Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix always had the makings of a classic. As I wrote in my pre-race preview, wet races around the streets of the principality have seen the greats in Formula 1 history flourish.
And yesterday’s race was no exception.
Lewis Hamilton’s status as a legend of the sport has been debated for some time. When he crossed the line to win his third world championship in Austin last October, the enormity of the achievement surely made such a moniker fitting.
Yet in the months that followed, questions began to be asked about Hamilton’s focus. A run of eight races without a win – seven of which were won by Mercedes teammate and perennial rival Nico Rosberg – plus a crash in Spain that had hints of desperation could have made us think twice about Hamilton.
It was perhaps fitting that the emphatic answer came at the track where Hamilton stunned F1 in 2007 and 2008, winning the latter – not to mention it being where his hero, Ayrton Senna, made his name.
Lining up third on the grid, Hamilton knew that another defeat to Rosberg would deal another significant blow to his title hopes. 43 points down heading into the weekend, he cut his usual lonely figure on the drivers’ parade, sitting alone at the other end of the truck as he focused on the race ahead.
Johnny Herbert asked Hamilton on the parade why he was so grumpy.
“I’m not grumpy, who said that?” Lewis replied.
“Don’t listen to the noise. That’s the problem with people, they listen to what other people say.”
Hamilton has always preferred to do his talking on-track, but starting third under the safety car behind Rosberg and pole-man Daniel Ricciardo – who appeared to have the fastest car in Monaco – the challenge ahead was huge.
Once the track had dried enough to allow the safety car to peel in and the race turned green, it became clear that Hamilton had the edge over Rosberg.
Ricciardo eased away in the opening laps, running almost three seconds per lap quicker than Rosberg at points. By the time Mercedes made the call for Rosberg to let Hamilton by – which he did obediently, recognizing himself that the race was slipping away – the gap was 13 seconds.
As the track dried and intermediate tires became the order of the day for most of the field, Mercedes rolled the dice and kept Hamilton out on his worn wets, hoping that conditions would quickly become good enough for slicks. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely.
What we saw in Monaco was the Hamilton/Mercedes partnership working at its very best. Seeing a driver and team work in harmony to dig themselves out of a hole together is quite rare in modern motorsport – and given the struggles both parties have faced in recent weeks, it was all the more impressive.
Yet we cannot ignore the fact Red Bull threw the race away. The early lead that Ricciardo forged should have been enough for him to win it, only for the dud pit stop on lap 32 to undo all of the hard work.
Ricciardo came in one lap after Hamilton for slick tires, the initial call being for softs. However, after seeing Hamilton bolt on a set of ultra-softs, Red Bull made a late switch to super-softs – so late that the crew did not have time to ready the tires in time. Ricciardo was sat in his pit box for 10 seconds, waiting for the wheels to be attached. The margin to Hamilton at pit exit was minuscule – but enough to decide the race.
Nevertheless, Hamilton still had to hold the faster Ricciardo back and manage his ultra-soft tires. Pirelli’s pre-race prediction was that the new compound – making its race debut in Monaco – could last a maximum of 25 laps. Hamilton made his last 47.
“I’m telling you that was the longest run, particularly after I stopped for those tires,” Hamilton said.
“It was crazy how long that was and to understand how much you can use the tires, because you don’t know what end they’re going to go. I think the last lap was the time they were literally about to drop off, but thank God they stayed on.”
The sight of Hamilton and Ricciardo running nose-to-tail for much of the second half of the race was reminiscent of some of the classic battles in Monaco. Senna/Mansell? Not quite. But it was nevertheless a brutal fight, slugging blows back and forth. And somehow Hamilton stayed ahead.
It may have been lucky, but this will nevertheless go down as a career-defining victory for Hamilton. It is the win that ended his drought and banished the demons of the early season.
And, most importantly, it has brought him back to within striking distance of Rosberg in the title fight.
What happened to Nico in Monaco?
For a man who had won every race he had finished in 2016 and the last three in Monaco, Rosberg’s display on Sunday was massively underwhelming.
It was a race where drivers such as Hamilton, Ricciardo, Sergio Perez (P3) and Fernando Alonso (P5) stood out. Rosberg looked totally out of his depth.
After tip-toeing his way through the damp conditions, Rosberg fell behind Perez, Sebastian Vettel and Alonso when making the switch to slicks. A busy pit lane meant Mercedes had to hold him for a couple of seconds, costing him positions.
Even armed with his Mercedes though, Rosberg couldn’t fight back. The one time he did get past Alonso at the Nouvelle Chicane, he ran wide and was forced to hand the position back. On the final lap, his ultra-soft tires – the same compound Hamilton had made last – lost all grip, causing him to lose another position to Nico Hulkenberg. P7 and a measly haul of six points was his lot for Monaco.
“I don’t know what the reason was. It was just very difficult out there on the intermediates,” Rosberg told NBCSN after the race.
“I just had no confidence out there, so I had to stay quite far away from the limit. Then after that, I had to let Lewis past to give him the chance to win, because with my pace I wouldn’t have had the possibility.
“So gave that a go, and then of course he did win, so good for the team. For me, I lost out a lot in the pit stops and everything, so that was disappointing.”
For Rosberg, such a disappointing display could not have come at a worse time. The German is currently in crunch-talks with Mercedes regarding a new contract, with the sticking point at the moment being the length. This performance will have done little to strengthen his case.
Rosberg has certainly been impressive this year. His four straight wins may have been comfortable, but they were perfectly executed. It is when Rosberg is thrown in at the deep end and comes under pressure – think Hungary 2014, Belgium 2014 and the 2015 US GP – that the cracks begin to show.
In 2008 we saw Felipe Massa be made to look rather average by Hamilton in a damp Monaco. Fast forward seven years, and once again the Briton has turned the tide in the title race.
What was 43 points is now 24 points. Lewis Hamilton is well and truly back in the championship race.
Well, that’s if you ever seriously thought he was out of it to begin with…