Sunday, May 29, 2011

Anti-climax at Monaco

This was the thriller without a denouement, the tension building in expectation of a final ecstatic release, only to be deflated by events unrelated to the main plot.

Going into the final ten laps of the Monaco Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso looked set for victory, the Ferrari on a two-stop strategy, and crucially, the only one of the leading runners to have taken the opportunity of a free pit-stop when the safety car had been deployed at half-distance. Ahead of him was Sebastien Vettel, the Red Bull driver trying desperately to make his second set of tyres last sixty laps after being forced onto a one-stop strategy. Behind Alonso was Jenson Button, on the final stint of a three-stop strategy, but looking content to watch the battle ahead of him. These three bifurcating strategies had converged in the closing laps, when the leaders came upon a snarling juggernaut of backmarkers led by Adrian Sutil.

But how, exactly, had Sebastien Vettel ended up on a one-stop strategy, when, as leader, he should really have been shadowing the moves made by those behind him? The Red Bull had appeared comfortable in the lead during the first stint, but at the end of lap 16, the team had erroneously fitted a set of primes at his first stop. Worse, Button had pitted a lap earlier, fitted another set of super-soft options, and passed Vettel on the undercut. During Button's second stint, he then used the advantage of being on softer tyres to pull out a decent lead of over ten seconds. Jenson then made his second pit-stop at the end of lap 33, fitting his third and final set of super-softs, postponing the use of the primes, and thereby committing himself to a three-stop strategy.

So, should McLaren have switched Jenson to a two-stop strategy at this stage? They were ahead of Vettel, the primes would have lasted to the end of the race, and even if Red Bull had fitted super-softs to Vettel's car at their second pit-stop, Vettel would have needed to pass Button on-track to win the race.

Either way, the next strategic branching point came swiftly, when the safety car was triggered on lap 34 for Massa's accident in the tunnel. Red Bull had the option to bring Vettel in for his second pit-stop at this stage. If they'd done so, Seb would have resumed behind Button, but the deficit would have been minimised by the safety car, and Jenson, of course, still had another stop to make. Thus, if Red Bull had pitted at this point, they would surely have closed out the race. Yet, for whatever reason, it was only Alonso who chose to take his second pit-stop at this juncture.

The race resumed with Vettel first, Button second, and Alonso third. Jenson's super-softs still afforded an advantage over the primes on Vettel's car, and he closed onto the tail of the Red Bull, but never threatened to pass. Button, of course, then had to make his third and final pit-stop onto primes at the end of lap 48, dropping him back to third. Vettel, however, couldn't respond to McLaren's pit-stop by making his own, because that would have dropped him behind Alonso. Because Fernando had taken his second stop under the safety car, a two-stop strategy would lose Vettel the race.

So Sebastien stayed out, and tried to make his primes last to the end, and we looked set for a thrilling conclusion. Alonso had a look down the inside into Ste Devote on lap 67, but aborted the move, tucking back into the Red Bull's slipstream ascending Beau Rivage, the vanishing point spewing out armco like a naked singularity, the white lane markings flailing between the front wheels of his Ferrari. Elsewhere, however, events were unravelling in a manner which would ultimately gift victory to Vettel.

A gap of more than 50 seconds had opened between the leaders and Sutil in fourth, but things behind the Force India were considerably closer. With twelve laps to go, Kobayashi and Petrov were tracking the German in fifth and sixth, whilst a short distance down the road was Webber in seventh, Maldonado eighth, and Hamilton in ninth.

Kobayashi then made an optimistic lunge to take fourth place from Sutil going into Mirabeau. The Sauber's left-front made contact with Sutil's right-rear, and the Sauber nipped through. By the time the leaders reached this train of cars on their 69th lap, Webber and Maldonado had passed Petrov. Maldonado now forced his way down the inside of Sutil into Tabac at exactly the same moment that Hamilton was diving down the inside of Petrov. Sutil ran wide, and thumped the guardrail with his right-rear.

This was the final straw for Sutil's tyre, which deflated as he tried to gather things together and press-on. Just behind, Petrov had been forced out wide by Hamilton, and was passed by the lapped Alguesauri on the exit of Tabac. Up ahead, however, Hamilton was rolling off the throttle as he attempted to second-guess Sutil's movements going into the left-right entry to the swimming pool. The Force India stayed right, but Hamilton hung back, and Alguesauri's Toro Rosso rode up over the McLaren's right-rear wheel, from whence it slid on into the barrier. The closely following Petrov contrived to follow Alguesauri into the armco.

Despite the apparently innocuous nature of the shunt, Vitaly professed to being in a substantial amount of pain, and was clean out of paracetamol. Hence, a red flag was triggered, and the Russian driver carefully extracted from his car. "Once at hospital, it was confirmed that there was no swelling or broken bone," read a subsequent statement from the Lotus-Renault team.

Strangely, it now seems that the temporary cessation of a Grand Prix is an opportunity, without penalty, for the teams to fit new tyres, and even change rear wings. Thus was the battle for victory instantly snuffed out. It was what Lewis Hamilton might call 'fricking ridiculous'.

No comments: