“I think he feels, perhaps, he has a lot to prove.”Lewis Hamilton’s assessment of Max Verstappen – the latest rival to offer a legitimate challenge to him for the world drivers’ championship – pricked up plenty of ears across the paddock as Formula 1 prepared for its first Monaco Grand Prix in two years.
The opening salvos between the pair in the 2021 F1 season certainly showed that Hamilton had little need to prove his prowess to Verstappen. Not just through the three wins from four races, but in the nature in which he’d claimed them.
Beating a faster Verstappen in Bahrain, passing him in Portugal and then hunting down the defenceless Red Bull in Spain to stamp his authority on the early phase of what may well prove a season-long duel between arguably the two greatest talents of their generations.
Verstappen had prevailed in Imola after offering no quarter to his rival at the start. But despite the early advantage for the seven-time world champion, Verstappen had comfortably held ground with him every step of the way, finishing no lower than second every time.
What further need would Verstappen have to show he is not just a viable threat to Hamilton’s crown, but a truly dangerous one at that?
But with all eyes on the two championship protagonists heading into the most important qualifying session of the year, Charles Leclerc and Ferrari decided it was finally time instead for them to reintroduce themselves to the watching world.
A stunning performance saw the hometown hero and the Scuderia well and truly crash the party at the front of the field – before a crash of a different kind threatened to kick them right back out of it.
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What the grid for the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix might have been were it not for Leclerc’s final minute Swimming Pool shunt is purely academic, but it meant that the gap between Hamilton and Verstappen would be the widest of the season so far – Verstappen on the front row, Hamilton only seventh.
“Saturday is the day,” a disappointed Hamilton admitted. “So obviously that really does put the win out of reach.”
But for the first time in over 20 races, that win was now within reach of Ferrari and Leclerc. Having secured the most prestigious pole on the calendar, Leclerc went to sleep on Saturday night in his home anticipating that he would realise the fantasy he would’ve played out hundreds of times in his mind growing up – winning his home grand prix for Ferrari.
“I couldn’t put it out of my mind,” he said. “It was difficult last night to sleep well, obviously I had that in my mind I was quite scared about the gearbox. But we had the good news this morning that it’s all fine and I’m happy.”
But the time the clocks rolled to 3pm, Leclerc would have wished he’d stayed in bed. On his first lap back in his repaired SF21 Leclerc immediately realised all was not well with his car.
“No… no… the gearbox, guys…”
What was later diagnosed to be a driveshaft problem – revealed to have been overlooked in Ferrari’s damage assessments – had broken hearts from Monte Carlo to Marenello and far beyond them both.
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“In the garage it was very, very difficult to feel okay,” admitted a dejected Leclerc. “But I guess now I’m getting used to this feeling here, unfortunately. I’ve never finished a race here. This year I don’t get to start it from pole so it’s a difficult one to take.”
Tragedy for Leclerc had become a tantalising opportunity for Verstappen and Red Bull. Having inherited the prime grid slot and with Hamilton so far back, it would be nothing less than an abject failure not to convert this chance to strike an early blow against Mercedes and render all those previous defeats obsolete.
With the sprint to Sainte Devote likely to determine the destination of the 25 points for that afternoon, Verstappen lined up his RB16B as far forward in his grid slot as he did. His front wheel was beyond the yellow guidance line but, crucially, short of the white line and therefore legally positioned. Those few centimetres could have proved the difference when the lights went out as Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas raced side-by-side down to the first corner, the Red Bull prevailing to pull up the hill for the first time with the lead.
While Hamilton could not find a way by the AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly ahead of him, Antonio Giovinazzi threw caution to the wind and dived past Esteban Ocon’s ninth-placed Alpine around the outside of Mirabeau, showing no appetite for caution despite reaching Q3 for the first time this season.
All 19 starters had successfully negotiated the first racing lap of Monte Carlo for two years without significant incident. With the vast majority of the field on the soft tyres for their first stint, the predictable pattern of gaps between participants quickly began to emerge.
Verstappen pulled a handful of seconds on Bottas, content to control the pace out front rather than press to disappear off into the distance. Lando Norris was running well in fourth, but after going outside the track limits one too many times, he received a very early black-and-white flag warning on lap 19 – putting the McLaren driver under severe pressure not to repeat the error for the remaining 60 laps.
Hamilton, as he had expected, could not find any way to get close to Gasly, even with the theoretical raw pace advantage of his Mercedes. The team planned to keep Hamilton out until after Gasly made the switch to the hard tyres, hoping to unleash Hamilton’s full pace potential with clear air. However, Mercedes’ strategy was scuppered when their tyres refused to cooperate.
Bottas began to struggle, dropping back from the leader. When Hamilton’s lap times began showing similar signs of slipping, Mercedes called the championship leader into the pits on lap 30.
“On Valtteri’s car we were finished with the tyres and on Lewis’ car when we analysed the tyres after the stop, there wasn’t anything left either,” later explained Mercedes CEO Toto Wolff.
AlphaTauri wasted no time in covering Mercedes’ stop, bringing Gasly in and out directly in front of Hamilton – to his disgust.
“How am I still behind him, man?,” bemoaned Hamilton over the radio. “I don’t understand, guys. I saved the tyres to go longer – you’ve made me stop before everybody.”
But that wasn’t all for Hamilton, who could only watch helplessly as Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin – which had been behind him in the opening stint – executed the very strategy that Hamilton had hoped to perform and emerged ahead of both he and Gasly, resulting in a dramatic side-by-side sprint with the AlphaTauri up the hill to Massenet, with Vettel ultimately emerging ahead, picking up two positions.
“What has just happened, guys?,” a baffled Hamilton vented. “I’ve just lost two places.”
If he expected race engineer Peter Bonnington to offer reassurance in reply, he was sorely mistaken.
