Conclusions From The Monaco Grand Prix

A few reflections on a race that showed its age...

Last Updated: 28/05/12 12:40pm

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Monaco makes its two-headed appearance as Red Bull find a way around the Pirellis...

Monaco Is Beginning To Show Its Age
The surprise, of course, is that anyone was even slightly surprised that Sunday's race was overtaken - well, we had to check the notion still existed - by its location and transformed into another well-ordered procession. This, after all, is Monaco, sanctuary of the rich and famous, host of a lucky few, and home to the most self-indulgent, Jekyll-and-Hyde event in sport. For them, a showpiece; for those of us left behind, a snoozefest.

Barring accident or an unseasonal shower, this is how Monaco always has been - or at least it has felt that way for the past twenty years - and how it will always be. It's both the best setting in F1 and the worst venue on the calendar (we can forgive Valencia on account of its youth).

The anachronism of Monaco is not that it isn't built for speed, let alone the fastest motor vehicles on the planet, but that it exists as a place to be on the calendar of a sport funded and maintained by the size of its television audience. Monza and Silverstone are local exceptions to the rule, and Spa is an absolute exception for those who bleed petrol rather than blood, but the bottom line of F1 is that it makes its living from television and not as a spectator sport. And Monaco only sparkles for a spectator.

The explanation for the anomaly is relatively straightforward and inevitably monetary-based: Monaco is given exempt status precisely because its elite status lends itself to wowing the rich and the famous. It's the place where sponsors and backers are taken to be wined and dined and awed, to sign deals and provide the funding that keeps F1's glitzy fanfare on the road for the rest of the year. It pays its way handsomely, in other words, even if the cost is a soporific two hours for the rest of us.

But here's a question rarely, if ever, asked of Monaco's preferential treatment: for how much longer?

The 'fact' that the race was a procession is irrelevant to the debate. What really matters is the suggestion that Monaco's appeal amongst the money-changers is on the wane. According to the ever-excellent James Allen website:

'Monaco's importance an F1 business hub is diminishing as many executives are reluctant to be seen taking a "jolly" in Monaco these days. Just as the money F1 is chasing is moving East, so is the emphasis: Singapore is now the race of choice for most serious business people to entertain and be entertained around F1, as it is the gateway to Asia.'

Add in pertinent factors such as the Euro's decline and F1's relocation out of Europe, and suddenly Monaco begins to look vulnerable to change. Maybe not imminently, maybe not for a long time, but for the first time this weekend in a very long time, Monaco began to look, both on and off the track, dated.

Red Bull: Half Too Fast, Half Too Clever
The impressive thing about Mark Webber's victory wasn't how fast he went but how slowly. At the end of the race, the Australian was so sure of himself, so sure that he wouldn't crack under the pressure of forming a queue of greedy cars half-a-lap long, that he deliberately slowed his RB8 and gave the rest of us the false impression that a race had broken out.

It hadn't, not around a circuit which outlaws overtaking, but the control Webber exerted over the procession from start to finish should not be entirely dismissed on account of the circuit's restrictions. This was a job seriously well done.

Quite what Weber's triumph told us about his World Championship credentials, beyond propelling him to within three points of the leader, Fernando Alonso, is a different matter. Webber evidently possessed the pace for victory but then so too did at least half-a-dozen others. Had Michael Schumacher started on pole then, barring the mistake that Webber never committed, he would surely have triumphed; had Heikki Kovalainen somehow started the race on pole then, judging by the way he was able to rebuff Jenson Button's tepid advances, the Caterham probably would have won too. Monaco is that kind of place.

Around a circuit where track position is not so much king as dictator and deity rolled into one, Webber had this race in the bag from Saturday afternoon. His job on Sunday was not to drop it.

As such, once credit is given for Webber's refusal to buckle, it is his performance in qualifying that ought to be dwelt upon. Not only did he once again thrash Sebastian Vettel, but the importance of qualifying this season is a subject which deserves greater prominence. For all the fuss about the variables thrown into the mix by the fast-degrading Pirellis, it seems to have passed largely overlooked that in five of the six races so far, it has been the driver leading either off the line into the first corner who has go on to secure a relatively comfortable victory.

