|They say that fortune favours the brave. Well, Sebastian Vettel showed no shortage of bravery on the streets of Monte Carlo, but he was also helped by no end of fortune. Rather than jumping into the pool at the Red Bull motorhome after the Monaco GP, he would have been well-advised to head for the casino while his luck was in. With a 58 point buffer - thatís more than two wins - over his nearest rival after only six rounds, the roulette wheel on this yearís championship may have already stopped turning.|
|Red Bullís perfect mistake and McLarenís strategic error
For all my theories about needing to aim for the final stint this year in terms of tyre life, Monaco is the exception that proves the rule. That principle I have cited depends on passing being possible if need be. At Monaco, that is of course not the case. Track position is king, and how many times have we seen a slower car, even one with tyres well past their use-by date, being able to hold a faster rival up? Simply cue the memories of Ayrton Senna versus Nigel Mansell in the dying laps of the 1992 race.
When Red Bull accidentally fitted Vettel with a set of primes at his first stop, it turned out to be the perfect mistake. It fulfilled the tyre compound rules and gave him the flexibility to make more stops if necessary (as everyone expected), or to potentially run to the flag. He took the audacious path. That was Sebastianís own decision - aided by what Jenson Buttonís strategic bungle - and it was courageous. He still had to eke out tyre life without compromising pace, and he did it perfectly.
Of course, weíll never know whether his tyres would have dropped off in the dying laps, and weíll never know whether Fernando Alonso would have got past. To my mind, yes it was sad that under the red flag the drivers were allowed to change tyres, but thereís no point complaining about it. The rules were/are the rules. To have changed the rules on the spot so as not to spoil a potentially thrilling denouement would have been a farce, and to set the rules so as to cater for every hypothetical situation is impossible.
The bigger question - which no doubt Pastor Maldonado will be asking - is why the race was restarted at all when more than 75% race distance had been completed. At any rate, yes the race stoppage was another piece of fortune that Vettel capitalised on, but he had track position when it counted. And let us not forget that a day earlier he had planted his car on pole by half a second with a mesmerising lap - just check out the on-board footage. Notwithstanding the Q3 stoppage, there had been no luck in that.
On reflection, this yearís race was potentially Buttonís to win. Having been so solid strategically in Spain, he was not as astute here. His delicate feel had landed him on the front row and I rather fancied him to try a one-stop strategy - or at least to simply make one fewer stop than Vettel, get to the front, make his tyres last, and hang on for grim death. Instead, the McLaren driver curiously tried the opposite strategy - to beat the Red Bull on race pace.
Hence he tried to undercut Vettel on lap 16, and it worked thanks to Sebastianís botched stop. And with the German on primes he pulled out a gap and was in an optimal position. Arguably what he needed to do at his next stop, sometime mid-race, was to change onto primes and give himself the option of running to the flag. Of course, Vettel may still have decided to avoid stopping and Jenson may still have lost, but in my opinion Button and McLarenís strategic choice sealed their fate and contributed to Vettelís decision.
That is because they went onto another set of options. It meant Button would still need one more stop to change to primes, and even if Vettel were to stop again, he was already in front of Button. Vettel had no need to respond to Buttonís stop, and that started Sebastian on the path to trying to run to the flag, once he saw that in fact his real rival was probably now Alonso. Button had sealed his fate and was destined to be attacking from 3rd in the final stint - not an enviable task on the Principality streets.
As for Alonso, his afternoon was made by yet another aggressive start, and changing onto primes at both his first and second stops. His 2nd place was his best result of the year. Indeed, in six races he qualified either 4th or 5th in each one, but he has finished in every position from 2nd to 7th. In a way that rather sums up where Ferrari and Alonso are at right now - absolutely maxed out in qualifying, and there or thereabouts in the race but subject to the vagaries of what others are doing.
|Is Kobayashi the most consistent man in the field after Vettel?
This means that Ferrari and Alonso havenít been able to take their destiny into their own hands as they did in the second half of 2010, but then again no one behind Vettel has. 2nd to 5th in the points are split by 16 points; each of Lewis Hamilton, Mark Webber, Button and Alonso have had their moments. But thatís particularly unhappy news for Webber who sees his team-mate streak further away. Itís especially bad news that the 0.5s gap in qualifying seems to have become something of a recurring theme this year.
