F1: Round 6 – Monaco, Monte Carlo – May 16 [Updated]

Monaco is the jewel in Formula 1’s crown. Without Monte Carlo, the sport would have its heart and soul ripped out. So even though the modern cars have long since outgrown these tight, twisty streets, and even though real racing and overtaking is nigh on impossible, it simply doesn’t matter: the Monaco Grand Prix is in a class all its own. What it lacks in exciting racing is usually more than compensated by incident, controversy and outright spectacle, and 2010 was no change on that score.

The only real chance of overtaking comes at the start, but polesitter Mark Webber was never under threat from Robert Kubica; indeed, the Renault driver’s focus was on slewing across the track to block Sebastian Vettel’s bid to dash down the inside line. The extra distance Kubica was trying to cover cost him, and Vettel was able to pull off the move and go into Sainte Devote in second, with Kubica left to fend off Felipe Massa for third as the Ferrari actually went ahead on the outside line before Kubica reasserted himself and forced Massa to drop back into fourth ahead of Lewis Hamilton in fifth place.

The field streamed through Sainte Devote without incident, but the safety car was still deployed before a full lap was in the books. It was triggered by a rather bizarre accident for Williams’ Nico Hulkenberg, who lost the car in the tunnel and ended up hitting the arnco barrier with some serious force, ripping off his front wing and littering the tunnel with debris.

It was a lengthy caution – while the Monaco marshalls are unrivalled at clearing up accidents, the unusual location inside the tunnel was particularly difficult to work in, with no access for the cranes meaning that ten marshalls had to manhandle the Williams onto a trolley to wheel it clear. And the lengthy idling behind the safety car claimed another car when Jenson Button’s McLaren suddenly sent up smoke signals. Button had to park the car up as flames were visible, and it appeared that the problem was a heating blankey that was left in a sidepod duct. While no problem under race speed – and the cap could have been removed at the pit stops – the caution period had been the tipping point. Last year’s race winner was out.

The race was underway again on lap 7, and Mark Webber controlled things beautifully – he quickly opened up a healthy margin over his team mate Vettel who seemed to have nothing in reserve at Monaco, and resigned to fending off Kubica for the afternoon to protect his second place.

Further back, Fernando Alonso was on damage limitation duty after starting form the pit lane following his accident in Saturday practice that cracked his chassis and put him out of qualifying. Like the rest of the field he started on supersoft tyres, but the safety car gave him the chance to pit at the end of lap 1 and take on the prime tyres: provided he could make them last the full race distance, this had basically given him the gift of a completely free pit stop. He was back out, albeit still last on track – but everyone ahead of him would have to pit at some point.

Alonso now set about grasping some of the low-hanging fruit. Lucas di Grassi in the Virgin proved a frustrating obstacle, blocking for all his worth even as he struggled to hold on to the Virgin; Alonso finally got past him at the chicane after di Grassi had a wobble in the tunnel section. Alonso found Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock far easier, while his move on the Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen (again on the exit of the tunnel) on lap 17 was the move of the afternoon, a sublime piece of misdirection and forcefulness.

At this point, alarm bells were ringing at McLaren. The rate Alonso was cutting through the field, Lewis Hamilton was at risk of exiting the pits at his tyre change behind the Ferrari. McLaren reacted immediately, bringing Hamilton in and putting him back out on track just in front of his old arch rival; and then the penny dropped with the other teams who scrambled to follow suit. Only Red Bull could afford to be more sanguine, and race leader Mark Webber was one of the last drivers to come in: the top five were unchanged, but Alonso had pulled off a dazzling sixth place after starting from the pit lane.

With no further pit stops in prospect, and Alonso now slotted in at a point where he would make no further headway, the race was set for a procession for the next fifty laps to the chequered flag. It needed some rain to shake things up, but none was ever likely. But as it turns out there were still several incidents to follow, resulting in three safety cars and a controversial last corner move that would end up in the race stewards’ office.

The next safety car – the second of the day – came on lap 31 when Rubens Barrichello followed his Williams team mate out of the race in similarly dramtatic fashion. A problem at the left rear of the car – either a tyre or wheel failure – sent him into the arnco on one side of the track at Massenet, rebounding across to hit the barrier on the other side, before finally coming to a halt in the middle of the track facing the wrong way, bodywork on fire. Rubens had had a decent start – climbing to sixth at the start although dropping back to 10th at the pit stops – and he appeared furious, throwing his steering wheel out of the cockpit right onto the track where Lewis Hamilton promptly ran over it, fortunately without any serious consequences.

Another restart, and another opportunity for a perfect display by Mark Webber who once again lept away at the front and started pulling out his lead again. That lasted until the third safety car of the afternoon on lap 43, a curious affair of the loose drain cover at turn 3 which no one could spot and which seemed to be dealt with rather quickly and with no discernible marshall activity.

And then they were away again, Webber in charge once more, and – as is usual at a dry Monaco – the drivers has now settled into position and were acting to conserve engines and tyres for the remainder of the race. No one was trying anything eye-catching during this time, and all the spectators watching from balconies and boats could afford to take half an hour of shut-eye.

Among the cars that dropped out were both Virgins and both Saubers with technical problems, as well as Bruno Senna and Heikki Kovalainen – whose pace had been pretty impressive at times, but whose day was undone by a long pit stop delay. Vitaly Petrov also crawled into the pits four laps before the end with technical issues, and packed up for the day.

