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Graham Read
Formula 1 Correspondent
8:07 PM 23rd May 2021
sports

Verstappen Wins And Takes Championship Lead In Monaco

The first ever Monaco Grand Prix was held back in 1929 and was won by William Grover-Williams in a Bugatti before the modern day Formula 1 championship, which began in 1950, included a victory that year for the Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo. After the pandemic had forced the cancellation of last year's race the latest Monaco Grand Prix was won today by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen as he leapt ahead of Mercedes’ Sir Lewis Hamilton in the F1 Drivers’ Championship and his Milton Keynes based team moved ahead of Mercedes in the Constructors’ Championship.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen claimed a dominant lights-to-flag victory in Monaco
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen claimed a dominant lights-to-flag victory in Monaco
As the F1 world had prepared to descend on the tiny Principality a few news stories had been rumbling around. Comments from Mercedes after the previous race in Barcelona questioning the legality of Red Bull’s rear wing in terms of its flexibility at speed has led to new tests being introduced for all teams with effect from June’s French Grand Prix. However, Mercedes, McLaren and Alfa Romeo have expressed their dissatisfaction about the grace period to allow revised wings to be designed and introduced and this was exacerbated in Monaco when Ferrari admitted that they were exploiting the situation until the revised wings are officially required. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff even suggested that the situation could become further inflamed at the next race in Azerbaijan where a flexing rear wing could be more beneficial than in Monaco and that there was a risk legal protests may follow. All very F1 and nothing we haven’t witnessed before as teams always construct their cars to meet the scrutineering tests as they stand whilst seeking to gain any performance advantage they can.

On the driver front, Hamilton had been making it clear before Monaco that he hopes to agree an extension to his current one year Mercedes contract by the summer break and McLaren announced on the Wednesday before the Monégasque weekend that it had agreed a multi-year extension to Lando Norris’ contract, even if the precise number of years wasn’t revealed, and the exciting young British driver expressed hopes of becoming “the team leader” alongside Daniel Ricciardo. Elsewhere, and with a prize seat at Mercedes potentially available for next year, it was interesting to note that the Alpine team has already been in talks with Esteban Ocon’s management about an extension to his current contract which expires in December. Ocon of course has strong links to Wolff and Mercedes and, together with Williams’ George Russell, could be a candidate to replace Valtteri Bottas next season.

Before arriving in Monaco McLaren had also announced that as a one-off it would be running its MCL35M cars in a striking blue-and-orange Gulf Oil livery, with related changes too to its driver racesuits and helmets plus team attire. Gulf and McLaren have shared a long history in F1 and other racing categories and this development follows renewed collaboration between them last year. Permission had to be sought from the FIA governing body and the Formula 1 authorities as teams are duty bound for their cars to bear substantially the same livery at every race, but this was readily given. Both McLaren drivers and many fans loved it, with Norris quipping “It will be the best-looking car on the grid by a very long way” and Ricciardo adding “I didn’t need another reason to get excited for Monaco, but I’ve got to control myself and save some energy for the race weekend!”

McLaren opted to run its cars in Monaco bearing an iconic Gulf Oil livery
McLaren opted to run its cars in Monaco bearing an iconic Gulf Oil livery
All the teams were well aware that track position is vital at Monaco, with overtaking around the narrow streets being so difficult and particularly due to the width and length of the current cars. Thus Saturday’s qualifying would as always be crucial, but at least strategic opportunities during the race would be boosted by the pitlane time loss per stop being only 20 seconds and with reduced tyre wear making longer stints possible if desired. The Monaco race may be 78 gruelling laps long, but it has the shortest distance of the year at just 260km compared to the normal 305. Statistically it also has the highest chance of one or more safety car or virtual safety car interventions, giving all the teams’ strategists plenty to ponder over.

The Monaco Grand Prix weekend is also the only one on the calendar where the usual pair of Friday free practice sessions are held on the Thursday, with Friday then being a rest day in terms of ontrack F1 activity. Why, you may ask? Well, one clear reason is that it extends the annual trip to the “jewel in Formula 1’s crown” by a whole day, impacting on hotel and restaurant revenues and also hospitality opportunities for teams to entertain current sponsors and woo prospective ones. An offer of a “free” trip to the Monaco Grand Prix is certainly something to be treasured in most people’s eyes, even if your personal interest in the sport itself may be limited.

So, at 11.30 on Thursday morning local time the cars took to the circuit for the opening free practice session as Williams started its 750th Formula 1 race weekend. Come the chequered flag it was Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez who topped the timesheets ahead of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz and Verstappen in the other Red Bull, with Hamilton and Bottas fifth and sixth fastest for Mercedes and Sebastian Vettel showing decent pace for Aston Martin just two places behind the Finn.

The subsequent afternoon practice period ended a few minutes early with red flags flying after Mick Schumacher’s Haas had hit the barriers at Massenet and the young German ended up parking his damaged car at the Nouvelle Chicane escape road. By this time local Monégasque hero Charles Leclerc had set the quickest time in his Ferrari after missing most of the earlier practice session with a gearbox problem and Sainz joined his team-mate as the best of the rest, with Hamilton and Verstappen lurking to their rear. This left the team in red from Maranello on something of a high after their recent struggles.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc took pole position, but failed to make the race start
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc took pole position, but failed to make the race start
Following overnight rain the conditions were noticeably cooler come Saturday’s final practice session and Verstappen led the way ahead of the pair of Ferraris, with Bottas and Hamilton only fourth and seventh fastest. The ontrack action twice had to be redflagged though after first Nicholas Latifi put his Williams into the barriers exiting the Swimming Pool and then Schumacher, who had been running well in 14th position, lost control exiting Casino Square. The damage to his Haas meant that he would miss the subsequent qualifying hour.

