Postcards from… Monaco
A race to remember
Sometimes, the raw facts don't tell the full story. Anyone looking at just the race and qualifying results of this year's Monaco Grand Prix would be forgiven for thinking that last weekend was the usual walk in the park for Max Verstappen, who racked up his 39th career victory on Sunday to become the most winning driver in Red Bull's history. But the opposite was in fact true: the two-time world champion had to call upon every ounce of his talent – both in qualifying and the race – to claim his second win around the sinuous streets of the principality.
The weekend didn't get off to a perfect start for Max, who wasn't entirely happy with the base set-up of his car. He was also faced with a phalanx of rivals (starting with his team mate Sergio Perez, not to mention Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso and the two Ferrari drivers) who saw Monaco as a perfect opportunity to bring the Dutchman's imperious winning streak to an end. The first turning point came at the beginning of FP3 on Saturday, when Verstappen punched in a lap time that was more than half a second quicker than his nearest rival. The gauntlet had been well and truly thrown down: this was to be a weekend of attack rather than defence. Just a few hours later, what turned out to be a truly spectacular qualifying session got underway, with four drivers fighting for pole. Then Verstappen put it beyond doubt in Q3 by gaining 288 thousandths of a seconds over Alonso in the final sector alone to deprive the Spaniard of pole. On race day, the Aston Martin driver opted for hard tyres on the grid to drive a longer first stint and attempt an ‘overcut', but Verstappen had him covered: Red Bull's superstar extended the life of the mediums beyond all expectations and only made his pit stop on lap 55, literally just as the weather threatened to rain on his parade. Those few buttock-clenching laps he had to negotiate on an increasingly slippery track with old tyres were a work of genius after two days of extraordinary commitment, capped with a dominant run to the flag on intermediates.
Monaco's wheel of fortune
Who would have bet any money at all on an Alpine podium finish before the Monaco Grand Prix? Not many people, but this was actually the closest thing to the team's home race, now that the French Grand Prix is no more. The squad arrived with the controversial comments of CEO Laurent Rossi ringing in their ears, not to mention a nagging feeling of underachievement in the first five races of this year. After a subdued start to the weekend, the Anglo-French outfit picked up the pace in qualifying, with Esteban Ocon briefly on provisional pole before being overtaken by Charles Leclerc, Fernando Alonso, and Max Verstappen respectively. The grid penalty handed to the Ferrari driver promoted Ocon to third and from there his podium dream was born, given the notorious difficulty of overtaking in Monaco. But before even contemplating that, there were 78 laps to survive on a track where anything can happen – and often does. Through it all, when conditions became increasingly treacherous as the rain fell harder, Ocon didn't put a foot wrong and even suckered the experienced Carlos Sainz into making a mistake. The icing on the cake for Alpine was seventh place for Pierre Gasly too, who contributed to a net gain of 21 points, which was enough for them to climb to fifth place in the manufacturers' championship. If Rossi's incendiary comments in Miami were intended to galvanise the team into action, they certainly succeeded.
Good news or bad for Alonso?
Fernando Alonso had marked out 28 May as a special day on his Twitter account, well aware that the Monaco weekend would be a rare opportunity to seal the 33rd win of his incredible career: nearly 11 years after the 32nd. So if he had raised a glass with his close friends in the evening, would he have considered that glass to be half full or half empty? In other words: was it better to celebrate a second place (not only his best result of the season, but also his best result since the 2014 Hungarian Grand Prix) or commiserate on missed opportunity to win? In the end, he left Monaco with a smile on his face: although one that was perhaps not quite as radiant as the show he put on earlier for the cameras. Truth is, Fernando already knew that he had lost his chance on Saturday in qualifying, when he was passed by the flying Dutchman, Max Verstappen, despite giving everything that he and his Aston Martin had in the tank. When it came to the race, Alonso tried everything he could, putting pressure on his rival with an alternative strategy, but Verstappen beat the Spaniard at his own game: Alonso, on the hard tyres, ended up being first to stop. At that point, the Spaniard decided to put on the mediums when it was starting to rain – a mistake, in retrospect – and so second place at the finish was a fair reflection of events, made all the more gratifying for Alonso by the disaster that befell his team mate Lance Stroll: the only driver not to finish the race.
Things move quickly in Formula 1, so the next date with destiny and that elusive 33rd win to mark on Twitter could come as early as this weekend in Barcelona. Winning there in front of his home crowd would be a dream for the Spaniard: especially as this was also the scene of his last win on May 12, 2013. Victory there be a unique way to square a circle; one of those fairy tales that only sport can deliver.
A special livery for the Triple Crown
McLaren is having a difficult season, which started off with a management reshuffle at the head of the squad, followed by the swift realisation that this year's car has fallen short of expectations. But the team led by Zak Brown and Andrea Stella has not let its head drop, continuing to fly the flag for a name that is second only to Ferrari when it comes to Formula 1 success; and is still the only outfit to have won the Monaco Grand Prix, Indy 500, and Le Mans 24 Hours. Last weekend, the team decided to run a homage livery to celebrate this ‘Triple Crown', taking to the track at the same time in Monaco and at Indianapolis, where the 107th edition of the fabled Indy 500 was taking place.
Of the two McLaren teams, the Americans came out theoretically on top, with Alexander Rossi claiming fifth at Indy while Lando Norris could do no better than ninth in Monaco. But the Formula 1 squad also managed to put their other driver, Oscar Piastri, into the top 10, and showed themselves to be extremely competitive in the wet. Lando's speed on the intermediates was truly eyebrow-raising: at one point he was going considerably faster than Max Verstappen, managing to catch the leader back up despite having been lapped. Norris even said that he wanted to pass Verstappen, and that with a bit more patience he could have gone directly onto the intermediates from the hard tyre, with the end result being a considerably higher score than the three points the two drivers eventually netted. That's all in the realms of hypothesis but one thing is sure: based on what happened in Monaco, McLaren is sure to be praying for more rain in future.
Who watches the watchers?
There's no shortage of stalkers in Monaco: either those chasing VIPs (real or imaginary) in the paddock, on the grid, and especially on the shiny yachts that pack the harbour throughout the grand prix weekend. But there's a different breed of stalker too: one that wears a team uniform and takes a strong professional interest in every detail of their rivals' creations, especially in Monaco, where it's possible to get closer to the cars than anywhere else.
As well as these more obvious stalkers, there are hidden paparazzi: disguised as photographers in various degrees of professionalism, who are given precise instructions as to what to look out for and capture for posterity – both when the cars are out on track but especially when they come to an unscheduled halt due to an accident or technical problem. The beauty of this particular situation for an F1 spy is that it's often necessary to lift the cars out of the way using a crane, thereby exposing their most intimate technical secrets – such as the floor – to an eager audience. The voyeurs got what they came for on two occasions during Saturday. After Lewis Hamilton ended up in the barriers at Turn 5 during the closing stages of FP3, the ‘B-spec' Mercedes gave away its innermost secrets while being plucked to safety by a handily-placed crane. An even bigger prize was revealed at the start of qualifying, when Sergio Perez took a trip into the wall. The widely-publicised images of the Red Bull being dangled in the air were not what the team's technical guru Adrian Newey wanted to see. And not only because one of his drivers had just ruled himself out of the most important qualifying of the year.