It's a curious thing, but the Pirellis thus diminish and ratchet up the importance of qualifying. For while Webber half-won Sunday's race on Saturday afternoon, Vettel was able to find a route around his qualy woes by adopting a different strategy that put him in clean air for fifteen critical laps. The fact that Vettel had saved an extra set of tyres by not competing in Q3 was in fact irrelevant; what mattered was that, by being able to start on the soft tyres, he was able to run for far longer during his first stint and in fresh air once all the other supersoft-running frontrunners had made their stop. It was a genius ploy, apparently thought-up on Friday's rest day, and Machiavellian in its exploitation of the loophole in qualifying that rewards inactivity.

Too clever for McLaren and almost too clever for Ferrari. Had they realised that fresh air was so conducive to lap times, and that the softs required a relatively-long bedding-in period, then they could have still found a way to trump Webber by running Fernando for longer on his first stint too.

Rain, Rain, Rain...Come Quicker Next Time
And then there was the race that Monaco nearly was: had the grand prix started just half-an-hour later than scheduled, it would have ended in a rain deluge and, most likely, chaos and carnage. Given that this race had been crying out for rain throughout, there was a certain salt-in-wound cruelty to watching the deluge fall and something very fitting about that the teams, minus any brollies, not expecting it either.

Having endlessly forecast rain throughout the weekend, F1's favourite ingredient only arrived in a torrent when the paddock seemingly least expected it. Weather forecasting must be harder than it looks, but it's an ongoing bafflement that the world's most technologically-advanced sport makes such heavy weather of accurately predicting when rain might be on its way.

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
As for the rest of the race the less written, the quicker forgotten. Though the circuit itself does not lend itself to overtaking opportunities whenever it is dry, this season's circumstances and characteristics hardly helped either.

Each of the frontrunners had persuasive reason from their lofty standing in the Drivers' Championship not to risk a move - the only overtake attempt of any driver came from the one championship contender not in the points - while the similarity of the field's lap-times left no room for manoeuvre. Nor was there a driver mistake of any particular repute.

F1, perhaps, has become too good for a circuit that only entertains when its bad.

Tough And Tougher Times For McLaren
In a season of such wildly fluctuating fortunes, encapsulated by Pastor Maldonado's two-week headlong descent from hero to silly zero in Saturday morning practice, the steady, race-by-race decline of Jenson Button must have alarm bells ringing inside Woking. Unable to switch on his tyres in qualifying, the races have started to pass Jenson by too. McLaren's race-pace has never quite matched their qualifying performances, but both now appear to be on the wane - third, although hardly a disaster, was Lewis' worst Saturday result of the season while Jenson only squeezed out of Q1 by a solitary tenth.

Coupled with their continued problems in the pits and the lack of any clever direction from the pitwall, the impression is of a season steadily ebbing away from McLaren. Hamilton is no longer the favourite for the Drivers' Championship, nor they for the Constructors'. They have it all to prove, starting afresh, in Canada.

Maldonado, meanwhile, voiced his grievances after being demoted ten grid-slots for ramming Sergio Perez, pointing out that his punishment was double that meted out to Schumacher for colliding with Bruno Senna in Spain. The difference, though, was that Schumacher's mutually-destructive crash into Senna was not deliberate, whereas the stewards must have determined Maldonado's punt into the Sauber to have been intentional. The real grievance ought to have been Perez's and the question asked why was the Williams driver only sent back ten places. If a driver is judged guilty of deliberately causing an accident with another, he should surely be excluded from the event.

As for the Williams team, they could be forgiven for asking when Bruno Senna might make an appearance again. Anonymous other than when exiting in Spain, he was also listed as being in Monaco this weekend but his presence slipped by unnoticed, and he left without a trace.

Signs Of Improvement From Massa And Schumacher
Yet while Bruno was failing to show up, there were mini-comebacks aplenty further afield.

As suspected it might do, Senna's Q1 spin in Barcelona not only let Jean-Eric Vergne off the hook from another first-hurdle exit but also paved the way for successive in-house 'victories' over Daniel Ricciardo, Michael Schumacher provided the convincing impression of a driver not finished with F1 just yet, while Felipe Massa was consistently impressive in every session.

Only in Q3, when a repeat of his Q2 time would have seen him trump Fernando Alonso, did he falter. His eight-points haul on Sunday also served a useful purpose in adding respectability to his overall score, but the crux problem hanging over both Massa and Schumacher is that they are so far behind their respective team-mates in such a tightly-fought season.

It's not beyond the realms of fantasy that either Rosberg or Alonso could win the Drivers' Championship this season for a team that finishes fourth, fifth or even sixth in the Constructors' Championship. And until Massa and Schumacher make that scenario unfeasible, the uncomfortable reality is that the threat of the axe will continue to follow them wherever F1 goes next.

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