The boy is back in town
The boy is back in town
‘This is Monaco, mate,’ said Esteban Ocon’s engineer to his young charge in morning practice, explaining away one of the place’s many peculiarities. And at the same time all the other ones.
For more reasons than mere prestige Monaco’s is the most important qualifying session of the year. It also is the most challenging. And unpredictable. It’s not just due to the casino that the Principality is associated with games of chance.
And the pole man we got this time is none other than Kimi Raikkonen. As you’ll now be familiar it’s his first pole since the French Grand Prix of 2008. Or 129 Grands Prix ago if you prefer. You’ll also be familiar that in the common consciousness he’s for a while been the other Ferrari pilot.
Following the practice sessions things appeared to be crystallising. It looked Ferrari’s and particularly Sebastian Vettel’s to lose, the German chucking out times clear tenths quicker than the rest, seemingly at will. Mercedes was neither as quick as the red car nor as good on the rubber.
And, broadly, we got this in qualifying, but not in the way we might have thought.
This is Monaco, mate. Here more than most places there is many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip. Some of the lottery is explainable. Much of the qualifying challenge is simply finding on-track space to set your time. And it’s not so simple as setting a ‘banker’ either, as the track evolution is sharply skyward. Of course, errors are punished readily. By extension interruptions are frequent. But this is Monaco, mate. Some of the lottery here is inexplicable.
But that shouldn’t lead us to believe that Kimi lucked in today for his pole. He was right on it throughout, beating Seb in Q2 as well.
The Finn’s been close to pole position plenty in recent times, to the point that reciting the above French Grand Prix stat became almost a fortnightly mantra. But somehow he would drop away at the last every time. Not so today.
Indeed he took it to the point where he almost couldn’t lose it, as he was seven tenths clear of the rest after everyone’s first goes in Q3. But then again chief potential party pooper Vettel hadn’t maxed his lap. And this is Monaco, mate.
But this time Kimi did the deed – improving his mark by about a tenth on his final effort which was vital in keeping him ahead of Seb – meaning it was another all-Ferrari front row, albeit the first here since 1979 – as well as the suddenly improving Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas, whose mark indeed was only two thousandths shy of the German’s. The monkey on Kimi’s back was discarded.
And it was a reminder that – just like here five years ago when Michael Schumacher unexpectedly blitzed everyone to set the fastest qualifying time – form is temporary and class is permanent. Especially around the Principality.
‘Obviously it’s the best place to start for tomorrow but it doesn’t guarantee anything for tomorrow,’ said Kimi afterwards, typically deadpan.
‘Nevertheless I’ll happily take it, and it’s been quite okay all weekend. We’ve been struggling a little bit in certain places and have been working to try and figure it out.
Indeed Kimi – again typically – sounded almost underwhelmed. ‘Qualifying was better – it wasn’t perfect, but it’s never going to be perfect. It was good enough and I was very happy with the car.
‘You can always go a bit faster here and there – it’s normally a never-ending story like that – but things went well. We had good timing with when we went out and I felt good, so I was able to push and it was a quite nice, straightforward qualifying.’
His pipped stable mate meanwhile reckoned he over-drove. ‘The car was fine, really nice to drive but I probably pushed a bit too hard in Q3, went wide in Turn 5,’ said Vettel.
‘The second attempt went a bit deep so the second sector I was probably a bit too greedy.
‘I wanted a bit too much and lost a little bit.’
As for Bottas, he at least is showing a good knack for turning up on the weekends in which his Merc team mate Lewis Hamilton falters (more of that anon). ‘I think this weekend has been a bit tricky for us,’ Valtteri said of his squad with some understatement.
‘We started well in practice one, but got a little bit lost with the set-up in practice two, so we definitely lost some valuable practice time.
‘We got things more or less together in practice three, and in qualifying the car was feeling the best it has so far this weekend. It was still a bit tricky in places and quite difficult to get a lap together.’
You can add to Monegasque considerations that here some cars have rare a weekend in the sun, due to the track’s peculiar characteristics. Not least Red Bull, which looked for a time bang on the money just like 12 months ago here, suddenly not exposed so much by its Renault horsepower deficit.
