Max Verstappen survived an off to come back and win. The Dutchman now has won and kept that streak of winning every race he’s started and finished even if it was with a little ‘help’ from a friend (Perez).
The drama had however kicked off from the very first practice session as all eyes were torn between newer drivers getting their first taste of F1 in free practice one and many teams showcasing new changes. At the top of this list, and for the wrong reasons, was Aston Martin who released ‘their’ new side pod designs that looked rather similar to that of Red Bull …coincidence much?
Fresh, fast talent
Speaking on the topic of giving fresh talent new opportunities, Mercedes reserve driver Nyck de Vries got a chance to drive Nicholas Latifi’s Williams and went quicker than the Canadian. No surprises there but it does add a certain question around the policy of F1 to seat drivers over the cash brought in versus what F1 should be about – having only the best drivers in the game in each seat. I certainly hope that in the future, there will be a move away from this pay-to-drive policy. Their insistence to drive this policy will have an impact on the watering down of the sport over time.
What free practice highlighted was the importance of the floor pan structure on these new F1 cars that heavily rely on ground-effect. Any damage to the underside, like what we saw in turn six, with drivers testing track limits almost immediately resulted in a return to the pit to diagnose any potential damage.
Extra eyes were cast on the Mercedes team who seemed to have gained a grip on the performance deficit of their season so far, going second and third fastest in free practice two. Enough of a confidence booster for the team going into Saturday and a good sign for the championship battle to have a third player joining.
Qualifying had its fair share of thrills and spills. Lando Norris suffered from the cruelty of the sport after having his lap deleted for overstepping track limits around turn 12, gifting Mick Schumacher his first appearance in Q3. There is a rule in F1 that states that all cars need to do their out lap above a certain delta lap time to avoid the scenario of bunching up. It’s basic science at the end of the day in that if you can keep your tyres cool and activate them at the right time, you’ll get more grip when it matters and achieve a better lap time. Basic science right? Can you see how certain drivers could potentially bend this rule?
Added to this was the extreme heat… the track’s surface temperature hit 55 degrees on Saturday, so the weekend’s strategy was always going to depend on tyre management. Another question was about open timing around when cars could be let out of the circuit during qualifying. Teams are currently free to choose but this resulted in bunching up towards the end of the session which held up Alonso. The Spaniard did not seem too phased as Alpine was quite disappointing till that moment anyway and not much could have been gained given any amount of free space. But it has brought the process into question. Should there be another system to force teams out in certain orders? Either way, something needs to change. Aston Martin’s copy and paste exercise ended up not getting them out of Q1.
Charles Leclerc delivered another ‘lap of gods’ after spinning out in his first attempt. He is proving to share traits with Senna… a qualifying master. The Red Bull of Max Verstappen seemed to be plagued by some technical gremlin with the DRS system not working, slowing Verstappen down resulting in only the second grid spot for the Dutchman. Rounding up the qualifying grid was Carlos Sainz in P3 followed by George Russell in P4.
Crosswind at four
About that race. Leclerc and Verstappen both got a great start and everyone else seemed to get through the first few corners relatively unscathed except for Magnussen who, when trying to pass Hamilton around the outside of turn four, was tagged and went off. To think… passing a seven-time World Champion around the outside would ever fly... Hamilton came off with damage and dropped down to last place after needing to pit. More on that later.
Turn four seemed to claim another victim after Carlos Sainz went off on the seventh lap. Just another sign that the Spaniard is struggling with the handling of the car and along with the constant pressure of a more successful teammate, one can’t blame him. Two laps later and guess who’s claiming yet another victim… Yes, turn four. This time it was Max Verstappen. With the drivers complaining about a heavy crosswind and in a race car that's so susceptible to air movement, this is no surprise.
Verstappen’s DRS issue continued to rear its ugly head as he fought on with George Russell who got his elbows out and proved he had what it takes to fight anyone. A sign of things to come and I, along with many others, am greedy to see more of it. Leclerc looked to be sailing smoothly into the distance when he lost power on lap 27 and had to retire.
Perez then in hot pursuit and with fresher tyres asked if he could pass Verstappen but being given the run around by his race engineer and Red Bull having avoided the awkward question of ‘team orders’ they brought Verstappen into the pits for soft slicks to gain a notable advantage on Russell and Perez. With this strategic decision made by Red Bull favouring Verstappen, one needs to feel for Perez as he’s in a continuous battle to keep his seat. It’s moments like these that will define that.
The mid-pack battle continued to deliver with Bottas, Ocon and Norris who had bad flu over the weekend and was later diagnosed with tonsilitis. Not particularly good if you’re Daniel Ricciardo. Tsunoda outshined one Pierre Gasly to get into the points with a P10 finish.
Hamilton fought his way back from P20 to P4 and, in my view, should be the driver of the day for that, but his race was marred by a water temerature issue, forcing Hamilton to slow down, which allowed Sainz to pass.
"We had a water leak on Lewis' car and general overheating on George's, and it's concerning, but we obviously need to look at the hardware," says Toto Wolff, Mercedes-AMG F1 team boss.
At the end of the day, Verstappen claimed P1 with Perez an awkward P2 and Russell coming home in third – a fantastic result for Mercedes and more motivation to improve. The travelling circus now suits up for the glitz and glamour that is Monaco and we’ll see if Charles Leclerc can lift that cloud of bad luck Monaco has always cast on him.
Words: Brent Van Der Schyff