Yesterday’s Monaco Grand Prix is being hailed as a triumph for Nico Rosberg and Mercedes. But the reality is that it was a demonstration of how ridiculous the tyre situation has become in Formula One.
It’s always been difficult to overtake in Monaco. There’s simply not enough space. The track is too narrow to get alongside another car without the door being left open by the driver in front. So it was no surprise that Rosberg was able to win the race from pole position. He and Mercedes just had to make sure their pit stops were neat and tidy, so that he could come out of the pits in the lead every time. They managed to do so comfortably.
Rosberg won the race because he did not, at any stage of the race, push his tyres at all. He therefore ensured that he was on the same tyre strategy as his challengers, and that meant they all pitted at similar times and no-one had a chance to make up any time on the leader while running in clean air. He was there, blocking the road, slowing them all down, for the entire race. All through the field, in fact, the drivers were just looking after their tyres in an attempt to make as few pit stops as possible. They all knew that overtaking was all but impossible, which meant it would be better to be slow at the front than blisteringly fast in the middle of the pack after a pit stop.
An indication of the difficulty of overtaking was provided by Felipe Massa, who started 21st and had only made it up to 15th when he crashed out. Massa drives a Ferrari, one of the quickest cars in the field, but he spent a great deal of time stuck behind Esteban Gutierrez, who has yet to score a point this season in his Sauber.
This year’s F1 cars are fast. So fast, in fact, that Nico Rosberg’s pole position time in Monaco was over half a second faster than the lap record, set by Michael Schumacher in 2004 when Formula One cars still used V10 engines with no rev limits. Rosberg’s pole lap was just under half a second faster than the fastest time set in last year’s qualifying session (also by Michael Schumacher, although he did not start on pole due to a grid penalty). In the history of the Monaco Grand Prix, only in 2005, 2010 and 2011 have faster qualifying laps been recorded than that of Nico Rosberg at this year’s event. (It should be noted that lap records are always set in race conditions, and are therefore not affected by qualifying or practice times).
Considering the speed that is clearly available in this year’s F1 cars, the slow pace of the race itself was appalling. Nico Rosberg’s fastest lap in the race was over three seconds slower than his pole position time. But even that does not tell the full story. In the early part of the race, the leaders were lapping in around 1 minute 23 seconds. Compare that to the fastest lap in a GP2 race on the same weekend – Sergio Canamasas set a time of 1:22.169 in the 42-lap GP2 feature race – and Formula One starts to look a little bit pathetic.
GP2 is supposed to be a feeder series for Formula One. The GP2 cars, although very quick, are not designed to compete with Formula One cars. On most circuits, GP2 cars should be somewhere in the region of 10 seconds per lap slower than F1 cars. But at Monaco, that gap was substantially smaller, despite F1 cars having significantly more power, far greater braking ability and vastly superior aerodynamics.
All of the F1 drivers who finished Sunday’s race set personal best lap times that were quicker than Canamasas’s fastest GP2 time. But during the race, there were prolonged periods that could have seen a GP2 car compete with a Formula One car for the minor places. The mere existence of such a situation puts the lie to the idea that Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsport. Formula One has instead become the world’s most expensive leisurely group Sunday drive.
Throughout the F1 race, the drivers were visibly and audibly taking it easy. Through the swimming pool section, which includes a very fast left-right chicane and then a slower right-left chicane, the drivers looked bored. They were simply not prepared to put any lateral load through their tyres. When there was onboard footage from any car coming out of a slow corner and putting the power down, it was obvious from the sound that the drivers were short-shifting and not using full throttle until they were going quickly enough to avoid spinning up the rear tyres which would cause them to overheat and fall apart. That’s not how racing cars are meant to be driven. What happened to the days when Schumacher and Alonso rang the necks of their cars around Monaco, brushing the walls with their tyres in the pursuit of victory? With Pirelli involved, those days are gone.
The slow pace of the race was not due to the limits of the cars or the drivers It was all down to the fragility of the tyres. It is entirely Pirelli’s fault that the 22 best drivers in the world, driving the 22 fastest cars in the world, around arguably the most iconic race track in the world, turned a Formula One race into 78 laps of slow procession.