Monaco Grand Prix Review

Fernando Alonso and Renault win the Monaco GP 2006

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After the dreary race in Barcelona, on any view the Monaco GP brought back a healthy dose of excitement. In hindsight, there were four drivers from four different teams who all had the pace to challenge for victory on the Principality streets. But, as often happens, when one combination dominates, as Fernando Alonso and Renault do at the moment, their rivals find ways of self-destructing. That was the case here, as the Spaniard's iron grip on the 2006 World Championship strengthened even more.

One of those combos that could have denied the Alonso juggernaut found itself out of contention before the race even began, in the biggest F1 controversy since the Indy fiasco last year. That, of course, was Michael Schumacher and Schumi-gate number who-knows-how-many. By now, what happened is well known. With less than a minute left in qualifying, Schumi had his Ferrari stranded at the Rascasse, stopping anyone from challenging his time and ensuring pole position.

Any way you look at it, this was a near-impossible situation to judge. As Mark Webber said afterwards, only Michael will know the truth. Genuine error or blatant cheating? Schumi maintains his innocence, and supposing that that is true, then he was very harshly done by to have his times disqualified and his car sent to the back of the grid. Even despite the stewards' thorough investigation there must have been some doubt, and Michael was not given the benefit of it.

If you were in the not-guilty camp, then you could reasonably feel that Schumi found himself guilty unless he proved himself innocent rather than the other way around as it normally should be. Sure it was an amateurish error, but Schumi is human after all, and as Jean Todt asked, what kind of a precedent does that set? Will all drivers who make silly but honest mistakes in qualifying, thereby affecting others' laps but gaining a benefit as a result, automatically have their times disqualified?

On the other side of the fence, the likes of Flavio Briatore, McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh, and Jacques Villeneuve all expressed their dismay at how suspiciously clumsy the manoeuvre was from an all-time great and a seven-time champion, and they too had a point. Michael did seem to brake excessively. Then, as later described by race steward Joaquin Verdegay, "he performed some absolutely unnecessary and pathetic counter-steering, and that lasted five metres, until there was no more chances of going through the turn normally. He lost control of the car while travelling at 16km/h! That's something completely unjustifiable."

For all we know, it might even have been a real mistake to start off with, Michael braking too hard and turning in too early to the Rascasse, followed by a conscious, split-second decision to let the error take its course - a bit of both sides, if you like. Whatever the truth, I do not envy the stewards. To their credit, they thoroughly examined all the evidence and telemetry data for 8 hours and came to a considered but painful decision to, in effect, find that Michael had cheated.

The time it took indicates that it was not a knee-jerk decision, so whether right or wrong the stewards' decision-making process is to be commended. The one disquieting aspect was that under the article which allowed the stewards to disqualify a driver's times and send him to the back of the grid, there was no possibility of appeal. Given that a finalised grid has to be determined conclusively by race start, I guess it's understandable, but when there is no recourse to an appeal it always seems a bit unfair.

In contrast to the stewards' considered approach, the baying for blood from elsewhere in the paddock was frankly unsavoury and very disappointingly so. It was hard not to recall some of Briatore and Schumacher's emotional victory embraces during the Benetton years when Flav was all but calling for Michael's public lynching. If Schumi's actions in any way did a disservice to the sport, the judgmental denigration that followed did likewise. Might it tip Michael in favour of retirement at the end of the year?

Schumi hasn't exactly done himself any favours over the years though. Like the boy who cried wolf, he is reaping the fruits of his ruthlessness in the past. Think of the incident with Damon Hill in Adelaide 1994, or the blatant collision with Villeneuve at Jerez 1997, or Austria-gate in 2002, or any of the vicious lunges across his opponents' bows at the start of many a Grand Prix, or the dangerous chops he gave to Mika Hakkinen at Spa in 2000, or to Alonso himself at Silverstone in 2003.

The point is, no one but Michael himself knows if he stopped at the Rascasse on purpose. Those who demanded the execution were graceless in doing so, although Schumi's history does tell against him in the eyes of others. It is sad that Michael's place in history will always be accompanied by 'flawed genius' epithets, whereas the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio or Jim Clark will never be marked by such character deficiencies. Mind you, the same 'flawed genius' tag could also be said of Ayrton Senna or even Alain Prost.

