Declan Quigley: “F1 fans, Red Bull Racing and, most of all, Max Verstappen needed that”
F1 fans, Red Bull Racing and, most of all, Max Verstappen needed that.
A first victory in the Principality is a pretty good stage to take the lead in the world championship for the first time and at last Red Bull are starting to keep their engineering advantages all the way to the chequered flag.
Scuffling his way up to and through Ste Devote ahead of Valtteri Bottas was the only complication of a Sunday afternoon in Monaco for Verstappen which sat in marked contrast to the qualifying drama of the day that preceded it.
It’s a cliché that Monaco, more than any other race, is won on Saturday but Charles Leclerc made that hoary old chestnut even more apposite with an error that ultimately ended up helping Red Bull in their championship scrap with Mercedes. Not that it seemed that way at the time.
The local man’s belly flop at the Swimming Pool on his final qualifying run ruined everyone else’s chances of taking the top spot from the Ferrari driver at the time Verstappen seemed most inconvenienced. Instead, the Dutchman began the race with a clear track in front of him after Leclerc’s last minute withdrawal and a healthy starting advantage to Lewis Hamilton.
Even Red Bull couldn’t drop the ball with that opportunity and surprisingly it was Mercedes, so serene in their Spanish Grand Prix victory a fortnight ago, who were left floundering after a weekend which they might like to forget but which, you suspect, Hamilton won’t be about to let them.
The seven-time champion was furious with his pit wall as he failed to overhaul Pierre Gasly at his pitstop – a better out lap from Lewis might have helped that – and then had to watch in frustration as Sebastian Vettel and then Sergio Perez made the best use of their ageing tyres to leapfrog above the pair of them.
The Aston Martin and Red Bull tactical plays by running long on the first set of tyres might have been anticipated given they have been done before in recent years but in truth, there will be more to their awkward debrief than race strategy. In truth, this was a rare off weekend for Hamilton.
Hamilton was unable to match the unfortunate Bottas – who made better use of the Mercedes on Saturday to qualify third but who, almost inevitably, was the one to get the largest dollop of bad luck on Sunday with a cross-threaded wheel nut forcing his retirement.
That cost Mercedes a big haul of constructor’s championship points but for Hamilton, it was probably one of the few things to go right all weekend, his teammate’s misfortune pulling him one place closer to Verstappen. A late stop for fresh tyres and the fastest lap that followed helped reduce the net deficit to the Dutchman. Hamilton ground out a result on Sunday but he, and Mercedes, will be mightily concerned heading to Baku.
The big imponderable ahead of a second consecutive street circuit – albeit one with differing characteristics to the frankly unique challenges of Monaco – will be whether Ferrari has unlocked some genuine consistent pace or whether it was a one-off.
Can the red cars be genuine contenders and create a bit of disruption in the championship fight? Be careful what you wish for, Max! In the meantime, enjoy the party…