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View from the Pit Lane: Monaco

Karun keeps an eye out in the Monaco pit lane

By C4F1 technical analyst 

Karun Chandhok

I’ve managed to make it back to my office in the UK quite quickly after the Monaco Grand Prix.

It was quite a tiring weekend for me; I went to Monaco on Wednesday, came back to England on Thursday, had a couple of shakedowns for the Williams fan day we have next weekend, then went back to Monaco on Friday, and finally back to the UK on Sunday!

Away from my own logistical dramas, it was a fairly dramatic weekend in Monaco. The race itself – I’ll be honest – wasn’t the most exciting, but the way the weekend unfolded could be a pivotal weekend in the championship battle. 

Dialling in around Monaco

We got there on Thursday for FP1, and Lewis Hamilton hit the ground running. He was straight out there, straight on it, and both Mercedes cars looked really good.

But as the weekend progressed, in FP2, they looked completely lost, and Hamilton looked like he was over-driving the car, chasing grip that wasn’t there, making mistakes and cutting the chicanes. He never put his lap together on those qualifying simulations, and neither did Valtteri Bottas, so they were down in eighth and tenth.

Then the big question mark came – was that real? We got to FP3 on Saturday, after people had an extra day to think about things, and again Hamilton just didn’t seem to put a lap together. Bottas got his lap in, and he jumped ahead of the Red Bulls, although was still four tenths away from Sebastian Vettel.

We expected the short wheelbase Ferrari to be strong in Monaco, but they were really really strong, and when you look at the race pace as well it was pretty devastating for Mercedes. Looking at the fastest lap times, Vettel did a 1:15.2, Kimi Raikkonen a 1:15.5 and Hamilton a 1:15.8. While those are on different tyres at different times, it’s still a reasonable difference.

The story of qualifying

On to qualifying, the pivotal point of the weekend. We’ve all spent days and days banging on about the importance of qualifying in Monaco, but it’s so true. If you don’t qualify well, your whole Sunday is compromised. It’s not everything, as Vettel and Raikkonen proved (more on that later), but it’s definitely important.

It was great to see Raikkonen get pole position. I did a bit of analysis, looking at the two Ferrari drivers’ best qualifying laps, and it was amazing. It wasn’t just one sector or one corner, it went back and forth. Vettel got ahead at Turn 1 and Sector 1, but then Raikkonen got it back at Mirabeau. Vettel then pulled time through Tabac and Swimming Pool, before Raikkonen gained again at the last couple of corners.

It was interesting listening to Mark Webber, because he said to us before qualifying that he was always faster than Vettel through Rascasse every year, and sure enough, that’s where he lost pole. He was half a tenth ahead going in, and half a tenth down coming out. It was fascinating.

We were all excited to see Raikkonen get pole, but we shouldn’t downplay the job Bottas did. If you take Hamilton's lap that he had to abort due to the yellow flag for Stoffel Vandoorne’s crash, Bottas was nearly three tenths up on him.

Bottas’ lap in Q3 was stunning too. He was two thousandths of a second off Vettel, and half a tenth of Raikkonen with a car we didn’t believe was as competitive as the Ferrari. That’s a sterling effort and probably the best lap of the weekend.

It’s reminiscent of Sochi in some way, another track where the grip levels are low. In both cases, Bottas just under-drove a tiny bit to make sure he got the nose into those corners, and he was able to get the lap hooked together better than Hamilton.

It’s quite clear that the Mercedes had a very narrow set-up window in Monaco, but it does seem like in these circumstances Bottas is able to extract a lap time and performance better than Hamilton, and that’s something I’m sure Pete Bonnington and the Hamilton side of the garage are really going to think about as they go forward for the rest of the season.

If they’re going to win this world championship, you’d still have to say Hamilton is the favourite of the two Mercedes drivers, so he’s going to have to work on that side of things.

Did Ferrari favour Vettel?

On to the race; the start went ahead normally and then a status quo developed. The big talking point was, did Ferrari use team orders to switch the drivers around in the pits? There were so many tweets and comments and people speculating, but here’s my view.

Max Verstappen pitted early, and went for the undercut on Bottas. When he came out, his times weren’t great on the supersofts. Verstappen and Bottas, who also pitted for the supersoft tyres, were not quick enough compared to Daniel Ricciardo on the used ultrasofts.

At that point, Ferrari perhaps looked at that and got spooked by Verstappen and Bottas coming in early, and didn’t focus enough on the fact that Ricciardo on the used tyres was lapping quicker than them.

Raikkonen was asking the question “when are we pitting?” and I think collectively they opted to bring Raikkonen in at that point, and Vettel stayed out. When Seb went across the line while Raikkonen was on his out lap, he was doing personal best sectors and then set the fastest lap, and it was clear the strategy was going to favour Vettel. Vettel’s in-lap was stunning compared to Kimi’s as the Finn had to counter traffic – a full 1.4 seconds faster.

I thought Raikkonen did a good job to switch the supersoft tyres on. He kept the gap quite tight to Vettel, but it was clear that the over-cut – staying out longer than the people who were pitting – was the strategy to have.

I don’t think it was team orders. I think it was one of those things – a strategic mistake, which is easy to look back on in hindsight and say “oh they should have done this” but it’s so difficult, because the windows on the tyres are so narrow

It’s tricky to get the strategy right with these Pirelli tyres because they’re so temperamental in some ways.

It’s hard to blame Ferrari, but Raikkonen had a face like thunder on the podium. I don’t blame him - losing a Monaco win, especially after going so long without a race win, and having driven so well all weekend is painful.

Ultimately, those extra three or four laps that Vettel did won him the race. Those are the kind of moments that could be the defining moments of the championship when we get to Abu Dhabi.

He’s now 25 points ahead of Hamilton; a race victory. He can afford one DNF, which is something I think all of them will have at some point. If you can afford one DNF with Hamilton winning and still be up there, that’s psychologically very important.

Best of the Rest

A few other mentions. Carlos Sainz did a great job all weekend. His qualifying lap was fantastic and put him right up there in P6, 0.15s off Ricciardo. It was a great result for Ricciardo too, after the mess up last year with the pit stop.

We put a video out on Hamilton's strategy on the C4F1 social accounts on Sunday to try and predict what he could do from 13th on the grid.

The only card he could play was he has to go long and let people peel out of the way.

That used to be an old GP2 strategy. If you were out of position and you thought you had a quicker car, you either pitted on Lap 1, if it was a track where you could overtake, or a place like this, where you tend to just go long, get in free air, and say “go go go”, and that’s what they did.

It was a logical strategy and damage limitation for Hamilton and Mercedes. They got P7, which was probably the best they could have hoped for.

Jenson Button did a great job in qualifying, and that’s going to put pressure on Stoffel Vandoorne and the perception of his career. Button came in after seven months and got within 2 tenths of him.

 Perception is a funny thing in this business, and Vandoorne, in the end, crashed out of the points in the race, so that didn’t end well for him.

Next stop Canada

There were lots of talking points in Monaco and we'll see what happens in Montreal. I’m off to Le Mans that weekend and will be missing the Canadian GP because I’m racing in the 24 hour race.

We’ve got the Williams fan day on Friday, then I’m driving straight from Silverstone on Friday to Le Mans so will get there at 1am for the test. Then I come back for a few days at home, before I head out for the 24 hour race, so it’s a pretty manic few weeks ahead!