enough to have a sniff of a move although Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton behind frequently had a little look at Rascasse. The drizzle eased and Webber hung on to claim his first win of the season and what he will see as his first proper victory since the 2010 Hungarian Grand Prix. Webber’s drive creates an interesting balance at Red Bull as their drivers are now equal on points in the championship, as they were leaving this event two years ago. Vettel is not having a particularly bad season, but his qualifying has been poor – bar the Bahrain Grand Prix – and this is costing him in races. It remains to be seen how the loss of the blown diffuser, a trait of the RB7 that suited Vettel perfectly, has cost the German but he does not look entirely at ease with the RB8.

Nico Rosberg finished second at his ‘home race’ (he grew up in Monaco) and was delighted with his second podium of the season.” It's a fantastic feeling to be on the podium at my home race in Monaco today in front of all my family and friends” said the German “The team have done a really good job this weekend to get the car working so well. Although we thought this track would suit our car, it's been better than we expected.” Team mate Michael Schumacher had a frustrating afternoon. Although he was lucky to avoid terminal damage when struck by Grosjean, Schumacher was passed at Turn One by Raikkonen. When the Lotus driver’s pace began to fall, Schumacher was unable to find a way through, scuppering his chances of a top six finish. Schumacher nevertheless was set for seventh place, but all of a sudden his pace was dropping at an alarming rate. He offered little defence firstly to Jean Eric Vergne and then the two Force India’s and eventually pulled into the pits for good on the sixty-fourth tour. “What can I say?” a disappointed Schumacher said, “It was simply a pity to end the race in this way. In any case, the fuel pressure problem had nothing to do with the incident at the start. But it made it doubly disappointing because I had secretly been hoping for a podium finish today.” Schumacher now heads to Canada on the back of four retirements in six races but the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve should suit Mercedes’s package at a track where the German excelled in 2011. Could his string of misfortune end and provide F1 with a seventh different winner in seven races? Quite possibly.

Ferrari took a good points haul. Photo credit: Ferrari S.p.A.

Fernando Alonso claimed yet another podium to give him a slender championship lead ahead of the duelling Red Bull drivers. The Ferrari F2012 looked like a more competitive package throughout the weekend and now that Alonso has survived the damage limitation mode of the early flyaway events, he has to be seen as a contender for the championship; something that was borderline laughable a couple of months ago. That though is testament to the extraordinary ability and relentless attitude of the double world champion. Team-mate Felipe Massa had a much better race to pick up a season best of sixth place, although many will be quick to point out that one swallow does not make a summer. Massa will still be under pressure to deliver results for the rest of the season but this event, in which he exuded confidence, should provide him with a good platform for the remainder of the year. “A driver always wants to do the maximum so I can’t be delighted with sixth place, however these are important points”, Massa commented after the race. “I really hope my championship has turned around and that, from now on, I can always be in the fight for the top places”. Pat Fry was pleased with the performance of the drivers, but there was a hint of frustration with the strategy. “With hindsight, it’s easy to say that if Fernando had stayed out on track for a few laps more, then maybe he could have also passed Rosberg and got on terms with Webber as well as Hamilton, given the time he did on his in-lap”. Fry also emphasised the continuing need to push on the F2012, a statement emphatically reinforced by Alonso; “This result has to be further motivation to push even harder on the development of the F2012”.

Hamilton was frustrated in Monte Carlo

While Ferrari continues with their improvement, McLaren remains stagnant in their pursuit of the championship. Although beating Alonso would prove to be a difficult challenge, Hamilton was frustrated that his team told him to preserve tyres, but not inform him about Vettel’s strategy. "I don't know how long my pitstop was but I lost quite a lot of time," said Hamilton."I just wasn't able to really keep up with Alonso, and Sebastian got me through his pitstop” Hamilton also gave a stern warning to his team.  “I think the team have definitely got some work to do because we are falling behind race by race," said Hamilton. "The others are picking up some serious pace. If we're not lucky then it will fall away from us. It wasn't the best result. But this is motor racing. I really dislike going backwards” Despite his irritation, the 2008 champion was optimistic about the remaining fourteen events; “ We still came away with some points and there are many, many more races ahead of us so we just have to keep our heads up and keep pushing.” Hamilton will look at the championship table and wonder how he can be thirteen points from the lead despite his brilliant driving in 2012. Without a win in seven races, he’ll seek to finally gain the victory in Canada in two weeks’ time. His record there is currently first, retired, first, retired…

