Max Verstappen is in control of the championship for the first time in his Formula 1 career after a cruise to victory in Monaco, but title rival Lewis Hamilton was left fuming after a series of team mistakes left him languishing in seventh.
The streets of Monte Carlo were always likely to favour Red Bull Racing, the team’s longstanding aerodynamic concept often delivering strongly in the principality, but the scale at which Mercedes struggled — or, at least, Hamilton struggled — came as a surprise.
The Briton sought from qualifying to after the race to shift the blame for his poor result and loss of the title lead to the team, and Toto Wolff appeared to accept the garage, not the cockpit, was the source of Mercedes’s worst result of the season — difficult to argue against considering also that Valtteri Bottas’s promising race was cut short by a wheel gun problem.
Filling the second two steps on the podium instead were Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz and McLaren’s Lando Norris in strong performances for both. It was the Spaniard’s best result and first podium in red, while the Briton was enjoying a second trip to the rostrum this season after defending hard against Sergio Perez late in the race — and after lapping bewildered teammate Daniel Ricciardo.
Formula 1’s first trip to the principality since the onset of the pandemic was welcomed warmly by all, except the weather, which was mild at best for practice on Thursday fand turned colder under cloudy conditions for qualifying on Saturday. At a circuit that already did little to generate tyre temperature, putting energy into the rubber for an all-important qualifying lap would be the principal challenge.
Ferrari was an unexpected standout, with Charles Leclerc leading Carlos Sainz in afternoon practice despite Leclerc missing virtually all FP1 with a gearbox problem.
Red Bull Racing and Mercedes were thereabouts, with Hamilton and Verstappen third and fourth in FP2, but how the two teams used the traditional Friday break to prepare for qualifying would prove decisive.
Red Bull Racing required only tweaks to dial some understeer out of the RB16B, but for Mercedes the story was a little more complex.
A key thread to the campaign narrative has been the W11’s relatively easygoing usage of the tyres relative to the RB16B’s more heavy consumption. While this may over the balance of a summer championship prove a strength, in the relatively cool climes of Monaco it was proving a hindrance.
Hamilton had ideas to solve the car’s warm-up issues through set-up, but the team wasn’t so keen on the effect these tweaks would have on race-day tyre life. It decided instead for a middle-ground approach for Saturday.
To give some credit to the team, it was half right. Valtteri Bottas was much happier on Saturday and was in with a shout for pole before qualifying third and just 0.005s behind Verstappen.
Hamilton, however, was way off the pace. He was 0.7s slower than Verstappen in FP3 and qualified a lowly seventh on the grid with a similar margin to pole-getter Leclerc.
The reigning champion was clearly frustrated that his advice hadn’t been followed up after Thursday — and he wasn’t done paying for the recalcitrant car he now had to deal with on Sunday.
HAMILTON’S RACE UNRAVELS
There was nothing to be gained off the line for Hamilton, and he held sixth — one up after Leclerc’s withdrawal with a drive shaft problem — behind Pierre Gasly and ahead of Sebastian Vettel.
His tyres eventually up to temperature, it was clear his Mercedes was the quicker car in his midfield squabble, but without the substantial pace advantage required to even begin thinking about a pass on track, the Briton knew he’d need strategy to rise up the order and challenge for the podium.
The undercut is ordinarily the go-to strategy, but at Monaco its effectiveness is limited in equal parts due to the lack of degradation from the surface and due to the difficulty with warm-up around the low-energy corners. The ever-present risk of getting caught behind a slower car is also potentially terminal.
But once the race ticked past lap 25 Mercedes was running out of options. It was no longer confident it would have the tyre life to run longer than the midfield as expected — Bottas was already showing signs of near-terminal wear — and so decided it had to commit to stopping early, making Hamilton the first in, on lap 29.
He was covered on the following lap by Gasly, whose in-lap was quick enough to maintain track position.
But the punishment for Mercedes’s gamble had only just begun. Vettel continued to lap, setting times close to his best up to that point of the race despite his ageing soft tyres, and when he stopped on lap 31 he rejoined ahead of Hamilton and side by side with Gasly, who he muscled out of the way by the time they reached Casino Square.
The final blow came on lap 35. Perez had been running behind Vettel, having also qualified poorly but took the opportunity of the cars ahead pitting early to run long and unleash the inherent pace of his RB16B. He took the lead for the briefest of moments on lap 35 and made the most of the lean air before stopping at the end of the lap, and when he emerged from pit lane he was in fourth ahead of Vettel, Gasly and the dejected Hamilton, demoting him a net two places.
It was a risk with a low chance of success, especially considering the principal weakness of the Mercedes package in Hamilton’s hands was tyre warm up, which is the key to executing the undercut effectively, but such was Mercedes’s trouble with tyres this weekend that it felt it couldn’t be confident in running any longer than it did.
The Briton resultantly lost the lead of the championship and will go to Azerbaijan with a four-point deficit.
MERCEDES MAKES THE RACE-DEFINING MISTAKE
As bad as it was for Hamilton, the Monaco Grand Prix was even worse for Valtteri Bottas, for a time the only man in with a shout of challenging Verstappen.
Bottas launched from de facto second behind the Dutchman and go the better start, but Verstappen swept aggressively to the right to cover him, and the Finn was forced to back out of the move and slot into second. He followed the leader closely early in the stint, but by lap 20 he was struggling with his soft tyres and was coming under pressure from Sainz behind.
He dropped more than five second to Verstappen by the time he made his stop on lap 30, which was well out of undercut range anyway, but even if he was to play a role nearer to the end of the race, his chances were cruelled by the right-front wheel gun blunting the wheel nut.
Unable to change the tyre, the team had to retire the car for Bottas’s second DNF of the season, in effect letting Verstappen off the hook to win the race.
THE OVERCUT ALWAYS WINS
Aston Martin was one of the great gainers in the Monaco Grand Prix through the overcut. Not only did Vettel rise from seventh to fifth, but teammate Lance Stroll rose from 12th to eighth with a contrastrategy starting on the hard tyre.
The Canadian earnt one place off the line with a pass on Daniel Ricciardo and then ran until lap 58, rising through the order to eighth as others stopped around him. He’d built such a buffer by the time he stopped that he lost no positions rejoining the race to earn four points.
The same was rule was true in the battle for ninth. Antonio Giovinazzi was holding that net position ahead of Esteban Ocon early in the race when Alfa Romeo stopped the Italian on lap 33. Alpine held off stopping Ocon, who was switching to the medium tyre rather than the hard, until lap 37, and emerged from pit lane ahead of Giovinazzi to take the place.
THE WINNING STRATEGY
Max Verstappen: soft (used) to lap 34, hard (new) to lap 78.