Monaco GP - Sunday - Race Report
Drama on the Monaco streets
It seems that Sebastian Vettel can do no wrong. The world champion scored his fifth win in six 2011 races, a career 14th victory and his first in Monte Carlo. It was another excellent drive, of course it was, but lady luck was also smiling on him.
There was the pole position on Saturday, when Lewis Hamilton, his biggest threat, failed to get an optimum flying lap after the red flag for the accident to Sergio Perez.
In the race itself, Vettel, like Jenson Button, started on a used set of supersoft (option) Pirellis. He had planned to run longer than he did, but when Button, just 3.5s behind, attempted an undercut with a lap 15 stop for more supersofts, Red Bull covered him. They intended to mirror Jenson's strategy but a communication problem delayed Vettel and the team fitted him with the prime tyre instead of the option. The way things worked out, it meant that he was thus able to go to the end on those tyres whereas, if they had actually fitted the intended tyres, Vettel would have needed a second stop.
That was his second bit of good fortune and the third came in the closing stages when, with Alonso and Button right behind on fresher tyres, the red flag for the accident involving Alguersuari and Petrov at the Swimming Pool, meant a restart and the opportunity for everyone to change tyres. It robbed everyone of what promised to be a thrilling finish to a superbly poised race.
When the shunt happened on lap 69, Fernando Alonso was on a set of Pirelli primes that had done 35 laps to the 53 that Vettel had done on the same tyre. Right on Alonso's gearbox was Jenson Button's McLaren, on a new set of softs that were just 21 laps old.
This was Monaco though, and overtaking is never easy. You can be 4s a lap slower and still defend. Vettel had that in mind when he earlier disregarded a radio message to make a second stop.
"I knew that the way things had worked out there was no way to win the race unless I stayed out," he said. "I knew there was a big gap behind Jenson and so if it didn't work out I was going to be third at worst, so I decided to give it a go."
Alonso could see that Vettel was struggling for traction in the final part of the lap and was poised to have a go, either into the first corner, Ste Devote, or into the harbour front chicane. With the Red Bull scrabbling for grip, and with a bit of assistance from DRS, Alonso had a look into Ste Devote but didn't have quite enough.
"I knew they were the only two places he could make a move and I was saving KERS to make it more difficult there," Vettel explained. "I don't know what would have happened. To be honest, I was pretty confident. I didn't have the freshest tyres, I know, but I thought they had another six laps in them at least. It would have been tight because they were getting closer and my tyres weren't getting better, but neither were theirs, so I think I had a decent chance to stay in front."
For Alonso though, 'Monte Carlo or bust' was an apt description. Monaco or not, Fernando had no intention of sitting behind the Red Bull for the last seven laps.
"There was nothing to lose for me," he said. "I'm not leading the championship and so I was going to try to win the race. If we crash, we crash..."
Button, with the quickest car of the three at that stage, had two options - he could try to attack the pair of them, or he could sit a few yards back and hope to pick up the pieces when Alonso made his move.
But, with eight laps to go, the three leaders caught a multi-car train battling out the minor places. Adrian Sutil, also trying to do a one-stop race and on a used set of supersofts, was struggling, ran wide on the marbles at Turn 12 and picked up a right rear puncture. The leaders caught him as he went into the Swimming Pool complex. Lewis Hamilton, anticipating Sutil hitting the barrier, lifted off, whereupon the McLaren was mounted by Jaime Alguersuari's Toro Rosso. The Spaniard turned sharp left into the barrier, where he collected Vitaly Petrov's Toro Rosso.
The Russian suffered quite an impact and an injured ankle, which was later found not to be broken. With the need to extricate Petrov and the track blocked, the officials had no choice but to red flag the race.
The rules state that in those circumstances teams can work on cars and change tyres, so Vettel had the unexpected luxury of a new set of boots for the final few laps. He reeled them off, unchallenged.
If Alonso thought he was in good shape to win, so to did Button earlier in the race. His chances were spoiled when the first Safety car came out when Felipe Massa crashed in the tunnel on lap 33. Vettel admitted that without that, it would have been hard to beat Jenson.
Once Button got ahead after his lap 15 first stop and Vettel's delayed stop in response, the McLaren was looking good.
"He was pulling away like crazy," Vettel said. "I saw 10s, then 13s, then 15s ahead and I knew that when he was 19s ahead it was going to be difficult for me because that is the time a stop takes. Then he stopped for another set of supersofts, which was a surprise." It meant of course, that with Button yet to use the primes, he was going to have to stop again.
"That's when I got the call to box and I said no, I want to stay out because the only way to win was to one stop." Vettel explained.
"We went for the strategy we did and on lap 16 we thought it was the right strategy and for many laps after," Button said. "The Safety Car mixed things up a bit and in hindsight you would say maybe we should have put the prime tyre on. But at the moment I stopped the Safety Car hadn't come out. It just didn't go our way today. Later I was watching Sebastian and Fernando battling and I was just waiting for a move. It was either going to come off or they were both going to go into the barriers, which I was waiting for! Not a bad result, but we'd hoped for more..."
For Mark Webber, so dominant last year, it was a tough afternoon. Third on the grid but beaten away by Alonso's Ferrari, he appeared to be held up by the Ferrari initially but then failed to keep pace when Alonso found some pace.
"We didn't really go long enough in the first stint," Webber explained. "That's normal for me on these tyres but it compromised me. When I arrived in the pits they didn't have any tyres out, the boys were still getting them ready, so I sat there. You lose track position and you can't pass here, so to get fourth from there wasn't bad."
He was far enough behind Vettel for them to pit on the same lap, but when there was the tyre mix-up and a slow stop for Sebastian, Mark suffered the knock-on effects as that first stop lost him around 12s.
Late in the race, helped by the red flag, Webber pulled one of the afternoon's few overtaking moves on Kobayashi, who is never easy to pass. For Sauber though, fifth place was a great result after a weekend of mixed emotions.
"Sergio Perez's qualifying accident made me remember Karl Wendlinger's similar crash in 1994," Peter Sauber said. "It's worrying when you see that and it was great for the whole team that Kamui drove such an excellent race."
Kobayashi made just one pit stop. Race engineer Francesco Nenci explained: "It was a very tough race. We really gave him a very difficult target to save the tyres, to be quick, and to stay out of trouble."
Kobayashi started on a new set of Pirelli's prime (soft) tyre and gained time when his pit stop on lap 34 coincided with a Safety Car for Felipe Massa's accident in the tunnel. It was not all good news though, because Adrian Sutil, who had been 3s behind the Sauber at the end of the previous lap, managed to pass Kamui in the pits when there was a problem engaging the wheel gun.
Kobayashi was then held up by the Force India for the next 30 laps before they finally made contact at Loews Hairpin and the Sauber got past. The stewards investigated the incident but Kamui escaped with a reprimand.
Lewis Hamilton finished sixth after a dramatic race (see separate story), the delayed Sutil was seventh and Nick Heidfeld eighth for Renault. Rubens Barrichello gave Williams its first points of the year in ninth place and Sebastian Buemi claimed the final point.
Leaving Monaco to head across the Atlantic to Montreal, the championship table makes depressing reading for Vettel's rivals. The reigning champion has 143 points to Hamilton's 85, Webber's 79, Button's 76 and Alonso's 69. Button had a similar start to his title-winning season two years ago but then came under heavy pressure. With Red Bull as strong as they are though, it's hard to see Vettel suffering in the same way...