Vettel victorious as Hamilton stumbles on key championship weekend

Where the Monaco Grand Prix lacked on-track action it made up for in championship importance, with Sebastian Vettel leaving the principality commanding a 25-point lead over Lewis Hamilton in the drivers standings.

The German’s increasingly dominant position in the championship wasn’t won purely on pace alone, however, with the Ferrari driver taking advantage of an off-colour weekend for his Mercedes rival and a questionable strategy dealt to his pole-sitting teammate.

Though Vettel undoubtedly possessed the pace to seal the deal, the paddock was abuzz with talk of the team enacting its longstanding policy of having a number-one driver supported by a number-two teammate.

Kimi Räikkönen started from pole after blitzing qualifying, in a now rare show of speed for the 2007 champion.

Lewis Hamilton, on the other hand, had struggled to set up his car to extract the maximum from Pirelli’s tyres, and he exited qualifying without reaching the top-10 shootout to take P13 on the grid.

With passing notoriously difficult in Monte Carlo — and nearly impossible for teammates, who are advised against risking damaging both cars in an on-track spat — the Monaco Grand Prix should have been a slam dunk for Räikkönen.

But paddock chins were wagging early — was it wise to let Räikkönen, already 55 points off his teammate’s championship lead, prevent Vettel from inflicting maximum damage against the toiling Hamilton?

Blatant team orders via team radio, though legal, were not forthcoming, however — but the strategy dealt to Kimi Räikkönen as he led the grand prix was sufficiently nonsensical to have many believing the Finn had been massaged out of the way.

When the optimal strategy was to run as long as possible on the race-starting ultrasoft tyre, Räikkönen was stopped on lap 34, which was not only five laps earlier than Vettel but also dropped him into lapped traffic, slowing him down on his first lap on new tyres.

It was then up to Vettel to put together sizzling laps into and out of the pits, which the German duly did, to take the lead from his hampered teammate.

“Obviously we have certain rules, and we all know it,” Räikkönen unhappily told Sky Sports F1, his body language telling.

Hamilton drove a brilliant damage limitation race, however, with his team devising a clever strategy to get him back into the points.

By leaving his only pit stop until lap 46, well after other driver had switched to new tyres, Hamilton was able to rise to sixth place, and the Briton lost just one place to Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz when he eventually changed to new rubber.

“Honestly I could not be happier to come from there to there at the most impossible circuit to overtake,” Hamilton told TV reporters after the race. “They said I would leave here with tenth place, so to get seventh, I’m so happy.”

Red Bull Racing returned to the podium for just the third time this season, with Daniel Ricciardo using a long first stint to pass short-stopping rivals Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen.

Ricciardo was devastated to set just the fifth-fastest time in qualifying, slamming his team for releasing him into traffic on his final lap, but the Australian was happy to recover to pressure Kimi Räikkönen for second at the end of the race.

The points will be welcome relief for Red Bull Racing, which extends its perilously narrow 19-point margin over midfield team Force India in the constructors standings to 44 points on a day its rival failed to finish in the top 10 with either car.