F1: Round 6 – Monaco, Monte Carlo – May 24

Monaco is a magical place and the spiritual home of Formula 1. To win here is to join the legends of motorsport. And today the win went to a perfect, flawless drive by Jenson Button whose dream season simply shows no sign of losing its golden lustre.

The win was essentially set-up by Button’s breathtaking, last minute pole position lap on Saturday which seemingly came from nowhere. That ability to come up with a pole at the critical moment is the hallmark of a world champion, and Jenson has convincingly showed that ability this weekend.

But there was still the concern that with Kimi Raikkonen starting alongside in second, Jenson could lose the lead into the first corner and wreck the game plan. The start was essential: and the start, for Brawn GP at least, was perfect. Both cars got away off the line while Kimi was slightly slow, losing the second spot to Rubens Barrichello. Behind them, Kimi’s team mate Felipe Massa was having a better time of it, vaulting into 5th place from 7th on the grid to slot in behind Sebastian Vettel.

Realising that he was going to be badly held up by the Red Bull, Massa was determined to get past Vettel as soon as possible and on lap 7 practised a move coming out of the tunnel. Next time through he tried it in earnest but it didn’t pay off: the Ferrari was forced to overshoot the chicane and cede the position back to Vettel. Unfortunately in so doing, Massa was powerless to avoid Nico Rosburg slipping through in Vettel’s wake, and the net result was a place lost for all his efforts.

Jenson, Rubens and Sebastian had all gambled on using the supersoft tyres for their first stint, which did a great job at the start while Ferrari used the harder prime tyres. But the supersofts started to deteriorate fast and as quickly as lap 10, Vettel was in dire trouble with the lack of grip. By now he was holding up the rest of the field and running at times over 2s a lap slower than the leader, whose trademark smooth driving style made the supersofts last just that bit longer.

On lap 11, the dam burst and Rosburg, Massa and Heikki Kovalainen streamed past Vettel in quick succession; Vettel had no choice but to pit for some prime tyres. That proved bad timing for him and he emerged in traffic, wrecking his chances of a good result today. Perhaps that frustration is what put him into the barriers on the exit of Sainte Devote on lap 16, and out of the race.

Barrichello was next to really struggle on the supersofts and his pace started to fall off a cliff. He had never been intended to serve as Jenson’s “rear gunner” but that’s essentially what he now became, a roadblock holding back Kimi Raikkonen who was right behind with the rest of the field starting to close on them both now that Vettel was off the scene. Immediately Ferrari reacted by bringing Kimi in on lap 16, sending him back out still on the harder tyres and hoping for some hot laps to vault themselves into second.

But Ross Brawn is master of tactics and sensed the danger, reacting immediately by bringing Rubens in the following lap and slotting him back onto the track ahead of Kimi. Jenson was made to stay out a lap longer despite having started the race lighter on fuel, but he came in on lap 18 and it all worked out for Brawn: Jenson and Rubens now led Kimi and Felipe, with Williams’ Nico Rosburg falling back after needing a longer fuel stop than the others.

And that, to be honest, was the race. Okay – there were another 60 laps to run, but basically it was a done deal. The expert view of this circuit is that you simply can’t overtake at Monaco and by and large that proved true, resulting in a processional race from here on. Personally I never really mind about the race becoming a procession at Monaco because there’s so much glorious scenery to look at here, but the fact remains that it’s pretty hopeless for competition unless there’s some inclement weather. No such luck today: it was a perfect, gorgeous early summer on the Mediterranean coast.

Of course it’s still possible for some excitement as a result of someone making a mistake in these incredibly tight conditions. Felipe Massa, for example, was getting multiple warnings for cutting a chicane and getting told by his Ferrari race engineer to calm down or risk a drive-thru penalty that would have changed his entire afternoon. Fortunately he followed instructions, even though it meant he never had a real chance of overtaking his team mate directly in front as a result.

We’d already lost Vettel early on, and the race had also taken a double hit on lap 11 when Sebastien Buemi totally screwed up his braking out of Sainte Devote and ploughed the Toro Rosso into the back of Nelson Piquet’s Renault, streamrolling them both off the track into the run off area. Both cars had terminal damage.

Just when things appeared settled toward the end of the race, we lost two more cars. Heikki Kovalainen cut the kerbs in the Swimming Pool section on lap 52 and destabilised the car, crushing the nose into the barrier and then spinning backwards across the track showering carbon fibre as it went; and a lap before the end, Kazuki Nakajima lost the back end of the car through Mirabeau and collected the tyre barrier, abdicating from a 10th place finish in the process.

Kovalainen’s retirement capped a terrible day for McLaren. Whatever strategy they had been planning for Lewis Hamilton who had been starting from the back row, simply didn’t pay off. In part that was because of some front wing and wheel damage sustained in early battles with the BMWs that affected pace and handling, but nothing changes the fact that the reigning world champion laboured at the back of the field for the entire afternoon and got himself thoroughly lapped in the process.

Considering their dismal form in practice and qualifying, Toyota could almost be delighted by getting Timo Glock as high as 10th place, but the fact remains that it was a bad event for both Toyota and BMW, with neither team featuring in the race and all their cars finishing a lap off from the leader – except for Robert Kubica who had called it a day long before on lap 31, retiring to the pits with damage.

