Opinion F1 Unlocked
PALMER: Driving in Monaco is never easy – but the skill this time was super impressive
Driving around Monaco is never simple, but it’s also rarely as difficult as we saw for the drivers on Sunday.
When rain started falling on Lap 51 the race was thrust into overdrive with the drivers having to use all of their senses to keep the cars on track and negotiate both traffic chaos and race defining strategy decisions.
Keeping the cars on track on slicks in the wet is no mean feat. Nobody knew if they should pit for intermediates as the rain fell or stick to the slick tyres they were on. The rain wasn’t forecast to be particularly heavy, and had it stopped within a couple of laps of it starting then the correct call would have been to stay on slicks, hold on until the track dried, and avoid making two pitstops.
However, with the rain intensifying, staying on track with slicks in the wet proved the wrong call and created an impossible task for those left out.
As many drivers remarked after the race, it was amazing there was no need for the Safety Car, because having 20 and then 19 cars (after Stroll’s retirement) circulating together in such conditions should have proved chaotic, but nobody clattered a barrier hard enough to do significant damage.
This is in part due to the skill of the drivers. Already this year I’ve praised the driving standards at other street circuits like Baku, but it was even more evident in Monaco.
Having the control to dance a Formula 1 car through the narrow streets on slicks in the wet was impressive. I know first hand how hard it is to drive the Monaco circuit in the wet and it makes me appreciate these drives even more.
The slick tyres don’t move any water so eventually as the rain becomes heavier you are just skating over the top of it with no grip at all, like driving on ice.
That’s what did cause a couple of incidents, like those for Lance Stroll and Carlos Sainz, who went spinning into the run off at Mirabeau. The downhill braking zone is particularly treacherous and even caught out drivers who had pitted for intermediates, like George Russell.
The other reason that we didn’t get more damage is because of where the rain came from. It started falling in the slow middle sector hairpins, which are corners taken at the lowest speed. This meant that with cars slowing down a bit more for the conditions, there was more margin for drivers to catch slides, get offline and correct it before finding the barriers.
Had the rain come from the other side of the circuit I can’t imagine everybody would have kept it out of the barriers in the same way, if they were trying to negotiate the swimming pool on slicks, or Tabac for example. Faster corners mean less reaction time, and if you start pointing the wrong way or getting offline, you find the barrier immediately, as Mick Schumacher found out last year.
Already during the Monaco Grand Prix there’s less time for the drivers to communicate over the radio, or think about the bigger picture of the race, because the corners come thick and fast. Once it started raining this communication became a crucial part of race planning, so as well as controlling the car they were having to think about race strategy and track conditions.
This was much harder for them, with everything else to contend with, than those on the pit wall. When Fernando Alonso was asked about conditions before his erroneous pit stop, he declared some corners very wet and some too dry, before summing up with, “I don’t know mate”.
The drivers are strapped into the cars, they are feeling the grip and can give feedback at that moment, but they also have no idea on the weather forecast and what anybody around them is doing. They don’t know what the gaps are to cars ahead or behind or what tyres people are fast on.
That’s why when it gets to a situation like we had on Sunday, they can only provide feedback on the present grip level of the track and hope that the team of strategists can add that to their more complex calculations and get it right.
For Alonso it was hopelessly the wrong call. Had he pitted for inters as Alpine and Mercedes did on the same lap, he might have won the Grand Prix. He’d have emerged at least five seconds up the road when Verstappen pitted on the subsequent lap, such was the gain on intermediates.
The interesting thing though was that even after the race he seemed blissfully unaware of this missed opportunity. It looked like Aston Martin were so focused on securing second that they missed the potential opportunity to beat Red Bull and win the race.
It’s the sort of race where things can so easily go wrong. When you are in a good position, you first of all need the driver to make no mistakes which is a tough enough ask – even Verstappen rattled a couple of barriers from a comfortable lead.
Then you need to make the right strategy calls in the most critical of circumstances. The bonus that Aston Martin had was that they could pit for another stop and correct the first because of Alonso’s gap back to third.
For everybody else it was make or break in the strategy stakes as well as the driving. Whilst Ferrari and Aston Martin got it wrong, Alpine and Ocon deserve credit for absolutely nailing it.
Under pressure, looking for a rare podium after a rough start to the season, both team and driver delivered faultless performances. It was great to see them complete a perfect weekend with a podium, so thoroughly deserved.