At Monaco on Sunday, Sebastian Vettel started the race on the prime tyres, when the rest of the top 10 were on the option tyres. The prime tyre is more durable, which meant that Vettel could pit quite a bit later than those who started ahead of him.
When the front-runners pitted, Vettel found himself inheriting the lead, and he duly extended it, pulling away from fellow Red Bull driver Mark Webber with ease. It was at that point that the speculation started: was Webber backing the pack up to help Vettel?
Webber himself has dismissed claims that he was assisting Vettel, but the denial is not really necessary. If Red Bull were trying to push Vettel forward, they could have gone for a one-two, rather than fourth place.
The likely implementation of team orders would have been to have Webber hold the field up enough to get Vettel out in the lead after his pitstop, and then have the Red Bull drivers switch places on the track, creating a one-two and giving the win to the more dominant driver on the weekend. Team orders are legal, so the strategy would have been allowed. It would also have been a public declaration of dominance by the World Champions.
Red Bull didn’t do it like that, and the reason is simple: They know, as everyone else in racing knows, that wins are precious. You don’t mess around with the race lead, unless your drivers are already running in genuine, dominant, first and second places. Vettel was out of position, having not pitted, and Webber was already under pressure from those behind him. Any attempt to over-manipulate the race would likely have ended badly.
Webber himself said of the rumours of assistance: “The problem with trying to do that would be that you’re exposing yourself to even more pressure from the guys behind – Nico and Fernando in this case. And then the boys in the pits might mess up Seb’s stop and it would all be for nothing. You always get bitten on the bum when you get fancy. So you just don’t try.”
The rumours have distracted attention from what was, in the end, a very clever strategy by Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull. Vettel started ninth and finished fourth, all because he didn’t run in Q3 and could therefore start on the prime tyres. Red Bull should be applauded for putting together a very successful race weekend.
Nico Rosberg has long been highly regarded as a Formula One driver. He just hasn’t had the car to challenge for wins and championships. In 2012 Mercedes have given him just that, and he is making the most of it.
Rosberg finally topped the podium in China this year, a day after taking his first pole position in dominant fashion. It showed his ability to win races, but didn’t yet single him out as championship challenger. A couple of mediocre races followed, in which Mercedes struggled to match the pace of the front-runners, presumably due to difficulty with the 2012 Pirelli tyres.
At Monaco everything seemed to come right again for Rosberg. Third in qualifying became second on the grid due to team-mate Schumacher’s five place grid penalty from the Spanish Grand Prix. Second on the grid was converted into second in the race, after a mature and measured drive tucked up behind winner Mark Webber.
Rosberg has been seen as a driver with enormous potential for his entire career. This season, he is converting that potential into results. After Monaco, he lies fifth in the championship, only 17 points behind leader Fernando Alonso. With 14 races left in the season nothing is decided yet, but Rosberg has positioned himself to mount a title challenge.
Felipe Massa has been under more pressure than perhaps any other driver in Formula One this season. The Brazilian driver has not won a race since 2008 and has not stood on the podium since 2010. Prior to Monaco, Massa had scored only two points this season, while team mate Fernando Alonso was joint championship leader on 61 points. Massa had a point to prove.
And prove it he did. He didn’t win, stand on the podium, start on pole or even finish ahead of Alonso, but Massa put together a weekend that was more worthy of a Ferrari drive than anything we’ve seen from him all season.
He qualified seventh, just a tenth of a second behind Alonso, to set himself up for a strong race day. And in the race, Massa showed he has the pace to compete at the front of the field. He put Alonso under pressure in the early phase of the race, and after Alonso passed Hamilton in the pitstops, Massa pressured the McLaren driver to the finish.
At the end of the race, Massa was sixth, just 6.195 seconds behind the victorious Mark Webber and over 35 seconds clear of seventh placed Paul di Resta. And there was nothing fortunate about his result. He was on the pace from the start, and harrying those in front of him throughout the race.
Is the competitive Felipe Massa back? It’s difficult to judge from Monaco, due to the unique nature of the twisty street circuit. The Canadian Grand Prix in just under two weeks’ time will be a better indication of his form. Hopefully for Massa, Ferrari and Formula One, the progress will continue.