F1 Monaco GP: If These Streets Could Talk

The Monaco Grand Prix is the crown jewel of the Formula One season. It’s a race steeped in history that has seen the great drivers take the checkered flag. A win at Monaco will make your reputation as much as a World Drivers’ Championship would. That just adds to the lore that is the race on the streets of Monte Carlo. And now, Mark Webber can add his name to the list of heroes that have won in Monaco as he dominated with his second consecutive lights-to-flag victory. However, it wasn’t a straight-forward cruise on the public roads of the principality.

After his surprisingly dominant performance at the Circuit de Catalunya, Mark Webber was able to repeat his performance in a very similar way. He set a blistering time to start the race on pole. Then he took off at the head of the field and stayed there for the whole race. The only difference between the Spanish Grand Prix and the Monaco Grand Prix was that Webber had to build his lead four times instead of just the once in Spain. The safety car came out four times on the day and left the Australian vulnerable to attack on each restart. However, a track that is difficult to pass on combined with the fastest car in the field meant that Webber had an easy day at the office.

The man who was expected to pose a threat to Webber’s dominance was taken out of contention on the first lap. Robert Kubica’s Renault started second and was expected to be the only man to be able to stop a Red Bull victory. His challenge ended when Sebastian Vettel got a good start on the clean side of the track and overtook the Pole in the first turn. Kubica was able to keep pace for the most part but never put up a serious challenge.

Also an interesting carryover from last week was Red Bull’s brake problems. In Spain, Vettel was told to back off because he had no brakes left. This week, it was Webber given a warning over the radio that his brakes were going. It was probably a blessing that he got that late safety car. Threading the needle between the Armco barriers of Monaco without brakes would be nearly impossible.

With the one-two finish, Red Bull have finally assumed their place atop both championship standings. Both drivers head the drivers’ table on 78 points each but Webber is considered the leader because of his two wins to Vettel’s one. It’s not a big lead back to third, though. Fernando Alonso sits three points back. After claiming six poles and three wins from the first six rounds of the championship, Red Bull also leads the constructors’ standings with a 20 point gap over Ferrari.

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I could be wrong but I think that the safety car may have led as many laps as Webber. The Williams boys had a tough day as each caused a safety car. Nico Hulkenberg went straight into the barrier in the tunnel which appeared to be a mechanical failure. Rubens Barrichello suffered a left-rear tire puncture which sent him into the barrier and left him in the middle of the road at Massenet. With the two Williams out of the way, it looked like the race had settled down and Webber would coast to a win. The racing gods weren’t smiling on him quite yet. A third safety car was deployed, this time for a loose drain cover around Massenet. It was a short safety car given what it was for. As BBC’s Jonathan Legard joked, maybe a track marshall stomped the drain cover down with his foot and fixed the problem. The fourth safety car was Webber’s biggest problem. Jarno Trulli ran over the back of Karun Chandhok at the Rascasse right in front of Webber. Inexplicably, the safety car was called in on the final lap, leaving Webber vulnerable in the final turn. Webber was able to get to the checkered flag without issue on that final restart. Not everyone was as lucky.

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Fernando Alonso was fastest in the first and second practice sessions on Thursday and everyone thought that he would pick up his third Monaco Grand Prix. However, a crash in final practice heading into Massenet meant that he didn’t have a car for qualifying and he had to start from the pit lane. This immediately drew comparisons with the 2006 Monaco GP when Michael Schumacher started dead last of 22 cars and marched to 5th. (Of course, Schumacher started last because he was deemed to have deliberately caused a yellow flag to prevent then-Renault driver Alonso from scoring pole.)

From 24th, Alonso was able to gain one more position than Schumacher did in ’06. The twice World Drivers’ Champion finished 7th which was an improvement of 17 places, the same as Schumacher’s performance. Like Schumacher, strategy played the largest part in Alonso’s race. The Lap 1 safety car for Hulkenberg allowed Alonso to make his mandatory tire compound switch from soft to hard without losing any time to the back of the field. From there, he picked off the six new cars and waited for the rest of the field to stop under green. Seventy-six-and-nine-tenths laps on that set of tires later, he looked destined to finished 6th. But he didn’t cross the line in 6th. He crossed in 7th and was credited with 6th after Michael Schumacher passed him after the safety car pulled off on the final lap. More on that right now.

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The final safety car for the Trulli/Chandhok crash ended within sight of the checkered flag. The safety car pulled off coming out of the Rascasse and let Webber lead to the checkered flag. Further back, Alonso spun his tires coming out of Rascasse and Schumacher nipped under him for a pass in the final turn.

The safety car rules in 2010 now read that passing is allowed after a specified line on the track. At Monaco, it’s between the Rascasse and Anthony Noghes (the final turn). Watching the replay, Schumacher’s pass was entirely legal per that rule. However, there’s a second rule that says if the race ends under a safety car, it will be recalled to the pit lane on the final lap and everyone maintains order on track. Under that rule, Schumacher’s move was illegal. That’s how the race stewards saw it, including this week’s driver representative Damon Hill.

But let’s actually break this thing down. The safety car was pulled in on the last lap. When it came in, the teams were given the all clear and green flags were waved. If you were to follow the on-track activity, Schumacher capitalized on Alonso’s mistake and made a fair pass. However, the rule says that the safety car can’t lead the field across the line on the final lap. But if that safety car rule was being enforced, why was the all clear and green flag given to the drivers. Drivers know that yellow means hold your position. If yellow flags were kept on course, even without a safety car on track, then Schumi would have held place and we wouldn’t have any problems right now. The other interesting point is Damon Hill’s involvement in this. We don’t know what he said to the other stewards but given their history, you can’t think that Hill was an impartial observer in all this.

Given the ambiguity in the rules and events of that last “restart,” I don’t think anyone could complain with most reasonable penalties. Keeping the finishing order as they crossed the line or swapping Schumacher and Alonso on the results is perfectly reasonable. However, Schumacher was handed a 20 second penalty for his opportunistic move. That demoted the German from 6th to 12th. Out of the points and dead last of cars running at the finish. A bit disproportionate given that he moved up one spot.

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During the 2009 Monaco race weekend, drivers were complaining about how distracting the Martini & Rossi billboard at the exit of the Grand Hotel Hairpin was. Apparently, the best drivers in the world had some problem keeping their focus with a giant picture of model Jessiqa Pace ahead of them. Being the sporting-minded folks that they are, Martini decided that they would bring Jessiqa back for 2010. No complaints about her being distracting this year but even if you saw her a couple hundred times over the weekend, you could understand how someone would forget what they were doing and stare.

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The next round of the 2010 Formula One World Championship is at Istanbul Park for the Turkish Grand Prix. This race is one of Hermann Tilke’s many F1 tracks but it is also his best one. That doesn’t make me fell any better that this race will be Formula One’s contribution to the Memorial Day weekend triple-header. Three of the biggest race series in the world have traditionally held their biggest races on America’s Memorial Day weekend. However, a colossal scheduling failure by the FIA and FOM meant that the Monaco Grand Prix, traditionally held on Memorial Day weekend, was early this year. Instead, it will be the Turkish Grand Prix starting the day followed by the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600. It just doesn’t have the same ring as Monaco, Indy, and the 600.

The race track is fast which should favour the Red Bulls. Actually, the track could be slower than Monaco and still favour the Red Bulls this year. Rain is unlikely in Istanbul which eliminates most of the chances that the opposition could have. However, the F-Duct should play an important part in the race. McLaren and Ferrari should be a threat if they can stay close to the Red Bulls off the start. Otherwise, it will be a matter of if it will be Webber or Vettel.

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