Hamilton drives back into contention

Lewis Hamilton defied all those beliefs associated with the Monaco circuit and came home a winner after one of the most absorbing and enthralling editions of this 79-year-old Grand Prix.-AP

The McLaren driver’s triumph, a victory for both speed and strategic intelligence, looked very much like the relaunch of a championship campaign, writes Richard Williams.

Year after year, Monaco explodes the conventional. If you’re not on pole position for the race around the houses, they say, you haven’t a chance. If you make a mistake and touch one of the walls that enclose the track, your day is over. Lewis Hamilton defied all those beliefs and came home a winner after one of the most absorbing and enthralling editions of this 79-year-old Grand Prix.

Disappointed not to have taken pole position in the qualifying session, he sat behind the Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen as rain drenched the starting grid, with his team-mate, Heikki Kovalainen, relegated to the back after stalling at the start of the parade lap. After a typically electrifying getaway, however, Hamilton was in second place behind Massa as the 20 starters climbed towards the Casino Square for the first time.

They were winding their way back down to the seafront when the mayhem started. First Nico Rosberg’s Williams hit the back of Fernando Alonso’s Renault and then a few seconds later, Jenson Button’s Honda and Nick Heidfeld’s Sauber-BMW made contact.

As the cars splashed through the opening laps, sliding on the rivulets that ran across the track while spray impaired the drivers’ vision, Massa gradually pulled away from Hamilton, with Raikkonen in third place ahead of Robert Kubica’s BMW.

“I was right with Felipe at the beginning,” Hamilton said, “but I thought it was better to ease off a bit to see what the track was like. Then he put the hammer down, so I speeded up.”

It was while he was pushing harder that the McLaren brushed the barrier as he went through Tabac for the sixth time. The right rear tyre deflated immediately and, with barely 20 seconds of the lap remaining, Hamilton got on the radio to alert his crew. As he turned into the pit lane they were waiting with a new wheel and put in extra fuel.

Hamilton resumed in fifth place, only for the safety car to come out for the first time when David Coulthard slid to a stop against the barriers at Massenet and felt the Toro Rosso of Sebastien Bourdais smash into the back of his Red Bull. After the three-lap period in which the safety car controlled the pace, Raikkonen was called in for a drive-through penalty when the stewards discovered that his mechanics had finished fitting his tyres on the grid less than the minimum three minutes before the start of the parade lap. This was the Ferrari team’s first error of the day, but not its last.

Nico Rosberg of Williams gets out of his car after crashing in the 60th lap.-AP

Hamilton was now up to third place, behind Massa and Kubica, but there was more midfield chaos on lap 13 when Fernando Alonso tried to dive inside Heidfeld at the old Station Hairpin. Heidfeld pitted for a new nose section, followed quickly by Nico Rosberg with a similar request, and it began to seem as though the race would be won by the team with the biggest supply of spare bodywork.

Two laps later Massa made a mistake that contributed to his downfall when he misjudged his entry to Ste Devote, the tricky right-hander at the end of the finishing straight, and slid up the escape road. While the Brazilian was extricating himself, Kubica snatched the lead.

Hamilton, now settled into a long stint as a result of taking on the additional fuel, was able to push strongly as first Kubica and then Massa made their initial stops. By the time the Ferrari came in, just before half distance, the track was starting to dry, but the expectation of further rain deceived the Italian team into opting for another set of wet tyres and a heavy fuel load.

Suddenly the McLaren was in a convincing lead, 13 seconds ahead of Massa, with Kubica close behind the Ferrari. Driving with superb precision on a gradually drying track, Hamilton spent the next 20 laps widening the gap to such effect that when he made his second and final stop on lap 54 he was able to come out still comfortably ahead of his pursuers, each of whom had another stop to make.

With 15 laps to go the gap had grown again, this time almost to 40 seconds, when Rosberg destroyed his car in the swimming-pool complex. The second appearance of the safety car, this time for six laps, allowed the field to close right up. When the drivers were allowed to begin racing again, Hamilton controlled the restart with the sort of authority that brought him his first GP victory just under a year ago in Canada.

Afterwards he broke off from his celebrations to sympathise with his friend Adrian Sutil, who was robbed of an astonishing fourth place 10 laps from the end when Raikkonen lost control while braking for the harbour chicane and fishtailed wildly into the back of the 25-year-old German driver’s car, costing the new Force India team a finish that would have been worth millions of pounds in the sport’s arcane system of rewards, not to mention a priceless boost to their confidence.

“He’ll bounce back,” Hamilton said. And so, having endured four winless races after his victory in the season’s opening round in Australia, had he. The triumph, a victory for both speed and strategic intelligence, looked very much like the relaunch of a championship campaign.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008