Magnificent Monte Carlo – the 2017 Monaco Grand Prix

Nothing screams prestige and glamour quite like Monaco, and nothing manages to be both exciting and processional as the Monaco Grand Prix, that sees twenty cars hurtle at high speeds down narrow streets, through tunnels, and around sharp, snappy chicanes. There’s the thrill and drama of seeing cars skirt with barriers, with the drivers pushing to the very limit of their ability to get the best possible lap, dancing on that fine line between victory and complete disaster. It is perhaps the purest test of a racer’s focus, concentration, and above all, their skill at handling their car.

Practice sessions for the 2017 race proved fascinating. In FP1 Hamilton and Mercedes were on top, but in FP2 the situation had completely flipped – Ferrari were fastest, and Mercedes? Hamilton was 8th and Bottas 10th – they struggled to make things work for them. Both Red Bulls and both Toro Rossos (yes, you read that correctly) made it in front of the Mercedes, as did the Force India of Sergio Perez – and in FP3 things didn’t improve by much. Vettel was fastest for Ferrari, some half a second quicker than the fastest Mercedes (this time Bottas). Hamilton was nearly a second slower than Vettel, and the Red Bulls were mixing in with the Mercedes, adding a wildcard to proceedings.

Qualifying would prove even better – unless you were Lewis Hamilton. The three-time champion struggled with his car, complaining something was wrong, whilst he made it to Q2, he would go no further, only doing enough for P14 (which would become P13, owing to a penalty for Jensen Button, whose stand-in role saw him qualify in P9 for McLaren, a fantastic effort). Hamilton’s final crack at a good lap was ruined by a crash from Vandoorne in the other McLaren, that brought out yellow flags and ended any hope Hamilton had for getting into Q3.

There was more joy for his teammate Vallteri Bottas, who qualified 3rd, but the real winners in qualifying were Ferrari – but with a twist. Kimi Raikkonen took his first pole in nine years, just shading Sebastian Vettel. Completing the top four (and less than a half a second off Raikkonen’s pace) was the Red Bull of Max Verstappen, with Daniel Ricciardo nearly half a second slower in fifth. Was the stage set for intrigue?

At the start Raikkonen got away cleanly and Vettel followed, whilst Bottas cane under early pressure from Verstappen, but began to edge away. As can happen at Monaco, the cars didn’t swap places often, with the two Ferraris pulling clear, whilst Bottas would keep ahead of Verstappen, despite struggling a little with the rear of the car. Raikkonen would eke out a gap of around two seconds, but as he and Vettel started to encroach upon traffic the gap started to shrink. Once the front runners began to lap slower cars, Ferrari made the decision to bring Kimi in, where he fed back into the back markers, costing him time.

Vettel meanwhile, was like a beast unleashed. Suddenly he was pumping in much faster laps, enjoying the clean air in front of him. It was to prove crucial, as Vettel would carry on for a handful of laps and then ditch his ultra-softs for the super-soft tyres, emerging a second ahead of his teammate. Daniel Ricciardo would pull a similar stunt on not only his teammate Verstappen, but also on Bottas, a move that led to some angry expletives on the Red Bull radio from Verstappen, who was not pleased at being leapfrogged. Further back, Lewis Hamilton would do a long stint on the ultra-soft tyres and emerge from the end of it in seventh place.

Vettel would start to race clear of Raikkonen, who either couldn’t – or wouldn’t – match Vettel’s pace. The gap would steadily rise whilst Ricciardo would rapidly catch Kimi – was the Finn demotivated after losing the lead? Soon events would transpire to bunch the field up, and offer Raikkonen another bite of the cherry… namely a safety car period brought about by a highly ambitious overtaking move by Jensen Button on the Sauber of Pascal Wehrlein, at the last corner before the tunnel. Button lunged down the inside at a location not famous for overtaking, and his front-left tyre caught the rear-right of Wehrlein, actually half-flipping the Sauber so that it came to a rest sideways against the barrier. Wehrlein was uninjured, but both he and Button were out. The two had nearly tangled in the pits at the start of the race, when Wehrlein was released just as Button came through, so it was in a way fitting that the two would have this incident.

The safety car bunched the pack but didn’t do anything more than that. Once it withdrew Vettel would once again prove comfortable, Bottas would only briefly threaten Ricciardo and there was no way for Verstappen to get by Bottas. For only the fourth time in the hybrid era there would be no Mercedes on the podium, whilst Ferrari won at Monaco for the first time since 2001, though Raikkonen was clearly unhappy afterward. Did Ferrari show favouritism? If so, was it justified? After all, when Vettel had clear track he was much faster than Raikkonen. Vettel has been consistently the quicker of the pair since they became teammates in 2015, and Vettel is very much in the title fight (now 25 points clear of Hamilton), whereas Raikkonen doesn’t appear to be in that battle. Still, purists might feel that manipulating a race, this early in the season, is underhanded and against the spirit of the sport. It’s a difficult question to address.

Still, the aftermath is a Ferrari one-two, a rare feat these days, and one that puts them clear of Mercedes in the constructer’s championship. With Canada and Baku up next, the concern for Mercedes will be tracks that are similar to the Monaco tarmac, and more of the ultra-soft tyres, that Mercedes have struggled with this year. Vettel and Ferrari could yet build up a sizable advantage.

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