The reality is that leading sportspersons can and do crack in the heat of the moment and can end up doing blatant things. Cricket fans can point to, in recent years, Steve Waugh or Graham Gooch being given out for handling the ball. Association Football fans can cite Diego Maradona's 'Hand of God' goal, or his karate-chop kick against Brazil in the 1982 World Cup. Or just think of Tonya Harding, or Ben Johnson, or Mike Tyson against Evander Holyfield. It's sad but true.

And yet, the element of pure genius shone through in the race. A blazing first two laps having started from the pits accounted for a quarter of the field, before Michael was forced to bide his time behind Jenson Button's Honda until he found the gap for an audacious move. Trapped in the midfield pack, an early one-and-only stop followed by a few blistering laps, the safety car intervention, and the attrition rate in front of him brought him back into the points.

From there he still had to unlap himself from Alonso, before he left Giancarlo Fisichella for dead, and set even more stunning laps to reel in Rubens Barrichello and David Coulthard. Although he couldn't pull a last lap special on Rubens like he did last year, from last to 5th at Monaco is something special nonetheless. Still, his Monaco GP of 2006 will be remembered for what happened on Saturday, and whether deliberate indiscretion or amateurish mistake, it is enough to earn our 'Reject of the Race' award.

Whereas the attention in respect of Ferrari this weekend was solely on Schumi, it masked a disappointing weekend for Felipe Massa. Just when it seemed he was gaining more consistency in his driving, he has yet another qualifying crash and also starts from the back of the grid. Even if he is unable to attain personal glory, he has a job to do for Ferrari, and that is to stay on track, be as high up as possible, take points off the opposition and be a foil for Michael.

A fairly ordinary drive, trapped behind Christijan Albers early and only making his way back up to 9th by the end, was nothing to write home about. With Valentino Rossi announcing that he will not make any imminent switch to four wheels, if one of Michael or Kimi Raikkonen don't end up racing for Ferrari next year, Massa is in the box seat to retain his spot. But he will need to prove his value to the Maranello cause. A few decent results followed by a brace of costly errors is not the kind of back-up Ferrari looks for.

Raikkonen and McLaren sprung back into life and back into contention at Monaco, although that probably had more to do with the nature of the track. The street course places less emphasis on engine power and optimal aerodynamic efficiency. It allows for closer racing, and it's a place where driving skill, the ability to hustle a car and to tread that fine line between trying too hard and not trying enough, can make a real difference. Kimi's return to competitiveness was not inexplicable, even if it is temporary.

But yet again, The Iceman was a victim of outrageous fortune. Fast all weekend, he nearly took Webber at the first corner, and after Mark had run wide at Ste Devote on lap two, made a lightning move up on the zig zag up the hill forcing Webber into submission. He then monstered Alonso all the way, stuck with the Renault in traffic, and would have run longer than Fernando had the safety car not come out. The slow laps behind the safety car then potentially caused his engine failure.

With a sniff of a victory, this was Kimi back to his best, driving on the edge and perhaps not as tidy as Alonso, but potentially you got the impression that he could pull out something more banzai than the Renault driver. Will this end up being his best chance to win all year. Tellingly that he went straight from his stricken car to his boat rather than his team. It was a very Kimi way of saying that he's fed up with the McLaren either not being fast enough, or when it is, being not reliable enough.

Even Juan-Pablo Montoya was back in the hunt this weekend, especially in the middle stages when Alonso's pace dropped off and JPM tagged onto the leading bunch. But the pathetic marshalling that cost both Webber and the Colombian dearly in traffic, plus the safety car that left an unco-operative gaggle between Juan-Pablo and Alonso, meant that the win was always going to be out of reach. Still, a good 2nd place, but Silverstone will be a much better gauge of McLaren's form and Montoya's level of commitment.

The fairytale result, especially for us, would certainly have been a Webber win, and there was definitely enough evidence to make you believe that the dream was on. The FW28 on the Bridgestones were clearly fast enough, and Mark's qualifying laps were simply sensational. Not many drivers make the knife-edge of Monaco their specialty, but Webber certainly does, having scored his only podium here last year, won an F3000 race, and qualified extremely well here in his Jaguar days.

Reject of the Race: Schu

Michael Schumacher
If intentional, disgusting; if accidental, amateurish

Williams have sorted out two of their weaknesses from last year: their starts and their pit strategies. Mark made a clean start and, despite being passed by Raikkonen, once he settled into a rhythm he could match and beat the times of the two in front of him. Williams are now also tending to run longer than their rivals. Webber ran longer than both Alonso and Raikkonen at the first stop, closed right in during the second stint, and would have pitted later at the second round of stops as well.