“And Lewis, we’re under threat of losing position to Perez as well – I’m sorry about that.”
“I’ve lost position to Perez?”, Hamilton’s incredulity now bordering on anger.
But Hamilton’s frustration was only mirroring that of his Mercedes team, who were seeing their weekend rapidly unravelling. Bottas had been called in for fresh rubber, but another calamitous pit stop for the team the right-front wheel nut stripped of its teeth, rendering it immovable and preventing the team from fitting the final new wheel onto his car.
Bottas was forced out the race in one of the most agonising fashions for any driver to have their race ended and a chance of competing for a Monaco win taken away. Now, with only Hamilton left in seventh, it became a matter of damage limitation for the Brackley-based team.
Having watched on as their rival’s race fell to pieces, Red Bull and Verstappen had completed their single stop for the afternoon with a distinct lack of drama and were staring gratefully at the open goal that Mercedes had presented them.
Bottas’s cruel misfortune promoted Carlos Sainz Jnr to second place, Lando Norris now third in the uniquely Gulf-liveried McLaren.
But the Gulf branding could also act as a nominative metaphor for the chasm in performance between Norris and McLaren team mate Daniel Ricciardo, who was never on the pace all weekend as he struggled to overcome his discomfort with the handling nuances of his McLaren around the Monaco streets.
Eventually, on lap 53, Norris was far enough ahead of his 12th-placed team mate to put a lap on him. With a multi-year contract extension announced earlier in the week, Norris was yet again demonstrating why Andreas Seidl and Zak Brown were so keen to keep the 21-year-old in their stable for the foreseeable future.
Hamilton was deliberately keeping space to Gasly ahead, feeling that it was pointless to run directly under the rear wing of the AlphaTauri and eat into his tyres if there was no reasonable opportunity for him to pass.
Eventually, when Lance Stroll finally pitted after a long opening stint on hard tyres, Hamilton and Mercedes chose to make the most of the gap behind them and bring him in for soft tyres for a run at the fastest lap of the race and the bonus point it offered.
Hamilton succeeded in his endeavour, taking the fastest lap and helping to further limit the points swing from what looked like an inevitable Verstappen win, albeit in the smallest way possible. That was little concern to Red Bull, who were on course to take not just a strong Monaco Grand Prix victory, but the lead in both championships.
With no Safety Car periods and hardly any yellow flags of any description, the pace of the race had been historically fast, but Verstappen had been in full control over the 78 laps.
As Verstappen slid his car deftly around Anthony Noghes for the final time and powered down the famous pit straight to claim his first Monaco triumph, tennis great Serena Williams waved the chequered flag to signal not just a race win for Verstappen, but that they now led both world championships for the first time this season.
Advantage, Red Bull.
“It’s nice,” understated Verstappen. “I’ve never been on the podium and then the first time in, straight away a win.
“So it’s a bit of redemption for all the other races here because I never really had a lovely feeling on a Sunday here.”
Almost 10 seconds after him, Carlos Sainz Jnr crossed the line to claim second place and his first podium for Ferrari. While personally happy with the result – and rightfully so – Sainz was all too aware of how bittersweet a day it had been for his new team.
“The whole circumstances of the weekend – having Charles on pole, me missing out in qualifying yesterday on a good lap – it maybe doesn’t taste as good as it should,” Sainz conceded.
“But I’m sure when I reflect back on the weekend, I’ll be very happy and proud of the weekend. I think Ferrari, as a team, they need to be proud about the car and the step they’ve done this year.”
Norris took his second podium of the season in third – not a bad way to celebrate a unique livery for the weekend and his freshly inked contract extension.
“It’s been a cool weekend, especially here in Monaco,” reflected Norris. “It’s even more special than any other track. I’ll cherish it – I’m just hoping there’s plenty more of them and we can do that at other tracks, because I think that’s going to be the harder thing to do.”
Perez claimed fourth for Red Bull, while Sebastian Vettel secured his first points finish for his new team with a fifth place finish, making strong progress up the field in a manner reminiscent of the Vettel from years gone by.
Gasly took sixth in a much-needed positive weekend for AlphaTauri – and conscious of the good company he had been in throughout the second half of the race. “I was sandwiched in between four time world champion and seven time world champion,” he reflected, “so there are worse days…”
Hamilton’s assessment of his team’s weekend after crossing the line seventh was frank.
“We underperformed as a team all weekend from the get-go so we’ll just put our focus onto the next race,” the ex-championship leader summarised.
Stroll and Ocon claimed eighth and ninth, but it was Giovinazzi who was the most pleased to have secured his and Alfa Romeo’s first point of the season in tenth, one place ahead of team mate Kimi Raikkonen.
“The pace throughout the weekend was really good and this top-ten finish is the reward for it,” said the final point-scorer.
“On a different track, where overtaking is possible, we could have been in eighth, but we need to be happy with this result and the way the team delivered an excellent weekend.”
The Monaco Grand Prix had failed to produce a spectacular race, but it had succeeded in giving us a more intriguing championship balance than when the teams had arrived at the Principality at the beginning of the week.
Beyond the tables having turned in Verstappen and Red Bull’s favour, the resurgence of Ferrari threatens to see the stranglehold that the two title favourites hold over the top spot in the field loosen just slightly.
The frustrations of the day had exposed the temperamental side of Hamilton’s ultra-competitive persona for the first time in this young 2021 season. After his Wednesday comments about Verstappen feeling like has has a lot to prove, it had been he who had come out of the weekend insisting he could not afford another like it in this season’s title battle.
As for Verstappen, sitting pretty with the trophy in hand and the championship lead, he could afford a wry retort to his rival’s comment five days earlier:
“Actions always speak louder than words. I think that’s a good lesson after this weekend.
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