Lewis Hamilton's talent and greatness in Formula 1 is unquestionable, but is he also one of the best showmen in the sport?
The 2019 Monaco Grand Prix could be classified as mildly entertaining. It had all the elements that a typical race in Monaco would require to add to the excitement " threat of rain, a Safety Car period that threw tyre strategies wide open, a top-team driver (Charles Leclerc) attempting to charge his way back to the top and another zealous fan screaming 'neow' into one of the microphones he found at the race track. But what sincerely added to the edge-of-seat excitement was Hamilton's continuous whining on his pit-to-car radio. The reigning world champion made it a point to complain about Mercedes' soft-medium tyre strategy every few laps. In fact, this edition of the Monaco Grand Prix will go down in history for Hamilton's measured drive and radio masterclass!
After clinching his 85th pole position on Saturday (but only his second in Monaco), Hamilton made a good start to keep the lead into Turn 1. Valtteri Bottas, Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel followed through with Daniel Ricciardo getting the jump on Kevin Magnussen into fifth place. Verstappen took a look down the inside of Bottas into Turn 1, but the now-so-mature Dutchman decided to pull out at the last instance to avoid wheel-banging and a possible collision " possibly the first time we missed the rash and bratty Verstappen from the previous few seasons. Elsewhere, homeboy and Ferrari driver, Charles Leclerc, was on the charge from his fifteenth place start. He made up a few positions on the opening few laps and then pulled off a brave move on Romain Grosjean into Rascasse.
At this moment, it was Leclerc's aggressive driving and stubbornness to get back into the top-6 that brought the race alive. After being eliminated in the Q1 session of qualifying, Leclerc bravely admitted that he would take risks on Race Day even if it meant risking a crash. As luck would have it, Leclerc's attempt to pull off a similar move on Nico Hulkenberg at Rascasse saw the Ferrari driver hit his right rear tyre into the barriers, spinning him around and causing a puncture. The incident took place too close to the pit-lane exit and it was only a few corners later that Leclerc realised of his puncture. However, his trip to the pits for new rubber meant driving his Ferrari on three wheels (a la Fernando Alonso, 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix!) " an act that saw him cause floor damage to his car while also scattering debris across the circuit.
- Formula 1 (@F1) May 26, 2019
On Lap 10, Race Control decided to deploy a Safety Car to allow the marshals a safe passage to clear the debris. Expectedly, every driver dove into the pits to make the most of a free stop - this was the second dose of excitement the race needed. Mercedes decided to double-stack their drivers, as did Renault. However, Mercedes' garage positions (first in the pit-lane because they are World Champions) meant that they would be the one team that would lose the least amount of time in the double-stack. To further aid Mercedes' decision, Bottas (who was to pit after Hamilton), drove a slow in-lap, one that bottled Verstappen and Vettel. This helped the Finnish driver lose as little time as possible while he 'waited' for the crew to service his Mercedes - smart planning and execution!
Red Bull Racing released Max Verstappen a tad too early " right in the line of the pit-exiting Bottas and Vettel. As a result, Verstappen and Bottas touched in the 'out lane', while Verstappen still held position over Bottas. The incident was investigated by the stewards and Verstappen was awarded a five-second time penalty for an 'unsafe release'. First, was the time penalty justified? Verstappen not only gained track position, but also caused damage to Bottas' car - a puncture that required the Mercedes driver to return to the pits the next lap itself. Second, had Red Bull Racing waited for a 'safe release', there's good chance that Verstappen would've lost position to Vettel as well. In the 'could've-should've-would've' situation, Bottas would've then rejoined the race second - giving Mercedes the chance to score their sixth 1-2 finish of the season and worse, Verstappen wouldn't have been second in the race - a shame because he was the only driver seemingly interested in chasing Hamilton for the win.
- Formula 1 (@F1) May 26, 2019
Hamilton cruised to his 77th win in Formula 1 " and we mean the word 'cruised'. The Mercedes driver used a strategy that several drivers have used in the past " control the pace by going only as fast as required. Last year's winner, Daniel Ricciardo, famously managed to win the race despite being nearly 160 bhp down on power. But did Mercedes' strategists err by opting to put Hamilton on the medium instead of the hard tyre (one used by Verstappen and Vettel)? The biggest clue lies in the team's choice of the hard tyre for Bottas' second stop after suffering from a puncture with the Verstappen incident. But was Mercedes' tyre choice for Bottas to cover Verstappen-Vettel while leaving options open for Hamilton to incase of a late race Safety Car period or if the ever-threatening rain clouds decide to finally shower? The team's social media account will have an honest assessment of their choices in the course of the week.
