Rosberg plays his cards right to win in Monaco

Well, it’s the race that everyone wants to win. The one Formula 1 race of the year that sees the glitz and glamour of the sport brought absolutely to the forefront amid the gleaming yachts in a gambler’s paradise: Monaco. As it turned out, the result of the race was never really in doubt, despite plenty of thrills and spills in the Principality – Nico Rosberg, 30 years since his father Keke tasted victory at the same track, led from lights to flag to take a dominant and well deserved victory.

As ever in Monaco, track position was crucial. As all Formula 1 fans know, overtaking around the tight, twisty street circuit is incredibly difficult, which makes qualifying vitally important. Qualifying, of course, has been the great strength of Rosberg’s Mercedes car, and it was no great surprise to see the team take their fourth straight pole position on Saturday. Indeed, it was another front row lock out for Mercedes, with Lewis Hamilton under a tenth of a second slower than his German team-mate.

Rosberg leads the field into Sainte Devote

Rosberg leads the field into Sainte Devote

The big question was whether Mercedes had the race pace to compete, given the extreme difficulties that they experienced with tyre degradation in the last race at Barcelona. If Mercedes could lead into the first corner, and successfully manage their tyres, it was odds on that they would win the race. The fact that Rosberg started well, and beat his team-mate Hamilton off the line and into turn one, set his race up perfectly. As it turned out, tyre management was never an issue for Mercedes and Rosberg never relinquished the lead at any point in the race to take a brilliant second career race victory.

Massa's crash in the race was almost identical to his crash in practice a day earlier

Massa’s crash in the race was almost identical
to his crash in practice a day earlier

That might make the race sound a little more straightforward than it actually was. The result could have been even better for Mercedes had they not had a bad roll of the dice with the first safety car period. Surprisingly, and unlike their immediate competitors, lap 31 of the race arrived and neither of the Mercedes cars had pitted. That meant that when the safety car came out following a heavy crash for Felipe Massa on lap 30 – a carbon copy of the one that he experienced in Saturday morning free practice – Mercedes were forced to pit both cars on the same lap. This allowed the Red Bulls, both of which had been released by the safety car, to jump ahead of the unfortunate Lewis Hamilton, who missed out on the opportunity to challenge his team-mate for victory and take his third podium of the season.

Hamilton put Webber under heavy pressure as the race restarted, even drawing alongside him at Rascasse, but was unable to get ahead of the Red Bull. Indeed, despite further chaos later in the race the top four of Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Hamilton remained in that order for the remaining 48 laps. Behind them, though, there was plenty of action with McLaren’s Sergio Perez and Force India’s Adrian Sutil putting in some great overtaking manoeuvres at the chicane and at Lowe’s hairpin respectively.

monaco_grosjean2It was at Perez’s favourite overtaking place, coming out of the tunnel into the chicane, that we saw the incident that resulted in the second safety car period on lap 63. Lotus’s Romain Grosjean had his fourth crash of the season, ramming into the back of, and mounting, Daniel Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso, leaving debris strewn across the track and putting both cars out of the race. Grosjean definitely had a weekend to forget, and that incident resulted in an investigation by the stewards after the race, who handed the Frenchman a 10 place grid penalty for the next race in Canada.

Maldonado before the incident with Chilton

Maldonado before the incident with Chilton

Perhaps even worse, though, was the incident that resulted in a red flag on lap 46. Williams driver Pastor Maldonado pulled alongside Marussia’s Max Chilton on the approach to turn 16. Chilton inexplicably moved across on Maldonado, pushing the Venezuelan’s car into the barriers and momentarily into the air before it speared head on into the barriers. Maldonado said afterwards “I didn’t expect Chilton to cross my line. It is very dangerous”. Certainly the stewards agreed, handing the Englishman a drive through penalty for the incident.