But as bad a day as it had been for McLaren, Toyota and BMW, it was a very good one for Ferrari who raced on to secure strong 3rd and 4th positions for Kimi and Rubens. It will be tinged with disappointment that they couldn’t have gone even further in challenging the Brawn drivers, but it’s still a huge improvement on their season to date. Is it an anomaly just for Monaco, or the start of a sustained revival for the rest of the season? We’ll have to wait until Turkey to find out.

Mark Webber will be pleased with 5th, at long last not having to share the limelight with his young team mate Vettel, while Nico Rosburg finally delivered on all that practice pace by taking sixth ahead of Fernando Alonso, who wrung the neck of his Renault to good effect with 7th. Behind them, Sebastian Bourdais had his best F1 result with a point for 8th place.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that this was a one-team affair: Brawn were triumphant. Or to put it another way: Brawn rocked. Both drivers drove incredibly well, but Rubens can’t have any complaint with coming second this time around because the bald truth of the matter was that Jenson Button was the better driver today and the deserved winner. It was the perfect drive for the Briton.

In fact the only mistake Jenson made all afternoon was after the chequered flag, when he parked the car in parc fermé. That’s standard practice at every other circuit, but at Monaco the podium finishers are meant to overshoot the pit lane and park up on the start/finish line as there is no easy way for the drivers to get through the infield from parc fermé to the podium. It was too late for Jenson to do anything about (the other cars were parking up behind him by now) and so all he could do was set off for a run along the Grand Prix circuit, through the last turn and up the straightaway.

And as seemingly with everything Jenson Button touches this season, it turned into a little moment of television gold: the sight of the winner running (rather than driving) a victory lap in front of the grandstands, waving and savouring the moment, will be a piece of oft-replayed F1 history. And dammit if he then didn’t arrive on the podium looking fresher and more energised than Rubens and Kimi who were both red-faced and exhausted.

Remember back in March, when Brawn took an unexpected 1-2 in Australia after being on the brink of not even being in F1 at all in 2009? We all thought then it was a fairytale and that it would never get any better than that moment right then, that things would trail off from there. Well, two months and four more races in and we’re still waiting for the fairytale to wear off; and instead we see Brawn get the ultimate 1-2 prize in Formula 1 at Monaco. To quote the winner: “Yeah, Monaco, baby!”

And, moreover, we’re seeing what looked like a fluke in Australia turning race-by-race into a sustained and increasingly unassailable world championship campaign for Jenson Button.

Race result

Pos  Driver        Team                    Time
 1.  Button        Brawn GP-Mercedes       1h40:44.282
 2.  Barrichello   Brawn GP-Mercedes       +     7.666
 3.  Raikkonen     Ferrari                 +    13.443
 4.  Massa         Ferrari                 +    15.110
 5.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault        +    15.730
 6.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota         +    33.586
 7.  Alonso        Renault                 +    37.839
 8.  Bourdais      Toro Rosso-Ferrari      +  1:03.142
 9.  Fisichella    Force India-Mercedes    +  1:05.040
10.  Glock         Toyota                  +     1 lap
11.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber              +     1 lap
12.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes        +     1 lap
13.  Trulli        Toyota                  +     1 lap
14.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes    +     1 lap
15.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota         +    2 laps

Fastest lap: Massa, 1:15.154

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes          52
Kubica        BMW Sauber                31
Vettel        Red Bull-Renault          16
Piquet        Renault                   11
Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari        11

World championship standings after round 6

What can you say about Brawn GP, which now has a staggering margin over the rest of the field? They have double the number of points of their nearest rival, which is Red Bull. And despite their dismal weekend, Toyota remain in 3rd place a dceent margin ahead of Ferrari. But no one is forgetting that Ferrari seem to be getting up to speed at last, and you can expect them to power their way up through the constructors championship in the coming weeks.

Jenson Button has a 16pt lead over his team mate, which is impressive but far from comfortable with 11 races to go in the season. Much better reading is how much of a lead the Brawn drivers have over Vettel, Webber and the rest however: there’s no question that they are the ones to catch, and it’s looking like an increasingly tall order for anyone to turn the season around to that extent.

Still, as the Bard of F1 (Murray Walker, of course) always says: “Anything can happen in F1. And it usually does.” No one’s counting world championships quite yet.

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Button        51        1.  Brawn GP-Mercedes      86
 2.  Barrichello   35        2.  Red Bull-Renault       42.5
 3.  Vettel        23        3.  Toyota                 26.5
 4.  Webber        19.5      4.  Ferrari                17
 5.  Trulli        14.5      5.  McLaren-Mercedes       13
 6.  Glock         12        6.  Renault                11
 7.  Alonso        11        7.  Williams-Toyota        7.5
 8.  Raikkonen      9        8.  BMW Sauber              6
 9.  Hamilton       9        9.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      5
10.  Massa          8       
11.  Rosberg       7.5       
12.  Heidfeld       6       
13.  Kovalainen     4       
14.  Buemi          3       
15.  Bourdais       2       

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