After five different winners from the first five races of the 2012 Formula One World Championship, it was only fitting that the season started with a six different winner to start the season. This time, it was Mark Webber who picked up his first win of the season while Red Bull took their second checkered flag of the season. For Webber, it was also his second win at the Monaco Grand Prix.
There’s something special about the Monaco Grand Prix that drives everyone to push a little bit harder. It could be the history of the race which dates back to 1929. It could be the glamourous harbour side location. And it could be the fact that the streets of Monte Carlo form one of the most demanding race tracks in the world. Even the slightest mistake can send a car into the barrier and end the race early for that driver. Winning one Monaco Grand Prix can be as important to a driver as winning the World Drivers’ Championship.
Mark Webber led away from lights after starting first thanks to a grid penalty given to Michael Schumacher after the Spanish Grand Prix. Behind him, all hell broke loose. Schumacher and Felipe Mass got fast starts from the sixth and seventh, respectively, and got four-wide in the run to turn one alongside Fernando Alonso and Romain Grosjean. One of the Ferraris and Grosjean banged wheels which sent the Lotus into Schumacher. That sent Grosjean sideways and Schumacher banging into the barrier. Grosjean was out instantly while Michael carried on. Further back, Pastor Maldonado ran into the back of Pedro de la Rosa. The Williams lost the front wing and parked in the hairpin which forced the deployment of the safety car.
After the safety car came in, Webber drove away with the race. He never opened a large gap but he was never in any serious danger of being passed. The Aussie did lose the on the exchange of pit stops as Sebastian Vettel ran long on his first stint because of starting on the prime tyres. After Vettel made his mandatory change onto the option tyres, Webber was back out front for good. Even a late sprinkle couldn’t keep him from slipping up.
Nico Rosberg started second and held that position to the finish. Fernando Alonso used some quick laps during the pit stop exchange to leapfrog Lewis Hamilton for third. Similarly, it was pit strategy that allowed Vettel to climb from 10th to 4th at the finish. Hamilton finished in 5th position to mark his first finish of they year that wasn’t 3rd or 8th. Completing the points paying positions were Felipe Massa, Paul di Resta, Nico Hulkenberg, Kimi Raikkonen and Bruno Senna.
Before I go on with a look at the news, I think Michael Schumacher is worthy of some acknowledgement in this space. Formula One’s elder statesman scored his first pole since the French Grand Prix in July 2006 making it an almost six-year gap between poles for the seven-time World Drivers’ Champion. He didn’t get to start on pole as a result of a penalty from the Spanish Grand Prix for driving through the back of Bruno Senna.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that if Schumacher started on pole, it wouldn’t have translated to anything. Schumacher started from sixth and was involved in that incident in the first corner as he went four-wide with Alonso, Massa and Grosjean. Presumably, Schumacher received some damage from that collision. He later retired due to a mechanical issue that slowed his car. It’s not known whether the issue was related to that Lap 1 contact with the barrier. If it wasn’t related and if Schumacher had started on pole, he very well could have gone on to win the race.
In an interview with CNN, Bernie Ecclestone said that all teams had signed the new Concorde Agreement which will run from the start of next season through the end of 2020. When pressed whether that meant that Mercedes had finally signed the Concorde Agreement after threatening to withdraw from the sport, Bernie dodged the question and suggested that Mercedes would comment further when they wanted.
The controversy over Mercedes holding out on the Concorde Agreement started with complaints over who would get shares of F1 as part of the IPO of ownership of the sport and revenue distribution bonuses which would see them miss out because of the name changes from Honda to Brawn to Mercedes over the last five years. Mercedes was also the only of the “big four teams” not to get special incentive above the standard Concorde Agreement. Ferrari, Red Bull, Williams and McLaren were all considered important enough to the sport to give special deals to in order to break the Formula One Teams Association and get FOM the best deal possible.
Mercedes feels (and justifiably so) that they are just as “historically significant” (the official term used so as FOM could give special incentive to certain teams) to F1 as the four other teams. Mercedes has been in motorsport since the first Grand Prix (though they we’re F1 Grands Prix) in 1901. As Mercedes, they won nine races and two World Drivers’ Championships in their two seasons as a manufacturer in 1954 and 1955. The lineage of the current Mercedes team dates back to Tyrrell who were bought out by BAR and became Honda, Brawn and Mercedes subsequently. In some 48 years in F1, that team has accumulated 43 wins, four World Drivers’ Championships (3 Tyrrell with Jackie Stewart and 1 Brawn with Jenson Button) and two World Constructors’ Championship (1 Tyrrell and 1 Brawn).