Button was annoyed with Kovalainen. Photo Credit: XPB

Jenson Button’s disastrous afternoon ended on Lap 71 after being forced off the track by Kovalainen. The Brit fell behind the Caterham at the start, but still could not pass his slower rival despite the bonus of eight laps of clear air. “Heikki was so slow, but he's very good at placing his car, and if you place your car in the right place, you can't overtake. I think he was looking in his mirrors more than looking forward, but that's his choice and it makes my life very difficult.” Button added that Kovalainen frequently cut the chicane without incurring a penalty “It is [frustrating] when he doesn't get a penalty for it and it just slows us all down," said Button. "When I did get down the outside of him at the chicane he just kept moving across and it was like 'OK, I'm up against the wall now and we're touching wheels.” At one point, Button spun at Piscine, but soon caught up with his rival at Sainte Devote, but was forced off the road and into retirement, not that it particularly bothered him, “At least I didn't have to do the last eight laps and feel pain for even longer, that's one way of looking at it”. Button also admitted that he has to improve his qualifying pace as he remains stuck in his worst slump since the dark days of Honda in 2008.

Kovalainen viewed their battle a little differently, “This type of track was always going to give us the chance to fight, I'd said that before the race, and it was really good fighting with Jenson for as long as I did, keeping him behind me and really pushing” and was pleased with thirteenth place, a result that sees Caterham jump ahead of Marussia in the championship. Vitaly Petrov had to retire after an electrical problem with his car but team principal Tony Fernandes could barely contain his excitement after the race. "I am obviously a very happy man today” said the Malaysian.  “That was one of the most tense but most exciting races we have had since we came into the sport just two and a half years ago, and to be not only racing Jenson's McLaren, but to be keeping him behind us and to be able to resist his attacks is a huge achievement for a team that is still young, still growing and hungrier than ever to succeed. In fact, when Heikki passed Jenson out of the pits that was definitely the most exciting moment in my Formula 1 career and something that I will remember for ever!”

Schumacher’s demise left Jean-Eric Vergne a career-best seventh, but the Frenchman was unable to stay there. His Pirelli tyres were too worn to survive the final eight laps and Toro Rosso gambled on the falling rain intensifying by sending Vergne out on Intermediate tyres. It didn’t pay off and Vergne dropped to twelfth. Team mate Daniel Ricciardo was running behind the Kovalainen/Button battle until he clipped a kerb, damaged his steering and was forced to call it a day.

Force India took seventh and eighth

Force India took their best result of the season with Paul di Resta seventh and Nico Hulkenberg in eighth as both drivers mastered the art of tyre saving. The two drivers were fairly evenly matched, although Hulkenberg lamented getting stuck behind Charles Pic after his first stop, something that allowed di Resta to leapfrog him. Kimi Raikkonen admitted that ninth was the best possible result for Lotus and admitted that missing practice on Thursday scuppered his weekend “I didn’t start in a great position and I had some difficulties during the race so it’s not been the easiest weekend, but at least we got a couple of points. It’s better than nothing but not exactly what we wanted.”

Kobayashi went flying at Sainte Devote. Photo Credit: XPB

Bruno Senna picked up the final point for tenth, just ahead of Sergio Perez, whose eventful weekend went unrewarded. Giampaolo Dall’ara , head of track engineering at the Swiss team summed up their weekend, “It is difficult to decide whether to laugh or cry” he said. “On the one hand we can be very happy about how quick our car was, especially on a track which historically doesn’t favour us. On the other hand if something was going to go wrong then we were in the middle of it. It is to Sergio’s credit that he didn’t give up today despite his difficult starting position and heavy traffic. He made some good overtaking manoeuvres. We clearly wanted points here and didn’t get them”. Perez eventually set the fastest lap of the race, meaningless in the context of the championship but a satisfying statistic to add to the talented Mexican’s record.

Timo Glock and Narain Karthikeyan rounded out the finishers, although Glock was frustrated a not claiming a better result after being able to keep up with Button in the opening stint! Pic retired with an electrical problem.

The field now heads across the Atlantic to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, a track which has always delivered Formula One with some great racing and often a mixed-up result. The way 2012 is going, anything could happen but for now Mark Webber has given Formula One the joy of six around the streets of Monte Carlo.

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