Events

Mercedes Blitz Practice, Claims Pole Position At Monaco.

Monaco’s out of the ordinary program got underway on Wednesday May 23, with two free practice sessions completed. Mercedes-AMG driver Lewis Hamilton leads the charts and was involved in an enthralling battle with his team mate Valtteri Bottas. Throughout the two sessions they gave each other as good as they got, with Hamilton coming out on top by a whisker, posting a 1m 11.118s, with Bottas just 0.081s further back. Hamilton said after FP2: “It’s the dream for every driver to come to Monaco and have a car that you can exploit and utilize your abilities with,” said Hamilton, a two-time Monaco winner. I’m really proud of the team and naturally our goal is to try and do something really positive this weekend.”

Not unexpectedly, it’s Red Bull coming on strong early in the first practice. Ferrari claim they’re having tire issues, so it’s left to Max Verstappen to take the challenge to the silver cars. He would be later called in by the engineers in order to rectify a water leak in his car, but not before lodging the second fastest time in FP1 He’d claim 6th fastest in FP2. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was quick in FP1 but not as quick as his teammate and home town hero, Charles Leclerc. FP2 had the Monagesque down in 10th, with Vettel 3rd quickest.

Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly notched 5th in FP2, barely a tenth ahead of Verstappen. Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi found extra pace in FP2, with the pair laying down almost identical times and would be split by just a few thousandths. A standout in FP2 was Alexander Albon in his Toro Rosso. The 23 year old would carve his way through 51 laps and make his way into 5th with a 1:12.031, but still a full 9/10ths from Hamilton.

Renault would have sessions to forget, continuing the struggle this year. Daniel Ricciardo saw 17th against his name, with Nico Hulkenberg 0.016 quicker in FP2. FP1 however saw Hulkenberg in 7th, and the Australian in 11th.

FP3 was much of the same, and Qualifying saw a normally processional set of three shaken up from Q1. Hometown hero Charles Leclerc was the first casualty. Ferrari benched Leclerc late in Q1, expecting his time would be good enough to see the young driver through to Q2. His times saw him looking good inside the top ten but as the session drew to a close other drivers went through with better pace, leaving a bemused then frustrated Leclerc demanding answers.

“I think we made a mistake. It has been a misjudgement, a wrong evaluation of what we call the cut-off time. The cut-off time is the threshold by when we believed we are comfortable to get into the next session. The cut-off time is calculated in real-time based on what we see on the track. When the cut-off time is calculated, we normally add a margin on top of it and the margin is good enough to afford for any tolerances, uncertainty, whatever might happen during the session normally.” said Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto. Leclerc will start from 15th.

Antonio Giovinazzi and Pierre Gasly were hit with grid spot penalties in Q1, with the Alfa Romeo driver deemed to have impeded Nico Hulkenberg. The stewards slapped the Alfa Romeo driver with a three grid position penalty, the same that Gasly would receive for blocking Romain Grosjean from Haas. This was in Q2 and Grosjean was looking racy with his pace close to that of his team mate Kevin Magnussen. Heading into Mirabeau close to the end of Q2, Grosjean says that he was balked by Gasly and would have smashed into his rear end. To add insult to injury Magnussen would eventually pole 6th.

Magnussen can count himself lucky to be inside the top ten after a brush with the wall had his front wing damaged. “I hit the wall and damaged the front wing”, said Magnussen. “I had to abort that lap and come in and change it. That wasn’t planned so they were stressing like hell. They still did it and turned it around and enabled me to get out and do the laps that I was meant to. Just brilliant!” Later he would say that his Q3 lap may have been the best of his career.

Hulkenberg will start from 11th, however a dogged drive from his team mate Daniel Ricciardo will see the frustrated Australia start from 7th. Renault revealed on Saturday that a conrod appeared to have broken inside Hulkenberg’s car at Bahrain, and along with the MGU-K issues, the team had been running the pair with reduced engine power. Ricciardo will be hoping his 1:11.218 will be competitive enough to see him finish, engine reliability not withstanding.

Alexander Albon in Toro Rosso will be in P10, a first for the Thai, but he feels his time could have been better. “I’m semi-happy, is that a thing?” he said after qualifying. “I felt a lot better on Thursday than I did today on Saturday. I just struggled a bit with confidence and as well to find the rhythm of the track.”

P9 is Carlos Sainz who had struggled in practice, behind Danil Kvyat and Ricciardo. Sainz shrugged off the poor performances when it counted, with a regathering of his “mojo” the reason for his return to form. “Then suddenly in Q1, I managed to get the feeling back and when you get the feeling back, you just go forward. So good Q3, I think… P9 today is a great turnaround of the weekend.”

The top four are the usual suspects. Hamilton blitzed with a final time of 1:10.166, shading his team mate Valtteri Bottas by 9/100ths. All of the top four were the only cars to reach a 1:10, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel at 1:10.641 and 1:10.947. Although castigated for his failure to appear at a press conference after the tragic passing of Niki Lauda, Hamilton dedicated his 85th pole position to the team’s mentor. “I’ve been quick here but I have never quite got the perfect lap here. Today was as close as I could get to it. This one is for Niki.”

Lauda himself was highly regarded and respected by the F1 family, and it seems that all of the teams will run a form of tribute to the late driver.  The race gets under way at 15:10 Monaco time, and no doubt Lauda will feature before the race start.

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David Conole

Dave Conole is the former long-term circuit commentator for Sydney Motorsport Park, has worked trackside at the Australian F1 Grand Prix in Melbourne and is self-employed as an automotive content producer.

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