The big concern for Formula One wouldn’t be angering Mercedes to the point that they close the team down. Undoubtedly, someone else would step in to purchase the remnants of a team that can win races and championships. It would be a concern that Mercedes withdraws completely from the sport. If Mercedes withdraws from the sport as an engine manufacturer, that would be potentially catastrophic for the sport. Mercedes currently supplies engines to three teams. Renault is already maxed out with four teams, Ferrari is supplying three teams and Cosworth is supplying two teams. With PURE entering a new manufacturer in 2014, there won’t be a shortage of suppliers. There will be a problem with teams being forced to choose between a currently slow (though allegedly not uncompetitive) Cosworth and the unproven PURE for the Brawn/Mercedes, McLaren and Force India.
Naturally, the race weekend after Pirelli offered to make special qualifying tyres for Q3, we see nine of the ten cars set times. Still, if you’re a spectator at the track and your favourite driver doesn’t set a time in the run for the pole, you would have to feel disappointed. Given the importance of having as many fresh sets of tyres as possible, the strategy of skipping Q3 makes sense. The problem with using that strategy is that I don’t recall anyone winning a race that wasn’t mixed up due to weather by skipping Q3.
To get all cars on track, Pirelli has offered to make a special tyres specifically for Q3 which will force all teams to make a qualifying run. Presumably, teams would be able to choose their preferred starting tyre ahead of the race. Pirelli motorsport boss Paul Hembry says that a compound can be developed and produced almost immediately or they can supply an extra set of tyres which would be earmarked specifically for Q3 use. Giving teams extra tyres would solve any issues with a lack of Q3 action. However, teams say that fans like tyre strategy. Fans liking pit strategy was the same reason why refuelling was eliminated, right? Fans want to see racing on track. They tolerate strategy because prior to roughly 2010, passing was nearly impossible to come by so strategy and technology became the focus as it was the only interesting part of the races.
The next race is in two weeks and its first of the three races this season in the Americas. It’s the Canadian Grand Prix from the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. Despite only being two races into its five-race agreement with FOM, Bernie Ecclestone is already negotiating for the next agreement by threatening to take the race away unless there is some work performed to improve the permanent facilities at the track like the pit garages and VIP/sponsor entertainment area. Bernie has said that he expects to get an agreement officially signed without too much drama. Any renovations would be a logistical nightmare given the island location of the circuit and the fact that there isn’t too much spare space for construction around the circuit. It will be a situation that should be monitor as the Canadian GP is consistently one of the more exciting races of the season.
The problem comes with planned student protests around the race weekend. Currently, Quebec university students are protesting a planned tuition increase that will be phased in over the next five years. Over that period of time, tuition will increase approximately 75%. Based on my research, the average undergraduate tuition would increase from about $2,100 per year to about $3,800. While this would close (but not eliminate) the gap to what Quebec students pay in tuition compared to the rest of the country, students still aren’t happy with the rate increase and are engaging in massive, occasionally violent, protests. These protests have been linked with a smoke bombing of major stations of Montreal’s subway system.
The obvious immediate comparison is to the situation in the run up to the Bahrain Grand Prix. Formula One makes a point of distancing itself from any political situation. Certainly, the protests are nowhere close to the violence of those prior to Bahrain. However, after the controversy of F1 going to Bahrain in the middle of protests and students threatening to disrupt the Grand Prix, Formula One will have to start thinking about its reputation in the public eye.
Anyway, back to the race. The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is hybrid circuit that combines parts of a permanent road course with public streets of the Ile Notre Dame in Montreal. As such, it’s more similar to the Albert Park circuit in Australia than the streets of Monte Carlo in Montreal. After the last couple of races, you have to like Red Bull to continue their form and run up front. Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso would be a contender given how much he has gotten out of that car but Montreal is hard on tyres. Drivers who can stretch the life of their tyres will be at an advantage. As such, you have to think that Jenson Button has a strong chance to repeat as race winner in Canada.