Race strategy? It wasn’t really possible at Monaco

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The Monaco Grand Prix may not normally be the most thrilling, edge-of-the-seat racing, but no one can ever deny that it’s not short of incident. Sunday was no different. Despite the race doing nothing to appease the growing number of complainers of F1’s current format, it certainly managed to hold the interest until the end.

Monaco may be the most unlikely of settings for a race track. It’s a far cry from the wide, modern arenas designed by Herman Tilke, yet it is a very special venue on the calendar. Having been lucky enough to experience the winning feeling here on a number of occasions myself at McLaren with Coulthard, Raikkonen, Alonso and Hamilton, I can testify that it means something just a little different than at any other GP. The team feel it as much as the winning driver and unsurprisingly, the celebrations are unlike any other race of the year.

I spoke about the methods used to decide a team’s race strategy in my last entry, but in Monte Carlo it’s a different set of parameters that come into play.

Here, track position’s everything and as we’ve seen over the last few races, Mercedes have the current upper hand when it comes to qualifying. Their downfall, on a regular circuit, has been the inability to maintain that position throughout the course of a race as the tires lose performance and rivals are able to pass them during phases of the race when their cars are faster or when their strategies put them at a different comparative pace.

In Monaco a team’s race strategy is largely decided before even arriving at the event, as qualifying high up the order is key to a decent race result. Whereas at other circuits teams may establish cars to be quick in a straight line for example, the thinking being to avoid the threat of attack under DRS zones in the race, the streets of Monte Carlo are different. Here, there was no real need for Mercedes to be too concerned about tires going off or challenges coming from DRS attacks, as no matter what tools are deployed or strategies utilized, the actual act of overtaking is incredibly difficult. As a result, it was all about starting the race from the front row and getting off the line well … which this particular team did very well.

In terms of actual race strategies, there’s very little left to do. The teams outside the top 10 can opt to start on the prime tire, something which would put them onto the faster option, or super soft tire toward the end of the race when the cars were lighter, the track surface a little more grippy and the field a little more spaced out, but the theory still relies on drivers being able to pass slower cars later in the GP. That, unfortunately is the biggest problem here.

As it was, any strategies that were deployed by teams were largely nullified during the afternoon by the incidents bringing out the first appearances of the safety car, and just after midway through, the red flags and resulting restart. No matter what anyone had planned, the opportunity to stop under safety car conditions and not lose track position was there for all and to a certain extent made the rest of the race predictable. When the red flags came out late on and everyone was given the chance to fit new tires on the grid for the restart, it was almost a foregone conclusion to the end.

An excitable Sergio Perez was perhaps the most interesting car to watch on circuit as he muscled his way past his team mate, then Fernando Alonso, finally colliding with Kimi Raikkonen late in the race to take away the last remaining strategic gamble.

Raikkonen, the only contender to restart after the red flag on soft tires, could’ve caused an upset towards the end as the rest of the field on supersofts began to struggle after a long 32 lap stint. In the end Perez’ optimistic lunge caused a puncture to the Lotus and deprived us of the last remaining strategic battle playing out and it was a slightly predictable run to the finish.

This circuit, special though it is in terms of glamor, noise levels and history, never provides the best racing. All the data in the world gained from practice sessions can tell teams the theoretical quickest route from lights out to chequered flag, but ultimately it’s about starting in front and staying there. Mercedes did exactly that, Nico Rosberg drove impeccably, controlling the race and no one else was able to do anything about it.

Their domination here isn’t necessarily indicative of the team’s current performance and the coming races will show how much, or little, they’ve actually improved after their struggles in Spain a few weeks ago.

Marc Priestley can be found on Twitter @f1elvis.

With 200 IndyCar wins in the books, Penske looks for No. 201 at Indy

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The history of Team Penske at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a storied one that features 16 Indy 500 wins, including a pair of four-time winners in Al Unser and Rick Mears, and number of utterly dominant performances.

Yet, they’ll head to this year’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 looking to avenge a pair of relatively subpar performances in each of the last two years.

Power was the only Penske driver to finish in the Top 10 in 2016, with Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud finishing 11th and 19th after fuel strategy intervened late in the race. And last year, all the Penske cars were somewhat down on pace compared to other teams, notably the Honda cars.

Power was the only Penske driver to qualify for the Fast Nine Pole Shootout last year – he qualified ninth. Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves were 18th and 19th in the grid, while Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud were 22nd and 23rd.