Indeed, that incident might have had a big impact on the result of the race. With the red flag, the teams were able to make changes to their cars and, crucially, change tyres. That benefitted Red Bull Racing, and Mark Webber in particular. The Australian had pitted to change tyres on lap 25, six laps earlier than both of the Mercedes cars and his team-mate Sebastian Vettel. It seemed that it was Red Bull, rather than Mercedes that seemed to be struggling a little with tyre wear and without the free tyre change afforded to the teams by the red flag period, we might have seen Webber struggle with degradation in the closing laps of the race. That’s all speculation, though.

Vettel led home Webber and Hamilton to take second place

Vettel led home Webber and
Hamilton to take second place

Rosberg and Mercedes will certainly have been delighted by victory around the streets of Monaco. Not even a pre-race protest by Ferrari and Red Bull about a tyre test following the race in Barcelona could spoil their party, although we’ve certainly not heard the last of that particular controversy. Despite not taking victory in Monaco, the big winner in terms of the championship was second placed Sebastian Vettel, though. The German saw his world driver’s championship lead over Kimi Raikkonen balloon to 21 points after the Finn could only manage 10th place after a puncture on lap 69 following an incident with Sergio Perez at the chicane. After only managing seventh place in Monaco, Fernando Alonso is a further eight points adrift n third place in the standings.

We head next to Canada in two weeks; a track with similar characteristics to Monaco, but many more overtaking opportunities. It’ll be interesting to see whether Mercedes can maintain their momentum there, or whether degradation will prove damaging to them once again.

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Mercedes feel the pain in Spain

It wasn’t the most thrilling race of the season, but one man who won’t be complaining about the result is Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard took what was in the end a very comfortable victory in his home grand prix and was joined on the podium by his team-mate Felipe Massa in third and Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen. Mercedes, on the other hand, certainly won’t have been pleased by the result in Barcelona. After dominating qualifying by locking out the front row, both cars went backwards in the race, finishing a long way off the pace of the front-runners.

Fernando Alonso on his way to victory in Spain

Fernando Alonso on his way to victory in Spain

I have to start with Fernando Alonso, though. The 2005 and 2006 world drivers champion drove another faultless race to take his second win of the season. Alonso again made a great start from fifth place on the grid, but didn’t actually move forward until turn three where he crucially passed Raikkonen’s Lotus and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes around the outside of the corner to move into third position and grab critical track position.

As the race progressed, Alonso and Ferrari made their four stop strategy work to perfection, first passing Vettel and moving into second place through the first round of pit stops and then passing Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes just a lap later on lap 23. The Spaniard never really looked back from that point onwards. He relinquished the lead only when making his remaining four pit stops, but he never looked under threat.

Indeed, as revealed after the race, even the luck was with Alonso in Spain. When the tyres were examined after Alonso’s final pit stop on lap 50 the team and Pirelli found that the Spaniard actually had a puncture. Had he continued for even another lap it would have been likely that we would have seen a tyre delamination for the Ferrari driver, similar to the one that put Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne out of the race in the final stages of the race. I suppose that the good luck for Alonso in Spain balances out the bad luck he had in Malaysia when his front wing failed on lap two.

Lewis Hamilton's delaminated Pirelli tyre from Bahrain, which cost the Englishman a five place grid penalty after it forced a gearbox change

Lewis Hamilton’s delaminated Pirelli tyre from
Bahrain, which cost the Englishman a five place
grid penalty after it forced a gearbox change

The talk in the paddock, though, was all about the Pirelli tyres yet again. As I’ve already mentioned, we had a tyre delamination for Vergne in the race, following up the one suffered by Force India’s Paul di Resta in practice. It seems that the changed construction of the Pirelli tyres means that when the 2013 tyres fail we will see delaminations rather than deflations. It doesn’t look great, but I think that if this were the only issue with the tyres then there wouldn’t really be a problem.

However, tyre failures are not the only problem. Indeed, they’re not even the biggest problem with the Pirelli tyres. The big problem for Pirelli, and indeed for Formula 1, is the extreme tyre degradation experienced by all the teams. When Pirelli entered the sport in 2011 they were charged with making the racing more exciting by making the tyres degrade more quickly and forcing the cars to make more pit stops.

