The super tight street circuit of Monaco rarely fails to provide a thrilling F1 race and Lewis Hamilton held out Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to win in an enthralling battle. The gap was a relatively big 2.6 seconds, however Hamilton had to also battled both tire issues and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen during the race. The young Dutchman did actually finish second however a five second penalty dropped him to 4th, with the penalty courtesy of what stewards deemed an unsafe release from his pit location.
Before the race there was a minute’s silence to honor the late Niki Lauda. A replica Lauda helmet was placed on a pedestal for the drivers to acknowledge, with Lewis Hamilton emotionally providing his own tribute.
The race had got away to a clean, almost pedestrian, except for Verstappen’s determined drive on Hamilton and on Valtteri Bottas at the first corner. The field filed through in single file with no issue apart from a tap between Kimi Raikkonen, in his 300th GP weekend, and Lance Stroll. This dropped Raikkonen back to 17th. Going the other way was the local hopeful, Charles Leclerc. Well and truly in the middle of the second half of the field, Leclerc would pick off driver after driver with some gutsy moves before a barrier tap punctured his tight rear on lap 9. The rubber delaminated, ripping up the right quarter of his Ferrari’s floor, spreading debris and forcing a safety car.
It was here that Verstappen and Bottas made contact, with Red Bull releasing Verstappen into the path of Bottas and damaging a tire on the Mercedes. Bottas had to re-pit a lap later with a suspected puncture and was able to rejoin in fourth behind Vettel.
Leclerc himself was forced to retire on lap 18 thanks to the structural damage of the Ferrari, a disappointing end to the Monagesque’s weekend. Romain Grosjean, picked off by Leclerc earlier, had stayed out during the safety car period and had found himself in 5th.
Lap 16 and Antonio Giovinazzi tags the Williams of Robert Kubica. Suddenly there is a traffic jam, an unwanted problem on the narrow street circuit. Although eyes are watching the radar and the sky, with a forecast of 90% chance of showers, it looks like it will stay dry. The race settles down into a familiar quiet procession for the mid pack, whilst Hamilton is watching his mirrors and managing his mediums. In the interim Giovinazzi is hit with a ten second penalty for his Kubica turnaround.
Carlos Sainz pits for a tire change on lap 31 and he’s on mediums now. This should be enough to see him home whilst Hamilton is become more nervy about his tire wear. “The left front is opening up,” says Hamilton, and he’s just 0.6 seconds ahead of Verstappen. Heading towards the halfway mark of the race, Danil Kvyat pits, Grosjean hasn’t yet, and in 5th is Alexander Albon, he’s also still on his starting rubber. Daniel Ricciardo has gone backwards; he was as high as 5th and that was during the safety car period and on lap 37 he’s down to 13th. It’s looking like another lousy weekend for Renault and the Australian.
At the rear of field Lance Stroll and Kimi Raikkonen continue exchanging pleasantries; “Again, he just ******* drives into me,” fumes Raikkonen, who is hit by Stroll coming out of the hairpin on lap 39. Hamilton continues to worry his tires are fading, and there is no such worry for Grosjean. Haas tell him to get a move on, use what is left in his rubber, before he finally pits with over half race distance run. Raikkonen also pits, and this is his first stop too with 30 laps to go. Lap 50 and Grosjean finally swaps rubber. His tire management has been superb and he’s in 9th.
Hamilton continues to harass his team for fresh rubber and there is just 20 laps left, however it seems Mercedes are seeing something Hamilton isn’t. What is visible is Verstappen still within a second of the rear of the silver car. Hamilton had made it clear his intent was to win to honor his friend and mentor, Lauda, and this is becoming more and more clear in his nervous calls to the garage. Lap 62, and Hamilton is given a gee up from Mercedes again, including the word “believe.” There are less than ten laps to go and lapped traffic is now an issue for the top five cars. Bottas and Vettel have been waiting in the wings, and it’s here that their pace starts to increase. Just 2.4 seconds covers the top four drivers.
In the points are Ricciardo, Kvyat, Norris, and Sainz desperately trying to catch the Russian Kvyat. Pierre Gasly is dancing between 4th and 6th, and lap 63 had him pit for fresher rubber, meaning in the latter stages he’s in with a chance for a podium and a fastest lap point. Five laps are left and Grosjean makes a rookie error, crossing the blend line leaving the pit garage and cops a five second penalty also.
Impact! Hamilton’s tire wear has had Verstappen loom large and with just minutes left in the race, Verstappen has gone for a dive bomb on the championship leader. There’s contact with Verstappen’s front right hitting the left rear of Hamilton as they come into the harbor chicane. Somehow both manage to avoid the barriers and Hamilton takes the chequered flag, no doubt breathing a huge sigh of relief.
Verstappen does finish 2nd, Vettel in 3rd, and Bottas for 4th. The five second penalty drops Verstappen to 4th, bumping Bottas to the podium. That Ferrari placing ends the one-two dominance that Mercedes has had and is, in a way, a fitting nod towards the influence Lauda had on both the winner and the team that placed second this weekend. There’s good points for Red Bull with Gasly placed 5th, ahead of Sainz, Kvyat, Albon with a great points result for Toro Rosso. Ricciardo is finally back in the points, with the call to the Renault driver lighting his candle once news of the penalty for Grosjean had come through, with the Frenchman closing out the top ten.
Lando Norris had a quiet race and finished 11th, Sainz would eventually take 12th. Nico Hulkenberg also finished, in 13th; has this been evidence of an erasure of reliability problems for Renault? Kevin Magnussen, George Russell, Lance Stroll (ironically finishing ahead of Raikkonen), Kubica, and Giovinazzi are the remaining finishers, with the despondent face of Leclerc being the only retiree and in his home race.
Of the race itself, Hamilton quietly said: “I really was fighting with the spirit of Niki. Niki’s been such an influential person in our team, helping to get us where we are. So I know he’ll be looking down and know he’d take his hat off today. I was trying to stay focused and trying to make him proud.”
F1 moves to Canada for the weekend of June 7 to 9.