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GP Week : Issue 118
Digital Caption F1 MONACO >> Nothing. He had waited. Now he was out there. He knew the target. And then Sergio Perez did on light fuel what Nico had done on heavy. Unlike Nico, though, Perez’s Sauber hit that pneumatic barrier hard. Q3 was red-flagged to a halt. Sergio was heavily concussed and bruised but okay; he wouldn’t race on Sunday. In a rehearsal of what was to come, then, Q3 was restarted. There was time for but one flying lap. Lewis and McLaren were shocked. A fight for the pole was dissolving into a fight for at least something. Lewis tried hard, couldn’t find tyre temperature, over-shot the chicane and went nowhere. About the only consolation (in starting ninth, when he could have been first or second) was that his one and only lap was deleted due to the chicane infringement. With no flying lap to his name, he could start on the Pirelli yellow (the harder of the two compounds) and perhaps out-strategize them on Sunday. Fernandowasalsofabtowatch.There were no Seb-like antics on Thursday: here was a Fernando wholly different from the Ferrari driver who in 2010 trashed his chassis on Saturday morning and thus dialled himself out of a podium. (He was different in appearance, too: gone for this race was the familiar blue-based helmet; he wore instead a gold-themed Schuberth that will be auctioned after Singapore, where he will also use it. Fernando created the design himself, overseen by his wife.) Smooth and polished in 2011, Fernando worked hard with his job list. By the end, he had qualified fourth, even though he had been saving it for one, final, blistering run. I asked Felipe Massa afterwards how the Ferrari, on a street circuit like this, on tyres as sticky as the new super-softs (Pirelli reds) in his view compared with the McLaren: “I think the gaps are still about the same,” he said, bouncing his leg nervously as he sat on a stool. “It helps a lot that we are in the range of the two compounds here; we have a car that feels much better.” For his part, Fernando thought that he could have managed maybe a 1min 14.0 sec lap. Maybe he could have been P3. Jenson Button looked a winner from the first laps he drove – but not a pole man, if you get my drift. His softer, later approaches are particularly obvious around Monaco. They work well on Monaco Sunday, when anything can happen; they make his corners longer – his lap longer – in qualifying. Jenson’s P2 in qualifying was a testament to both his consistency and to his relaxed, confident frame of mind. And to Mark Webber’s ongoing woes. He missed all of FP1 due to a chafed wiring loom near the gearbox. He recovered pretty well in FP2 but by FP3 it was clear that Sector One – the approach to Ste Devote in particular, where more of those ripple- waves had developed – was going to make it difficult for him to match Lewis, let alone Seb. Mark, like Fernando, was leaving his best to last – but never got to do it. Of the others, Pastor Maldonado drove exceptionally well not only to qualify the Williams eighth but also to beat Rubens (who is quick around Monaco, Jenson- style) by 0.3 sec. It’s one thing to have a strong lower-rung record around Monaco; it’s something else to translate that into a decent grid position, particularly if your car is a bit of a handful; and Michael looked good, too – fast and precise, fluent and lean. Monaco,bycontrast,heavedand coughed all weekend. Pursuit of the mighty property dollar has turned the Principality into a building site. Traffic clogged the tiny roads. Policemen in blue uniforms and white helmets blew whistles and waved their arms but shrugged when you asked them what had happened. Decent mobile phone connections were about as rare as parking spaces; tacky supercars filled hotel forecourts; and pounding music killed the spoken word. Of the Grace Kelly charm there was little to be seen. You forgive all this, though – or most of it – as the grid assembles for yet another Monaco Grand Prix. Will the field make it through Ste Devote? How will they be on full fuel loads and low pressures? It was a clean start, although Mark was gazumped by Fernando (again!) and Michael sputtered away, cars swirling around him. Seb then spoke clearly, in ways that everyone understood: he drove another of those trademark, Jim Clark-style opening laps, building daylight with every corner entry, with every exit. He was immaculate. He led by a massive 2.4 sec after one lap. He extended that quickly to 4.5-5 .0 sec – but then he backed off, protecting his tyres, for on Pirelli reds his first stint was always going to be shortish. He stopped for reds – the softer tyre – on lap 16. Jenson had recharged the lap before with another set of reds; RBR wanted to ‘cover’ the McLaren. Fernando was given the yellows – but the plan at Ferrari was always to stop again. Seb’s pit stop was slow, however. RBR’s radio system – like everyone’s smart phone – fell foul of the Monaco high rises and mountains. The crew scrambled for both Seb and Mark; Seb was given the harder yellow tyres in the confusion. Jenson took the lead. And he pulled away, of course. The track in front of him was for the most part clear and the (used) Pirelli reds offered him a second- a-lap advantage over the yellows of Seb and Fernando. Jenson looked composed and rhythmic. Without error, and meticulous with his corner exits – with the ways he sometimes lightly grazed the barriers as he squeezed on the power – Jenson pulled out a 15-sec lead. He was always going to have to stop again, of course – and he did so on lap 33, or on the 18th lap of that second stint. Surprisingly, McLaren gave him another set of reds, thereby adding focus to what Seb now had to achieve: with Jenson now obviously going for three stops, Seb could win it by being ever-more conservative on the tyres he had been given in error. Conservative in terms of acceleration and placement over bumps. Aggressive, though, he remained as he lapped slower cars and danced through the swimming pool section. By the time Jenson was finally on new yellows – in synch at last with Seb and Fernando, who had lost little time with his second stop, after a Safety Car period chimed in to perfection – it came down to this: Seb had to eke out a total of 62 laps from his yellows; Fernando had to do a total of 44 laps on his; and Jenson – quickly able to catch the leaders after his extra stops – was left with the relatively simple task of running a total of 30 laps on the hard tyres to the finish. Fernando caught Seb; Jenson caught them both. Could Seb possibly pull it off? After his pit stop, Seb’s engineers had thought it unlikely. Now Seb was proving that it could be done. On the radio, Jenson asked whether Seb (or Fernando) was going to stop again. McLaren didn’t know; they suspected, though, like the rest of us, that Seb is today capable of any trick of magic that at any moment he might consider. Fernando began to dart about in Seb’s mirrors; Jenson hung back a little, watching and waiting. Seb’s laps became longer; the finish seemed a decade away. Then came the swimming pool carnage. Then came what could have been an early finish. An ambulance arrived for Vitaly. The race was red-flagged. So we could say, if we wanted to, that Seb was saved by the situation. Jenson’s strategy (red-red-red-yellow) had indeed been enough maybe to win it; Fernando, too, was right there, having raced impeccably on a two-stop strategy (red-yellow-yellow). And others had driven strongly through the chaos: Kamui Kobayashi again sculpted a one-stopper (a start on yellows followed by 35 laps on one set of new super-softs); Pastor Maldonado (red, yellow, red) was right there, high in the mid-field, until Lewis took him out at the re-start; and Sebastien Buemi recovered well from a disappointing Q2. Hamilton took his frustration out throughout the afternoon and was penalised twice for his efforts; and Felipe Massa – one of those that Lewis hit – ran onto the tunnel marbles (and thus guardrail) as an indirect result. That we don’t know for sure what would have happened is part-Monaco, part-Pirelli: the durability of the tyres for once produced a plethora of strategies (as distinct from a bucket-load of pit stops). And Monaco, with every passing lap, produced variables that were both unpredictable and divisive. Naturally, and in the tradition of the classics. 25