But it gets worse for Mark - the reliability issues have returned, so too the average starts that drop positions immediately, and now he is being hurt by poor opening laps as well, such that he immediately takes his foot off the pressure pedal. Throw in an even more botched stop and the frustration levels must be off the charts. Itís the kind of stuff that leads to deflation and resignation rather than determination, which has been Markís greatest asset in the last two years.
Webberís awful first stop put him behind the squabble featuring Maldonado, Vitaly Petrov, Rubens Barrichello, Kamui Kobayashi, Adrian Sutil, Nick Heidfeld and Sebastien Buemi. He could effectively clear all of them when they all made green flag stops, except that Kobayashi and Sutil stopped under the safety car and stayed ahead of him. Mark stopped again, caught and took Petrov and Sutil when their pace fell, and eventually dealt with Kamui at the chicane on the penultimate lap in an excellent pass.
How obvious it was that Kobayashi one-stopped, given the Sauberís lightness on its tyres. It was the Japanese driverís sixth straight top ten finish this year which, Vettel aside, arguably makes him the most consistent man in the field. His racecraft continues to be exemplary, although he did tag Sutil at the Mirabeau as they battled late in the race. Presumably he got away without a penalty because it did not cost Sutil a place, and because it is clear that Kobayashi locked up and tried to pull out of the move.
Kobayashiís career-best 5th place also a terrific result after Sergio Perezís scary Q3 crash, which was probably too similar to Karl Wendlingerís accident in 1994 for Peter Sauberís liking. Having said that, the Mexican rookie was already looking a bit too ragged in Q1 and Q2. Behind Kobayashi came Hamilton in 6th, and ragged is also the perfect word to describe his weekend. In many ways, this was the weekend from hell for the Englishman who would have had high hopes leading up to Monaco.
It started in Q3 of course, where it was his and McLarenís error not to have set a time earlier in the segment. He was not helped by Felipe Massa on his first flying lap but neither was he blocked. To blame the Brazilian afterwards was poor form. And missing the chicane on his last unhappy effort was his own error as well. Things did not bode well in the race when he was caught daydreaming at Loews Hairpin on the first lap by Michael Schumacher, although Lewis shortly got his revenge at Ste Devote.
The way things were panning out, he and Massa could have joined with Webber in a battle that would have mirrored the battle for the win, but all that was spoiled by Lewis colliding with Massa and collecting a drive-through penalty. Of course, having been hit by Jaime Alguersuari during the race-stopping incident and having his rear wing replaced during the intermission, he finished off his race by punting Maldonado out of what would have been a sensational result for the Venezuelan.
It led to a post-race penalty, and rightly so. Unlike his move on Schumi, or Michaelís moves on him and on Nico Rosberg, Hamiltonís collisions with Massa and Maldonado were both foolhardy. In Felipeís case he was driving into a closing wedge. In Pastorís case he failed to consider that Pastor, on a restart, this close to the finish, on fresh tyres, would always close the door unless Lewis was completely alongside. Throw in the absurd racism ďjokeĒ post-race and it was an easy "Reject of the Race" decision to make.
Having been rammed by Hamilton, and at the same time damaging his front wing on Webberís Red Bull, Massa was then foolish to not concede earlier and try to stay on the outside in the tunnel, which led to his own demise. He remains off Alonsoís pace and well off front-running speed, and with three-straight non-scores he has now slipped to 8th in the points behind Heidfeld and Rosberg, some 45 points behind his team-mate and the battle for 2nd. At this rate itíll be a long remaining 14 races for the off-form Brazilian.
|Renault needs to improve the car, not blame the drivers
What had been the huge midfield gaggle that I referred to earlier effectively got split into two because some had been lapped just as the safety car came out, and the unlapped runners got to catch up to the end of the snake. Petrov was one of those, but he couldnít stretch out his tyres for a one-stop run, contributing to the logjam that caused the red flag incident as his tyres fell off the cliff. It was a disappointing weekend all round for Renault, failing to repeat the heroics of 2010 and missing Q3 altogether.