And only Castroneves was in winning contention in the final laps as he battled eventual winner Takuma Sato – Montoya was sixth, while Pagenaud was 14th and the only other Penske running at the end. Both Newgarden and Power crashed out on Lap 183.

This year, however, could see a return to the dominant form we’re used to seeing from the Penske outfit. All four cars entered – Pagenaud, Power, Newgarden, and Castroneves – qualified inside the top nine, with Pagenaud and Power on the front row.

They have all been near the front of the time sheets, especially in laps without a tow from another car, and the indication is that the Penske cars may be the fastest ones in the field.

All told, it leads to very high expectations for a team that already expects highly of itself.

Leading the way for Penske is current points leader and defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden. Newgarden’s best Indy 500 finish is third in 2016, but he only has one other Top 10 there – ninth in 2015.

But, with an IndyCar title now under his belt, Newgarden has his eyes set on an Indy 500 win.

Josef Newgarden looks to add an Indy 500 crown to his 2017 championship. Photo: IndyCar

“I think Indianapolis…is certainly next on the list for me,” he detailed in a press conference ahead of qualifying. “It’s not next on the list for the team, they’ve won it many times. The good thing is we have four great opportunities, especially having Helio back. I think we have one of the best opportunities in the entire field to win this race.”

Pagenaud, like Newgarden, is also looking for his first Indy triumph, though his record there isn’t quite as good. He has been fast at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but only has two Top 10s to show for it – eighth in 2013 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and tenth in 2015 in his first year with Penske.

And a Pagenaud win would be somewhat historic – it would be only the fourth time a French driver has won the “500,” and the first since 1920 (Gaston Chevrolet).

Pagenaud explained that this race always holds a place as a top priority, and that success at Indy is all about preparation.

Simon Pagenaud looks to become only the first French driver to win an Indy 500 since Gaston Chevrolet in 1920. Photo: IndyCar

“It really is our number one goal. In Roger and Tim’s heart, it’s the most important one,” Pagenaud declared. “We prepare really hard. The team does a fantastic job at just understanding every bit and component of this new aero kit, trying to extract the best out of the equipment.”

Pagenaud added, “On the driver side, there’s a lot you can do obviously to review the past races, try to focus yourself, try to put yourself into the race before it happens, try to just improve. That’s what we try to do every day. That’s the goal. That’s why this group is so good. We push each other so hard that you always try to push the limits away.”

Power, the man who delivered Penske his 200th IndyCar win, is no stranger to success at IMS, having won the Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course three times. But, he is yet to find Victory Lane on the oval, and that leaves a void in an otherwise stellar career.

Will Power has won the INDYCAR Grand Prix three times, and looks for his first win at the “500” this weekend. Photo: IndyCar

Power spotlighted the opportunity in front of him, and detailed that running in traffic has been a strength thus far through practice.

“It’s fantastic to have that opportunity. Obviously very focused on (trying to win),” he revealed. “I feel like we have a really good opportunity to win this year. I mean, I think Chevrolet has brought a really good engine. I feel like we’re really fast. Running in traffic and such, I felt like we’ve been pretty strong, especially when you get to the front.”

Castroneves is the only Penske driver with Indy 500 wins on his resume. But, with three wins to his name, Castroneves is more than familiar with IMS glory.

Now a part-time IndyCar driver who races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship with the Acura Team Penske outfit, Castroneves’ sole focus is on getting that elusive fourth win.

Helio Castroneves looks to join the four-time winners club at the Indy 500. Photo: IndyCar

And he has momentum on his side too, coming off a debut IMSA win for the Acura Penske outfit at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A fourth Indy 500 win would put an exclamation point on the month for Castroneves.

“I think about it every day,” he said when asked about how often he ponders getting that fourth win. “It was one of those incredible ones, I have phenomenal car, the Pennzoil car was really strong last year. Obviously coming back here, first of all, I want to thank Roger and (team president Tim Cindric) for giving me the opportunity to be back at the Indy 500. It’s such a special place for so many people. Just to be back and able to continue our goal and pursue for the number four, it’s incredible.”

Pagenaud and Power will flank pole sitter Ed Carpenter on the front, starting second and third respectively. Newgarden starts fourth, while Castroneves will start eighth.

Follow@KyleMLavigne