Formula 1 cars have always looked so quick around the streets of Monaco, with the onboard footage almost giving the impression that it has been artificially speeded up as the drivers undertake the motorsport equivalent of threading the eye of a needle. This is never more so than in qualifying when the cars are at their fastest and lightest as the fight for an all-important front row start comes to a head and when even a small mistake can spell disaster with the barriers being so close and the margin for error almost non-existent.

39 year old Alpine driver Fernando Alonso has been struggling to get fully back upto speed after two seasons away from F1 and failed to make it beyond the first stage of the qualifying process, but there was further drama to follow just 18 seconds from the end of the top ten shootout when provisional polesitter Leclerc crashed his Ferrari exiting the Swimming Pool. This brought out red flags and forced Verstappen, Bottas and Sainz to abort what may have been their own pole position laps. As a result Leclerc held on to pole despite his accident as Verstappen joined him on the front row of the grid, with Bottas and Sainz just behind them.

Conspiracy theories quickly arose as to whether Leclerc had crashed intentionally to thwart his main rivals, as Michael Schumacher was famously deemed to have done during Monaco qualifying 15 years earlier, but the young Monégasque is not that sort of driver and certainly not by crashing as heavily as he did. Meanwhile reigning champion Hamilton was unhappy with his car and his team after being three quarters of a second off the pace in seventh position, just one place ahead of Vettel, and vowed to have “serious discussions” in private afterwards. Leclerc’s eighth pole position of his Formula 1 career delighted the local fans present, but he and his team were anxious to check whether his car had suffered gearbox damage as any need to replace it would incur a five place grid penalty, the last thing you want at Monaco in particular. However, after an anxious overnight wait for Leclerc his team confirmed this morning that after further checks they were confident his gearbox was undamaged and that he would be starting the Grand Prix from pole position.

Valtteri Bottas’ Grand Prix was ended prematurely by a botched Mercedes pitstop
Valtteri Bottas’ Grand Prix was ended prematurely by a botched Mercedes pitstop
There was high drama though when the cars left the pits to make their way to the grid as Leclerc could be heard saying “No, no, no!” as mechanical woes with his Ferrari forced him back into his pit garage and out of the race. Was Ferrari wise to risk running the same gearbox or should they have changed it and taken the grid penalty? There was also a suggestion from the hugely disappointed Leclerc that there was perhaps also a different problem at the left rear side of the car, which was being investigated.

This left Verstappen to in effect become the new polesitter, if on the lefthand side of the grid, with Bottas now having a clear track ahead of him. Race starts in Monaco can be fraught with potential contact as the pack of cars sprints the short distance to the narrow opening righthander at Sainte Dévote (named after the nearby chapel dedicated to Monaco’s patron saint Saint Devota), whereas on other occasions caution has been the name of the game as, in accordance with the old motor racing adage, you can’t win a race on the opening lap but you can certainly lose it.
2021 Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix

1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1hr38m56.820s
2 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +8.968s
3 Lando Norris (McLaren) +19.527s
4 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) +20.590s
5 Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) +52.691s
6 Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) + 53.896
7 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +1m8.231s
8 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) Lapped
9 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) Lapped
10 Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) Lapped
11 Kimi Räikkönen (Alfa Romeo) Lapped
12 Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) Lapped
13 Fernando Alonso (Alpine) Lapped
14 George Russell (Williams) Lapped
15 Nicholas Latifi (Williams) Lapped
16 Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) Lapped
17 Nikita Mazepin (Haas) Lapped
18 Mick Schumacher (Haas) Lapped
19 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) Retired
20 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) Did Not Start

As a result, the sense of anticipation was high as the 3pm local time start neared and when the red lights went out Verstappen wasted no time at all in accelerating across to his right to effectively deal with the threat posed by Bottas. As the race settled Verstappen led from Bottas, Sainz and Norris, followed by AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly and Hamilton, and so it remained until lap 30 when Hamilton made his first pitstop to switch from soft to hard specification tyres. The following tour was to be pivotal for Bottas’ fortunes though as another botched stop by the usually slick Mercedes crew left them unable to remove the front right wheel after accidentally machining the axle and this meant it was instantly game over for the Finn.

Meanwhile Vettel was having a strong race and emerged from his first stop in fifth position ahead of both Gasly and an increasingly unhappy Hamilton. The leading Verstappen made his first stop on lap 34 and his team-mate Pérez did likewise one tour later, giving us a subsequent running order of Verstappen, Sainz, Norris and Pérez, followed by Vettel, Gasly and a now seventh placed Hamilton. Later Pérez started to close on Norris, but the likeable young British driver held his nerve and made third place his own. Hamilton then salvaged a small bonus from a difficult day at the office by pitting for soft tyres on lap 68 and and claiming the extra point for the fastest lap.

There were far fewer people in Monaco this time round, but still plenty of boats in the main harbour
There were far fewer people in Monaco this time round, but still plenty of boats in the main harbour
Come the chequered flag Verstappen took the victory spoils with his first ever podium finish in Monaco and second placed Sainz was equally delighted to achieve a first podium finish for Ferrari, whilst Norris so enjoyed adding another top three result to his fledgling F1 career. Aston Martin stood out too after Vettel, who topped the official fans Driver Of The Day poll, finished fifth and his team-mate Lance Stroll was eighth, giving the Silverstone based team a welcome double points finish.
2021 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship

1 Max Verstappen 105
2 Lewis Hamilton 101
3 Lando Norris 56

2021 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship

1 Red Bull 149
2 Mercedes 148
3 McLaren 80

Next up in a fortnight’s time comes the Azerbaijan Grand Prix around the streets of Baku when we’ll discover who performs best in the next round of the close championship battle between Verstappen and Hamilton and we’ll see whether those flexible rear wing protests come to fruition.