This year’s Monaco Grand Prix was, true to form, one that was largely decided on Saturday afternoon. As is often the case in Monte Carlo, qualifying at the front is half the battle as the narrow confines of the principality offer very little opportunity for overtaking. But in the end, the most deserving man walked up to the royal box, shared his champagne with the ruling family while wearing one shoe and flashed that billion-dollar smile of his to the millions of people watching around the globe. Daniel Ricciardo was simply outstanding during the weekend and nobody on the planet would say even for a second that he wasn’t the most deserving winner.
The pace of the race was a big talking point afterwards. Frankly, it was pretty shocking to look at the times and see that the leaders were lapping sometimes in the 1 minute 19s, which is over 10% slower than their qualifying pace. What was even more surprising – and slightly worrying – was that despite the slow pace, the amount of tyre graining was very high. It does seem that in this eighth year of Pirelli tyres, the teams and Pirelli still can’t get a clear reading of just what the tyres are going to do every weekend. I’d hate to put a calculator on how much money the paddock has collectively spent on tyre analysis since 2011, but there’s no question that the ratio of expenditure versus clarity of understanding has been a frustrating one of the teams, especially when they’re supposed to be cutting costs.
Ricciardo was very lucky that he was able to get through to the pit stop before his MGU-K – the energy recovery system – packed up. If that issue had come up earlier in the race, the next four guys behind him would easily have been able to use an alternative strategy and jump past him. The loss of the MGU-K shouldn’t be underestimated as it isn’t just a loss of a 160bhp of power. It also puts more pressure on the brakes, alters the brake balance significantly, changes the fuel usage and overall meant that the Aussie really had to use his brain for every second of that Grand Prix while also praying that the engine itself didn’t go pop. Red Bull team prinicipal Christian Horner reckoned that the loss was about two seconds per lap, so the fact that Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari wasn’t even able to attempt a pass and in fact had completely grained his front tyres while behind Ricciardo highlights the bigger issue with Monaco.
Racing at Monaco is one of the biggest things I miss about not driving in Formula 1. The challenge of driving around the historic streets of the principality cannot be underestimated. These days, we go to all these big, wide-open, sanitised tracks with nothing to hit and therefore the drivers get a real buzz from racing at a narrow and unforgiving track like Monaco.
But it’s really a race for the drivers to enjoy as it’s pretty dull for everyone watching on a Sunday. If you read my column after Barcelona, you may recall that I mentioned it was perhaps time to look at redesigning the track there. It would be sacrilege to do that to Monaco, but maybe we ought to be looking at a different format of a shorter race on Sunday or perhaps a tweak in the sporting regulations that insists on the drivers doing two mandatory tyre stops? Food for thought, which interestingly I noticed Lewis Hamilton also mentioning after the race. Liberty Media – which acquired Formula One before the 2017 season began – has an opportunity to shake the sport up and I’d be interested to see if they’re willing to take the bold steps of having different formats at different events, like Nascar or Indycar have.
The other big talking point of the weekend was Max Verstappen. All through free practice, the two Red Bull drivers seemed to be in a class of their own and it was fantastic to watch them flinging the car around. They had so much confidence and it was very clear that the chassis produced by the squad at Milton Keynes was working brilliantly. It was also clear from early on that one of their drivers was leaving less of a margin for error than the other.
I asked Horner on Thursday if he was worried his drivers would push each other so hard that they could pressure each other into a mistake in qualifying. I had assumed that they would have put a lid on the exuberance in free practice, but clearly I assumed wrong as Verstappen had other ideas.
The crash on Saturday morning was totally unnecessary and ultimately very painful for him. The Red Bull isn’t capable of out-qualifying the Ferrari and Mercedes cars in a straight fight very often, and this was one of their golden opportunities. What’s especially annoying for the team is that Verstappen is a smart guy. He knows all of these things, and yet, when the visor goes down, he just can’t help himself but drive at 110 per cent on every lap of every session.
The top guns on the current grid like Lewis Hamilton, Vettel and Fernando Alonso all leave the final couple of tenths in the bag until they need it in qualifying, often only in Q3. Verstappen really needs to learn to do this. He’s supremely talented and has incredible car control, but I wonder if there’s some sort of insecurity where he feels he needs to still prove how good he is in every session. Cognitively, he knows that he doesn’t need to do this. He says the right things, but his actions in the car suggest otherwise and he somehow needs a period of introspection to teach himself how to just take a step back from standing on the precipice all the time. This weekend, frankly, even if Verstappen had driven at 95%, he’d have had the car on the front row. Yes, he’s young, but that excuse is starting to wear thin within the team, which is spending millions on repairing his damaged cars and losing millions every time he doesn’t score points or podiums.
Ricciardo’s first run of Q3 was absolutely outstanding and this weekend showed yet again why Red Bull need to sign him for 2019 as they can’t yet count on Verstappen as a consistent and reliable No.1 driver to lead the team. Vettel, Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas all drove around at a sedate pace and did what was expected of them, although I’m sure Ferrari would have been hoping for Raikkonen to out-qualify Hamilton and take more points off the championship leader. Esteban Ocon, Pierre Gasly and Nico Hulkenberg all drove excellent races and have shown once again that they are all names that should be in the running for a top seat in the near future.
On to Montreal next and one of my favourite races. It’s always an entertaining race in a city that truly embraces Formula One and gets behind the whole event. Renault and Honda are both bringing engine upgrades, but expect the battle to be between Ferrari and Mercedes. The tyres are going to be very tricky to manage in Montreal and we can always expect some sort of carnage with the walls being so close.
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