Heidfeld was particularly poor in qualifying, starting only 15th after Perezís withdrawal, and he along with Barrichello and Buemi were amongst the lapped drivers who lost out under the first safety car. But he managed to beat the other two home in a battle that decided 8th to 10th. Eric Boullier has criticised Nick in the press; a strange move when the German is 6th in the points. Sure heís not leading the team as Robert Kubica would have been expected to, but thereís just no point living in those hypotheticals.
Boullier is better off trying to work out why Renault is slipping back in terms of pace and the development race while other teams are improving, like Williams. Barrichelloís 9th place secured their first points for the year, but of course it could have been so much better with Maldonado on course for 6th after a safe two-stop strategy. How Pastor keeps doing so well at Monaco in all categories when he bins it elsewhere is an unsolved mystery. Letís see if he can keep up his recent form at more orthodox circuits.
Sutil got ahead of Kobayashi when they stopped under the safety car, but like Petrov he couldnít make his tyres last the distance. Yet again though he was out-qualified by Paul di Resta. Thatís 5-1 in favour of the rookie Scot! Di Restaís downfall in the race was the fact that he was on a more aggressive two-stop strategy, when the midfield trend is to go conservative and when, unlike Maldonado, he didnít have the track position to support a two-stop plan.
And then the Force India driver was scuppered by a drive-through penalty for a collision with Alguersuari. Out of the Toro Rosso drivers, whilst Buemi was once again solid in the race after a so-so qualifying, Alguersuari was a loose cannon. He hit Kobayashi in Q1 in a fit of frustration, and in the race he helped trigger the red flag when he rode up the back of Hamiltonís McLaren. It may have been unavoidable but he also did not take enough care. The fact is, he was a lap down on Maldonado, Sutil, Petrov and Hamilton.
Certainly he was on a charge on the super-soft tyres and in a battle with Buemi and Rosberg for 10th place - and in fact he had managed to get past his team-mate and the Mercedes, but there was no need to be quite so gung ho at that moment. It cost him a points-scoring finish (he is yet to record one this year) and at this rate, if Toro Rosso are indeed thinking of pulling their usual trick and replacing one of their drivers with Daniel Ricciardo mid-season, itís a no-brainer which of their drivers is on the chopping block.
|The Mercedes have trouble getting past Glock. Hmmm.
The fact that Rosberg ran 5th early on but dropped to an eventual 11th, two laps down, shows what a troubled race Mercedes had. Whatever they do in qualifying - and here Schumacher was a decent 5th but still over 1.1s off pole - their race package is just not strong enough, especially on full tanks, when their rear tyres started graining much faster than anyone else. After their early stops they couldnít pass Timo Glockís Virgin for several laps, and that tells you all you need to know.
Jarno Trulli was out-qualified by Heikki Kovalainen again at Monaco as the Finn entrenches his qualifying dominance over the former one-lap master, but not for the first time Heikki squandered the advantage straight away at the start. The two green cars ran similar strategies all race, with Trulli finishing ahead and 13th and 14th mark Lotusí best results of the season so far. With the team still unable to really break into the midfield, itís results like this that will ensure they remain 10th ahead of Virgin and HRT.
Virgin showed some signs that they may be able to keep Lotus more honest than they have done so far this season. As I mentioned, Glock was good enough to keep the two Mercedes at bay and Jerome DíAmbrosio ran ahead of both Lotuses for a while, but he was out of sequence. But Virginís poor start to the season has claimed its victim as the team has parted ways with Nick Wirth. That canít have been unexpected given the tensions that have been rising since the MVR-02 was shown to be uncompetitive.
Apart from the upgrades that are already in the pipeline, the team is all but giving up on 2011, which means HRT will have more chances to get on top of the Virgins, but they will have to do better than they did here, where they relied on the grace of the stewards to start after not getting out in qualifying, and they were rooted to the last two places all race, Vitantonio Liuzzi getting ahead of Narain Karthikeyan by virtue of running a one-stop strategy to the Indian driverís two-stop tactics.
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