For a time it appeared a Ferrari-Red Bull scrap for pole that a tea towel could be thrown over. In the final part of qualifying however the Milton Keynes pair dropped away a little – perhaps a consequence of not being able to turn up their power units like others can. Fourth and fifth with Max Verstappen ahead was the outcome. And Max again deserves plaudits as not only was he just around three tenths off the pole only he also was half a second up on team mate Daniel Ricciardo. Then again the Australian accused his team of ‘a stupid, silly error’ of sending him out into traffic for his final run.
Yet Monaco’s capacity to surprise didn’t end with Kimi. As we had the latest curious tale of Lewis Hamilton, many people’s favourite in advance of practice running. Since FP2 he has simply been scrambling for handling, which continued into quali as his lap times were modest, many runs were aborted and he spoke variously of ‘no grip’ and there being ‘something wrong with the car’.
With this, come Q2 he was in the drop zone as the final minutes ticked down – teetering on the brink in the last track you want to be in such a position. And so he was thus bitten, his final effort was spoiled by Stoffel Vandoorne binning his McLaren ahead on the road. Lewis faced with yellow flags had to abandon and P14 in the order was set (though he’ll gain at least one place through penalties for others).
You can say he was unlucky with the Vandoorne indcident, but such things are entirely foreseeable here (that’s Monaco, mate). Which is why you shouldn’t let things get that far. You can also add that such were his struggles for pace you’d doubt whether he’d have got onto the first two rows of the grid anyway.
‘With Lewis, you could see even from the TV pictures that he was struggling with the car and nearly lost it a couple of times in qualifying,’ said his boss Toto Wolff in his charge’s defence.
‘Of course he was unfortunate with the yellow flag for Vandoorne in Q2, as he was on course to make it through the session, but the car never felt good for him after FP1 and that made it tough to put together the laps.
‘Tomorrow’s race will clearly be a case of damage limitation for him and trying to maximise his points score; but he will fight to the last lap.’
And there’s a broader consideration, that this makes it two rounds in three that Lewis has struggled for set-up. This year’s Merc is tricky on that front reportedly (though Bottas hasn’t had the same manifestation) yet whatever in what will be a close fight with Ferrari and Vettel this inconsistency could go a long way to deciding the titles.
Carlos Sainz once again was brilliant, bagging P6 on a weekend that even Toro Rosso was surprised by its pace. Daniil Kvyat was audibly frustrated to just miss out on Q3, by being 11th quickest.
Force India continued its good form both for 2017 and at this track, or at least half its challenge did as Sergio Perez starts P7. Ocon was only just bumped out in Q1 though, likely not helped by crashing late in morning practice which meant a frantic race to be ready for quali at all (it also means all three Monaco F1 debutants have buried itin the barriers at some point).
For McLaren things were aptly bittersweet. As anticipated it looked more competitive here as its Honda shortcomings are least shown up. And both pilots got into Q3, in Vandoorne’s case in seventh place. However he binned it at the end of Q2 as mentioned and gets a three-place grid drop too from his Spain contretemps. At least early fears that he’ll need a gearbox and chassis change after his smash appear unfounded.
Jenson Button meanwhile looked right back into the swing of things and got ninth in the quali order. As the man himself said, not bad for one seven months out. Still even he is relegated, and all the way to the back, thanks to yet more Honda engine penalties…
As noted this pole position is the most important of the year, not least that come Sunday track position is close to ten tenths of the law. And if Kimi can lead from the off then only unreliability, a rare error – or Ferrari choosing to do some syncronised swimming with Vettel’s championship charge in mind – can likely deprive him victory. Then again, this is Monaco mate.
Pirelli’s noted too that even the ultrasoft tyre can do a full race distance here. Several drivers towards the back are therefore likely to switch early (perhaps under an early safety car – common at this track) and do an effective non-stop run. Perhaps Lewis will try this on the off chance, but on the other hand the field spread here is large so he cna’t play too fast and loose.
For the rest it’ll be one-stoppers and the stops will be dictated by track position tactics and in-race opportunities (safety cars, virtual and real, and the like) rather than tyre degradation. This further decreases the possibility of making up places through strategy.
Most broadly once again the sport this season continues its charmed existence it seems. That just when all considerations seemed to be coming down to two men – Seb vs. Lewis – and even indeed after the former looked so strong here, suddenly we’ve got something rather different. Perhaps even over and above this being Monaco, this is F1 2017 mate.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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