It looked like the day was over, but there would be one more safety car sting in the tale. On lap 74, an 20-lap battle between Jarno Trulli and Karun Chandhok for 14th place ended in drama when Trulli tried a move up the inside of Chandhok, lost grip and slid into the side of the Hispania at Racasse. The wheels locked together and, as so often happens in open wheel racing, one car was launched up in the air – this time it was Trulli, and the Lotus slithered up and crawled over the top of the HRT. If not for the roll hoop, Chandhok’s head would have been right in the danger zone, but instead the two cars came to a stop balanced on top of one another obstructing most of the track, but both drivers climbed out unhurt.

This was the only moment that threatened Mark Webber’s race domination, because he was just feet behind the duo when the accident happened, and he had to react fast to avoid piling into the wreckage. The marshalls initially tried not to activate the safety car a fourth time since it would mean the race ending under yellow – never a satisfactory climax to the day – but the position of the two cars and the way they were locked together meant there was no choice.

To make the finishing line photos just that little more appealing, the safety car was called in at the end of the final lap to allow the cars to get up to speed and take the chequered flag in proper F1 style. But the ever-calculating Michael Schumacher sensed an opportunity in this moment, and as soon as Fernando Alonso in sixth passed the white line that marked the safety car in-point, Schumacher accelerated into the Anthony Noghes corner and caught the Ferrari out, causing Alonso to nearly lose control and give the barrier a glancing blow as Schuey powered past to take the position by the flag.

Except … Was it a legal move? At any normal restart, there would have been no question as Schumacher had judged that white line to perfection. But according to a new 2010 line regulation, no overtaking was allowed if the safety car was out on the final lap. So, QED then – another attempt at cheating by the Schumeister, just like the old days, right? Well, not necessarily. The key came down to the wording of the rules and whether or not the safety car was indeed deemed to be out at that point of the last lap or not – and if it had been, why bother to bring in the safety car when they did at all, if not to allow one last burst of racing for the fans? Both Ferrari and Mercedes seemed confident in their arguments of who had on sixth place, and ironically the decision would come down to this weekend’s ‘driver representative” on the stewards’ committee – one Damon Hill, arch rival in the 90s of Michael Schumacher and the driver widely seen to have been ‘cheated’ of the title in 1994. Would Damon have his revenge on Michael all this time on?

Unfortunately the decision was not fast in forthcoming, but when it came there must have been a slight wry grin on Damon Hill’s face, as the stewards agreed it was a blatant breach of rule 40.13, which states that “if the race ends whilst the safety car is deployed it will enter the pitlane at the end of the last lap and the cars will take the chequered flag as normal without overtaking.” End of story, whatever the track information systems may or may not have said about the safety car being out on the last lap. Schumacher was duly handed a 20s penalty, which – because of how everyone was packed together behind the safety car – put him to the back of the remaining cars still running, a bitter blow for the multiple world champion and another chapter of controversy for the German.

But controversy further down the field didn’t have any impact on the Red Bull celebrations, which seemed to centre around various members of the team being dragged into the swimming pool on top of the Red Bull motor home – only in F1, and only in Monaco. Mark Webber resisted Sebastian Vettel’s good-natured attempts to drag him in, preferring instead to execute an impressive back flip under his own power instead.

Even when it came to the celebrations, it seemed, nothing and no one could stop Mark Webber having it exactly his own way this weekend. And with such a dominant win here in Monaco – a circuit they were not optimistic about – it’s now looking ominously as though Red Bull have control of the 2010 championships.

Can anyone stop them?

Race result

Pos  Driver        Team                       Time
 1.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault           1h50:00.000
 2.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault           +     0.448
 3.  Kubica        Renault                    +     1.600
 4.  Massa         Ferrari                    +     2.600
 5.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes           +     4.300
 6.  Alonso        Ferrari                    +     6.300
 7.  Rosberg       Mercedes                   +     6.600
 8.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes       +     6.900
 9.  Liuzzi        Force India-Mercedes       +     7.300
10.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +     8.100
11.  Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +     9.100
12.  Schumacher    Mercedes                   +    25.700 *
13.  Petrov        Renault                    +    4 laps

Fastest lap: Vettel, 1:15.192

(* including 20s penalty)

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                         On lap
Chandhok      HRT-Cosworth                 71
Trulli        Lotus-Cosworth               71
Kovalainen    Lotus-Cosworth               59
Senna         HRT-Cosworth                 59
Barrichello   Williams-Cosworth            31
Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari               27
Di Grassi     Virgin-Cosworth              26
Glock         Virgin-Cosworth              23
De la Rosa    Sauber-Ferrari               22
Button        McLaren-Mercedes             3
Hulkenberg    Williams-Cosworth            1

World Championship standings after round 6

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Webber        78        1.  Red Bull-Renault          156
 2.  Vettel        78        2.  Ferrari                   136
 3.  Alonso        75        3.  McLaren-Mercedes          129
 4.  Button        70        4.  Mercedes                   78
 5.  Massa         61        5.  Renault                    65
 6.  Kubica        59        6.  Force India-Mercedes       30
 7.  Hamilton      59        7.  Williams-Cosworth           8
 8.  Rosberg       56        8.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari          4
 9.  Schumacher    22       
10.  Sutil         20       
11.  Liuzzi        10       
12.  Barrichello    7       
13.  Petrov         6       
14.  Alguersuari    3       
15.  Hulkenberg     1 
16.  Buemi          1  
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