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.
Pastor Maldonado was found guilty of causing an avoidable collision in Free Practice 3 at the Monaco Grand Prix last weekend. Maldonado cut across the front of Sergio Perez’s car, colliding with the front left side of the Sauber, in what looked like a deliberate side-swipe. The stewards examined the incident, determined that it was avoidable, and gave Maldonado a 10-place grid penalty.
But was that enough?
Look back to 1997, when Michael Schumacher turned in on Jacques Villeneuve in a desperate attempt to take the Canadian out of the race and thereby win the championship. Schumacher was punished by being excluded from the results of the 1997 championship, which is possibly the most severe punishment handed out in Formula One history. The reason was simple. Formula One cars are dangerous, and when they make contact, there is the possiblity of tyres touching, which can cause one or both of the cars to roll and have a catastrophic accident. Deliberate contact cannot be tolerated.
The circumstances are different in the case of Maldonado and Perez. The incident occured in a practice session, where Perez was just trying to get out of the way. There was no championship pressure present, they were not even racing at all. The incident with Schumacher and Villeneuve can be understood if not condoned. The stakes were high. In the case of Maldonado and Perez, there were no stakes. If the contact was deliberate from Maldonado’s side, it’s bizarre. It shows a blatant disregard for safety on the track, and contempt for his fellow competitors.
It’s not the first time such an incident has taken place with Maldonado. At the end of the second session of qualifying for the 2011 Belgian Grand Prix, Maldonado appeared to deliberately drive into the side of Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren. At that point, the session was already over. There was no need to be aggressive on the track.
Racing is dangerous enough under the best of circumstances. When a driver starts to use his car as a weapon, as Maldonado appears to have done twice now, there can be no excuses, and zero tolerance. If the stewards really did think that the contact was deliberate, the 10-place grid penalty was woefully inadequate. He should have been prevented from racing at Monaco, or perhaps even had his licence suspended. The punishment does not fit the crime. If the rule-book allows him to get away with the incident with only a 10-place grid penalty, then the rule-book needs to be rewritten.
Caterham had their best result of the season in Monaco, where Heikki Kovalainen finished 13th. The team appears to be making progress. Read my analysis at:
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.