Max-imum in Monaco: Verstappen overtakes Hamilton in Championship

Max Verstappen’s win on the streets of Monte Carlo means he leads Lewis Hamilton by four points in the drivers’ championship, with Red Bull inching a point ahead of Mercedes among the constructors.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is ecstatic after winning the Monaco Grand Prix.   -  AFP

Five races into his seventh season in Formula One, Max Verstappen finally took the lead in the world championship for the first time in his career as the sport returned to the glitz and glamour of Monaco after being dropped last season on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Red Bull racer led an unfamiliar podium, with the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz Jr and McLaren’s Lando Norris wrapping up the top three, as Mercedes had a day to forget at Monte Carlo.

Verstappen’s 12th victory in F1 was a relatively tame one — he relinquished the lead only during the round of pit stops, he conserved his tyres throughout, and he never really looked in danger at the front, even when Sainz cut down an eight-second lead to 2.7s. In the end, Verstappen crossed the finish line nine seconds clear of the Ferrari, his 157.833km-per-hour winning average speed the fastest in Monaco Grand Prix history, surpassing Fernando Alonso’s record set in 2007.

Where did Ferrari come from?

The tight, twisting street circuit usually lends drama to Monaco — mostly in the form of safety car periods — but the 2021 race saw most of that happen even before the lights went green.

After being nowhere close to the pace of championship contenders Red Bull and Mercedes since the beginning of the season — or for the past two years, for that matter — Ferrari surprised the paddock by going fastest in practice. Charles Leclerc then took provisional pole for the Italian marque, which became pole after his crash at the Swimming Pool on his final qualifying run brought the session to an early end, and then became...nothing, as the 23-year-old’s jinx at his home race continued. The Monegasque driver didn’t even complete a reconnaissance lap, his car suffering a problem with the left driveshaft that couldn’t be fixed in time for the start. He became the first pole sitter unable to start an F1 race due to mechanical failure since Michael Schumacher at the 1996 French Grand Prix — also with Ferrari.

“All the mechanics have been in a hurry since yesterday trying to check everything, and everything was fine, and I did the first sector on the out lap, everything felt perfectly fine, and then I just arrived before the tunnel, I think, and something broke on the rear left which is not the gearbox. I initially thought it was the gearbox, but from the first investigations, I don’t think it’s the gearbox and that it’s coming from something else, but we’ll see,” said Leclerc, who is yet to finish his home race after three outings.

Ferrari had changed multiple components on Leclerc’s car after confirming that his gearbox was intact following his crash and wouldn’t need replacing, which would have given him a five-place grid penalty. Team principal Mattia Binotto said the problem may have been completely unrelated to the accident as the impact and damage were on the other side of the car.

But all was not lost for Ferrari as Sainz scored his first podium for his new team. Starting effectively third, the Spaniard made the most of Valtteri Bottas’ shock retirement from P2 and entertained a brief hope of challenging Verstappen for the win — “Who knows?” were his exact words on the team radio — with just over a quarter of the race to go.

Ferrari should take heart from Sainz’s second place as the team moved to within two points of McLaren in third in the constructors’ championship, despite Leclerc’s pessimism after the race. “I really enjoyed to be back fighting for top positions, but on the other hand, we all know that it’s a one-off. The car was very good on this track, but from next race onwards, we will come back to reality and unfortunately we won’t be fighting for these positions again, so that’s why it hurts a bit more than normal, but it’s like this,” said the Monegasque driver.

‘How did this happen?’

With Leclerc unable to make it to the grid, the only threat to Verstappen’s win came at the start, but the Dutchman squeezed in front of Bottas before Sainte Devote in one of the cleanest starts in Monaco in memory, with Sainz, Norris, AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly and the second Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton holding on to position behind. By lap 25 of 78, Verstappen had a comfortable four-second lead at the front, with Bottas complaining of worn soft tyres.

Seven-time world champion Hamilton was surprisingly the first driver to pit, coming in on lap 29 despite telling his team his tyres were fine. It was disaster for Mercedes a lap later when Bottas’ front-right tyre refused to come off during his stop, leading to his second retirement of the season. That bumped up his teammate to fifth, but Mercedes’ weekend went from bad to worse as Hamilton was then undercut by Gasly, Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin and the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez, who jumped from eighth to fourth.

“How did it happen?” Hamilton, who finished seventh, the same position he started in, asked his team on the radio. That introspection continued after the race — “We’ll look internally, have some good discussions and come back stronger the next race. We obviously have some weak points with our car, and this race and the next race will be just as tough I think. For us, at this cold circuit it’s really hard to get the tyres working” — and will continue into the next race in Azerbaijan — “[It’s] another street circuit, another one that’s a very cold, very smooth circuit, so another one that we could struggle at, similar to here. So we’re just going to have to work and try and see how we can minimise that loss… We’ve got a good battle on our hands.”

The race result meant Mercedes lost the lead in both championships for the first time since the German Grand Prix midway through the 2018 season. It is the first time Red Bull has topped either table in F1’s hybrid era, which Mercedes has comprehensively dominated by winning both titles every year since it began in 2014. For Red Bull engine supplier Honda, which is exiting the sport at the end of the season, it was the first time that it had led either championship since Ayrton Senna and McLaren won in 1991.