The Fast Lane – Glitz, Glamour and overtaking in Monaco

I remember saying earlier this week that the real test for F1 2011 would be at Monaco this weekend. This season has produced an immense amount of action and tension (all be it with the same person winning most races), but is it really possible to keep that excitement up around the tight, twisty and notoriously overtaking-lite Monte Carlo streets. Turns out it is.

This has to be one of the best Monaco Grand Prix I have witnessed with battles throughout the field and what was looking at times like a very tight ending.

But for such an amazing race, the start was a little quiet with the only action being provided by Michael Schumacher – first bogging down on the grid and the pulling a brave and perhaps risky move around the inside of Lewis Hamilton at the hairpin. A great piece of opportunist racing from Schumi, but sadly it was the be the only one in what was another disappointing weekend for the 7-time world champion.

With the first few laps over and Vettel already seconds ahead of his competitors, it was looking like another dull Monaco Grand Prix. But that wasn’t to be the case.

One of the reasons for this was actually a comedy of errors in the pit lane. Unbelievably, this started with the normally bulletproof combination of Red Bull and Vettel. The mechanics were waiting, with the prime compound tyres – the wrong ones for Vettel’s strategy. This caused a very important delay allowing Jenson Button to take the lead of the race. The errors kept coming for Red Bull as Webber came in immediately afterwards and was delayed even further due to the errors in Vettel’s stop. Not a good day for the Red Bull mechanics, but at least it was better than Hamilton’s mechanics who couldn’t even be bothered to come out for their car!

Getting Jenson in front of Vettel led to a very interesting situation as finally someone was beating Vettel on track and the German was powerless to prevent it. As the top two remained tied in a lap-ime battle, slowly Fernando Alonso crept up on both.

But as mentioned there were many overtakes and incidents up and down the field. Massa made a phenomenal overtake on Nico Rosberg, Rosberg then get stuck behind Glock for a bit (whilst Schumacher beared down on him) and perhaps the man with the most going on was Lewis Hamilton.

It was never going to be easy for Lewis starting ninth on the grid, but wow did he have a frustrating afternoon. This all grew to one moment of recklessness against Felipe Massa halfway through the race. Hamilton went up the inside at the hairpin, but was too far back to make the pass and inevitably hit the Ferrari. This of course was penalised – rightly so – by the stewards. I know Lewis himself feels quite differently about this issue, but there was no doubt in my mind that he was too far back and should have backed out.

That incident more than likely led to Massa hitting the wall in the tunnel and bringing out the safety car, another important turning point. Vettel had re-taken the lead after Button pitted for a second time, but now was in a situation whereby he had both Button and Alonso right behind him on track. Button had to pit once more, putting him behind Alonso, but with the fresher tyres he soon caught up. This left us with something I don’t think I have ever seen at Monaco, a three-way battle for the lead with 14 laps to go.

And it was a battle, this wasn’t a procession, Alonso was all over Vettel and really looked like taking the lead a couple of times. Vettel was at a massive disadvantage, his tyres had lasted since lap 19 and were now massively degrading. Alonso was on fresher tyres, but still nowhere near as new as Button’s. Vettel couldn’t pit, that would lose him everything, he had to fight on track. This was a fantastic battle.

And then something quite unexpected happened. Focusing on the battle between the top three, the cameras had missed the fact that a group of eight cars were also very bunched together and about to be lapped by the leaders. These cars were a combination of lapped cars and drivers competing for positions, they weren’t all going to yield instantly. This was going to be dynamite!

Unfortunately, the formula was a bit too explosive and just as the top three hit the traffic, Algesuari hit Hamilton and Petrov hit both in a pretty big smash. This brought out the safety car and eventually the race was stopped with 6 laps to run.

Luckily for the all, all drivers were OK from the crash and it was decided to restart the race and run the final few laps. It was to be a show-stopping finale, but sadly it was ruined by an FIA regulation. For some reason, unknown to myself or any fan, teams are allowed to change tyres during a race stoppage period. This of course killed the challenge. Vettel was supreme on fresh tyres earlier in the race and would easily be able to hold the two behind. He was effectively given a free pit-stop and saved from losing the race to Alonso and Hamilton.

It’s a shame for the sport and a big insult to it’s fans as we could have been treated to the best battle of the season so far, but instead we were denied the spectacle for a ridiculous regulation. This is one I hope will be looked at by the FIA and changed, not that I expect it to ever be an issue again anyway…

The race was restarted and as predicted, Vettel led easily from the front and won his first Monaco Grand Prix and well done to him, he’s a deserving winner, but I can’t help thinking that he wouldn’t have won if it wasn’t for the quirk of fate that led to the race-stoppage and the chance to change tyres.

Despite the disappointing ending, I was thrilled by the rest of the race. Great to see Alonso actually on pace for the first time this season, hopefully turning it into a three team battle. It was also great to see Button as the lead McLaren after Mr Hamilton had mouthed off earlier in the week that only he was capable of beating Vettel.

Lewis has of course had a dreadful afternoon. As well as his penalty for Massa, he has also been penalised post race for a risky move on Maldonado that knocked the Williams driver out of the race. Admittedly, this 20 second penalty hasn’t effected his final position, but it won’t help confidence. This much was obvious from his outburst after the race. I do like Lewis, but I do think he can complain a bit too much sometimes – put it this way – according to Lewis, it’s never his fault.

So F1 leaves Monaco again and is still producing amazing action on track. But there’s still that niggling problem, no-one can beat Mr Vettel, even it seems if his team makes a bit of a pit-lane cockup!

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