Despite Hamilton's constant complaints, what could Mercedes have done? It was obvious that a second pit-stop would've cost Hamilton the lead of the race and possibly a spot on the podium. In which case, one also wonders why Hamilton continued to whine despite knowing the reality of the team's decision? This is where our theory of Hamilton being the sport's greatest showman comes up. Did Hamilton help spice up the 2019 Monaco Grand Prix by his constant chatter on the radio? While we may never find out the truth, hats-off to the driver for pulling off a 68-lap stint on the medium tyre. While the team exclaimed post-race that no one else could've pulled off a similar strategy, the truth is that Ricciardo and Magnussen pulled off a similar strategy with much lesser whining. But yes, one could argue that they didn't have fiery Verstappen breathing down their neck for several laps to the end.
The other notable tyre-saving performances were by Romain Grosjean (51 laps on the soft tyre, finished 10th), but with lap-times above their expected race times, the tyre life expectedly increased. Carlos Sainz Jr. scored yet another strong best-of-the rest finish for Mclaren in 6th place, followed by the two Toro Rosso drivers Daniil Kvyat and Alexander Albon and the Renault of Ricciardo. Williams' George Russell finished 15th - ahead of Racing Points' Lance Stroll, Alfa Romeo's Kimi Raikkonen (Monaco was his 300th Formula 1 race), team-mate Robert Kubica and the other Alfa Romeo driver, Antonio Giovinazzi (who had two in-race time penalties). Leclerc was the only driver classified as 'Did Not Finish'.
Finally, onto Ferrari - the Italian team's self-destruction is agonising for its legion of fans and for Formula 1, not to mention their star drivers too. While 2017 and 2018 will be remembered for the team's late-season implosions, in 2019, the team seem to be bringing forward their self-destruct with each passing session. In Monaco, Vettel's errors on Saturday saw the team enter qualifying on the back foot. A mistake in FP3 saw Vettel end his session early by crashing into the barriers at Turn 1. While the team rebuilt the car in time, Vettel's barrier-nudges in Q1 and Q3 meant that the team's focus was on survival rather than maximising their performances.
- Formula 1 (@F1) May 25, 2019
In an attempt to avoid embarrassment with Vettel in Q1, did the team lose focus over Leclerc? Ferrari chose to 'save tyres' with Leclerc and decided to not go out for a second run when the track rubbered in and was evidently quicker. At Monaco, track position is of primary importance (one doesn't need to be Einstein to know this) and the team's decision to save a set of soft tyres seems delusional. Yes, Leclerc's topping of the FP3 session would've given the team hope of scoring pole position and they probably wanted to keep an extra set just-in-case, but it was evident early in the session (at least to fans watching on television!) that Leclerc's chances of making it through Q2 were diminishing with every passing second.
In the aftermath of Ferrari's qualifying debacle, rumours of a team restructure did the rounds and will continue to do so for the weeks to come. True or not, time would be the key currency of exchange for any personnel changes to show a positive effect on the team's performance. In which case, Ferrari's hopes for the 2019 Formula 1 season will only get slimmer as we go from race to race. In the Constructors' Championship, Ferrari are almost half the points of Mercedes and we are less than a third into the current season. The only fight worth tracking would be for the 'best of the rest' fourth place " one that Mclaren (30 points) seems to have the edge currently and lead Racing Point (17 points).
- Formula 1 (@F1) May 26, 2019
In the Drivers' Championship, Hamilton pulled out a further gap to Bottas " the Mercedes pair are separated by 17 points. At one point of the 2019 Monaco Grand Prix, Bottas had the point for the fastest lap of the race, but Red Bull Racing's Pierre Gasly (finished 5th) made the most of his free pit-stop to snatch this point away. Vettel's second-place finish (also his best finish of the season) helped him jump Verstappen for 3rd place - but one wonders how excited Vettel-Ferrari would be by this promotion. Sainz's 6th place helped him jump Magnussen in 7th place (the 'best of the rest' in the Drivers' Championship) by four points.
Up next is the Canadian Grand Prix, Formula 1's brief trip across the Atlantic Ocean before returning back to Europe. Irrespective of the circuit's high-speed characteristics, Mercedes' form and precise performances mean that there would be little stopping them from winning their 7th consecutive race of the season. Whether the next race is a return to the team's 1-2 finishes doesn't matter, because at the current pace it seems highly likely that the German team could win all 21 Grands Prix this season.