But before his retirement, Mark's shot at the win was already destroyed in traffic. As the third car in the leading group, time and again a backmarker would often leave enough gap to let the first two by, but either cut in on Webber or leave him hanging in the marbles and picking up muck on his tyres. The drive of the FW28 also did not appear to be brilliant on acceleration, and the Australian would have to waste time catching back up and trying to pass once again.

None of that however excuses the simply disgraceful marshalling. Sure, Mark may not have been on Fisichella's tail, but he deserved the assistance of blue flags. For three or four crucial laps Fisi and David Coulthard were engaged in their private battle, leaving Webber to fatally lose time to Alonso and Raikkonen. Even if the marshals weren't aware of the exact positions, surely there is some form of radio communication that could have informed them.

It doesn't make any difference to the above comments, but in the end it mattered little as once again Webber's mount failed him. His frustration is understandable; he has driven as well as ever this year, without the mistakes that sometimes dogged his 2005, but the car keeps letting him down. Likewise for Nico Rosberg, who had his second-best qualifying of the year, no mean feat in his first F1 appearance at Monaco, and whose two-stop plan was annulled by being caught behind the one-stopping Barrichello.

Still, Rosberg may have been in line for a podium finish until his throttle stuck open and he went into the wall. In the end, the problems on both Williams cars were traced to an exhaust heat issue. The trouble is, it was hydraulics problems for Webber in Malaysia and the Nurburgring, an engine failure for Rosberg in Malaysia, a gearbox mishap for Mark in Australia, and now exhaust problems. At this rate, Williams will spend more time chasing their tails than actually improving what is clearly a speedy car.

So it was all left to Alonso to cruise to the win. After the race, he talked about having "controlled" the race, and definitely in the second and third stints he may have been able to pull out a few faster laps, but overall this was not a truly convincing performance. Schumi could have, Raikkonen would have, and even Webber might have had his measure over a full race distance, all things being equal. Put it down to the idiosyncrasies of Monaco bunching up the field before normal service resumes in Britain.

It's not Fernando's problem that his rivals can't sustain their challenge, and that he ends up collecting another swag of 10 points. With 64 points out of 70 on the board already, and only 1sts or 2nds so far, he is on track for a more consistent season than Schumi in 2002, in which the German finished all races on the podium with only one 3rd place. It feels unlikely though that he will beat Michael's tally of 13 wins in 2004. Nevertheless, there could be some history in the making in the final points score if this keeps up.

Fisichella was also unconvincing, but that's nothing new. There was consistently a few tenths per lap between himself and Alonso throughout the weekend, before Fisi himself got penalised for holding up Coulthard in Q3. It was delicious irony after his run-in with Villeneuve at the Nurburgring. Giancarlo started the trend of complaining about being held up and getting the stewards involved, and now he's fallen foul of it himself. Pots and kettles anyone?

Fisi's race was also scuppered by being caught in the Barrichello train, and his two-stop plan plus the pit-lane peak hour when the safety car came out saw him a lap down and behind Schumacher, who then easily left him behind. There were a few sparkling moments when he made several successful daring lunges down the chicane, most notably against Coulthard (another irony, that), but if he can truly get the job done he wouldn't have incurred a qualifying penalty or thus ended up in that squabbling bunch.

Barrichello, who had done a helmet swap with Tony Kanaan for the Indy 500, should have scored his first podium for his new team. Sure, he was dropping back at a rate of knots, but as the leading driver on a one-stop strategy, he was entitled to drive those behind him nuts. By the time of his pit-stop he was under pressure from Jarno Trulli, and it told as they pitted together, Rubens getting away first but speeding in the pit lane in so doing, and incurring the penalty that dropped him to an eventual 4th.

Admittedly, the result did not hide the fact that, even on a track that can hide a car's inferiority, the Honda still wasn't competitive. It is pleasing, though, that Rubens is now matching and getting the better of Jenson Button. Jenson's off-colour mediocrity this weekend was simply astounding. For a guy who almost won here in 2004, his inexplicable lack of pace and inability to get even into the main midfield mix was jaw-droppingly pathetic. No doubt he'll look forward to the Jenson-mania at Silverstone.

Once Barrichello had copped his penalty, the door was open to Trulli to claim his first podium since Spain last year. His detractors, including to some degree ourselves, might love to see his run of point-less results continue (for the record, it is now 11 races without scoring), but in truth he shone for the first time in a long time. Like Webber, Jarno is something of a Monaco specialist. The heavily revised TF106B was by no means the Great Leap Forward, and in practice it looked absolutely torrid.

But Trulli was the one who made it work come qualifying, getting the car into the top 10, whereas Ralf Schumacher, who has by far had the better time at Toyota this year, struggled to match the Italian for once. Running a steady one-stop strategy, Jarno deserved a confidence-boosting podium, and although it was not to be, hopefully the near-miss will inject the kind of self-belief that will lead to more performances which might just save his otherwise fast-sinking career.

Ralf was a little out-of-sorts this weekend, losing out to the fast-starting Heidfeld, and also being on a one-stop strategy there was little he could do but sit and wait and eventually claim the last point for 8th in a fairly anonymous run. But with his team-mate denied a podium finish, it came down to Coulthard and Red Bull to collect the team's first dais place in this present incarnation, and if you include their days as Jaguar, their first podium since Monza in 2002.

DC had switched from a two-stop strategy to a one-stop, effectively running a quite incredible 46-lap stint. But by being held up in the midfield bunch when he emerged from the pits, that allowed his team-mate Christian Klien to get ahead when the Austrian made his own stop. Both were well into the points when Klien stopped, his fifth retirement in seven races, at least three of them mechanically-induced. Otherwise, it should have been Christian claiming the first podium of his career.

Both Red Bulls do have pace, there is no doubt. They have regularly been in the top ten in Saturday practice. But not until Monaco have they been able to translate that into good qualifying and race form. Have they turned the battle for the minor points behind Renault and Ferrari into a six-team war between McLaren, Williams, Honda, Toyota, BMW and themselves? As for many others, Silverstone will provide a better indication of where the Red Bulls are at, and if Monaco was simply something of a freak result.

Nevertheless, Coulthard's podium was just deserts, if nothing else for their several near-misses last year, for example in Melbourne and at the Nurburgring. It also rewards the team for the colour that they bring into the paddock. Last year, they promoted the Star Wars movie here, with the pit crew decked out as storm troopers, and this year it was Superman Returns. Why wasn't DC wearing the Superman-style race suit on Sunday? Admittedly the capes were a bit dodgy, and thank goodness there weren't any red undies in sight ...

BMW had their worst weekend of the season by far, just managing to out-qualify the MF1s, but Nick Heidfeld salvaged two points by simply making a terrific start from 15th to 11th and hanging there on a one-stopper while others fell out. It was a somewhat more eventful race for Villeneuve, who lost out to both Fisichella and Coulthard on the track, and who then was given a drive-through penalty for passing under the safety car although it remains unclear exactly whom he illegally overtook.

It was a strong weekend overall for Vitantonio Liuzzi's Toro Rosso, although the V10-powered cars didn't reach the heights that many thought they would given the torque advantages of the V10s. Starting 12th, the Italian says he could have scored points and he's totally right. As a one-stopper, he was up to 8th at one stage, but having been passed by Fisichella and Coulthard he pitted 10th, but still ahead of Heidfeld, Ralf and Massa. He emerged 14th behind all three of them, and that was that.

Scott Speed fulfilled a dream of his to compete at Monaco, and he too lost out in he pits, but the pattern for him continues. He's the Toro Rosso driver who doesn't make the second part of qualifying on a regular basis, and this time he was even out-qualified by the MF1s. The Russian-entered cars showed much-improved pace on the streets of Monte Carlo, Tiago Monteiro surprisingly impressive in free practice, out-pacing team-mate Albers.

Both looked a shot of making Q2, especially if the BMWs and Toyotas remained poor, but eventually they just missed out. Relations between the two drivers soured though at the start, when Christijan chopped Tiago and broke his team-mate's front wing. Accordingly Albers was penalised and Monteiro left fuming with his race in tatters, but the Portuguese driver could have and perhaps should have lifted, the confines of Monaco making the dash to Ste Devote always hairy.

Albers recovered well to finish ahead of Speed and Villeneuve in his most impressive run of the season. With MF1 showing well, there was not much opportunity for Super Aguri to punch above their weight here, although they still weren't far off. Both Takuma Sato and Franck Montagny continued to run steadily, although the Frenchman made a meal of letting leaders through occasionally. If their new car, due in four races' time, is a definite improvement, the battle at the back with the MF1s will no doubt liven up.

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