Vettel was forced to yield to Raikkonen in Barcelona

Vettel was forced to yield to Raikkonen in Barcelona

Pirelli have certainly succeeded in this respect, but I think that the 2013 tyres are a step too far. Formula 1 fans want to see cars pushing flat-out, at, and sometimes beyond the limit. This is something that is just not possible with this year’s rubber. Rather than fight to hold on to positions, drivers are told over team radio to let other cars pass them in order not to damage their tyres. We saw an excellent example of this in Barcelona as Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel didn’t put up much of a fight when challenged by Raikkonen’s Lotus.

We also heard Mercedes telling Lewis Hamilton to try lifting off in turn three to help save the tyres and the same team telling the same driver that the rear tyres were at critical temperature with the response from the driver being “I can’t drive any slower”. F1 fans and drivers want the cars to be going as quickly as possible, which is something that they just can’t do nowadays.

How would some of the great drivers of the past fare with these tyres? We would probably never have seen the exuberance of Gilles Villeneuve. We would probably never have seen the supremely talented Ayrton Senna charging around the streets of Monaco getting faster and faster, lap after lap. Formula 1 is about pushing the limits of technology and speed. F1 shouldn’t be about tyre conservation – it isn’t endurance racing.

Of course, some teams are able to manage their tyres better than others. There will always be winners and losers from changes to regulations and tyre compounds and the biggest loser this race was clearly Mercedes. The Brackley based team have clearly made huge steps forward in 2013, but they are being hugely disadvantaged by being too hard on their tyres in the races. This has been a problem for the team for some time. It’s an issue that we certainly witnessed in the opening four races, and although the team have been working to address it, on the basis of their race performance at the Circuit de Catalunya there’s still plenty more work to do.

Rosberg and Hamilton celebrating their front row lock out in Spain

Rosberg and Hamilton celebrating
their front row lock out in Spain

Mercedes had reason to be optimistic going into the race in Spain. After a three-week break, the team took their third consecutive pole position and first front row lock out of the season, with Lewis Hamilton second behind Nico Rosberg on the grid. However, any optimism would have quickly faded. Hamilton found himself down in fourth place by the fourth corner of the first lap. It didn’t get any better for Hamilton as the race progressed, either. He dropped further and further back, at one stage battling with Pastor Maldonado’s Williams over 13th place, before eventually finishing the race in 12th position. Out of the race and lapped.

While Hamilton had to pit four times, Rosberg managed to stop only three times. Although he fared better than his English team-mate, the German was also less than thrilled with his race result of sixth position, 68 seconds behind race winner Alonso’s Ferrari. Like Hamilton, Rosberg suffered with tyre wear, albeit not quite to the same extent. As a result Mercedes left Spain with just eight points; scant reward after such a dominant qualifying performance.

Mercedes can take heart that their performance in the final sector of the Barcelona track is a good indicator of a strong performance around the streets of Monaco in the next race, but that’ll be of little consolation to their drivers at this point in time. Indeed, while I expect that Mercedes will be much stronger in Monaco, tyre wear is once again likely to be the key determining factor in the race. Unless Mercedes can find a solution to their extreme wear issues – and quickly – they’re unlikely to be able to fully exploit the underlying pace in their car.

Paul Hembery promised changes for Silverstone

Paul Hembery promised changes for Silverstone

Pirelli, though, understand that they’ve probably gone too far with this year’s rubber. Paul Hembery, Pirelli’s Motorsport Director, said on twitter after the race “We aim for 2-3 pit stops. Today was too many, we got it wrong, too aggressive. We will make changes, probably from Silverstone [the British grand prix at the end of June]”. Mercedes are likely to benefit the most from more durable tyres, but where there’s a winner, as I’ve already mentioned, there will be a loser – probably Lotus, who are notoriously kind to their rubber.

Still, there are another two races before the grand prix at Silverstone. Sebastian Vettel, despite only managing fourth place in Spain, still leads the world drivers’ championship, albeit now by only four points from Kimi Raikkonen. The man on the move, though, is Fernando Alonso, who moves into third place in the standings. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him continue his charge in Monaco.