The Red Bull strategy calls that wrong-footed Ferrari after Perez's crucial qualifying crash in Monaco
The Ferraris and the Red Bulls were the only fully competitive cars around Monaco last weekend, with a performance level way beyond that of the third-fastest Mercedes. Of the four drivers in contention, each had a realistic shot of winning the Monaco Grand Prix but it was Sergio Perez who converted his shot into reality…
The route to that victory was littered with the failures and errors of others, while his own single error – that of his crash at the end of qualifying – ironically contributed to his race day success. Within those circumstances, Perez then delivered a near-perfect drive, one which pressured Ferrari into a serious tactical error.
The foundation of it all was his speed around this track at which he has always been extremely competitive, right back to his GP2 days (in Christian Horner’s Arden team). He was habitually slightly quicker than team mate Max Verstappen all weekend and qualified ahead of him, third-fastest.
The car’s reluctance to switch on its front tyres gave it an understeer balance, particularly in the beginning of the lap, which Verstappen did not like but which posed less of a problem for Perez.
But eventually, in the last runs of Q3, Verstappen seemed to have found a way around the worst of that limitation. He was doing a multiple-lap prep run which appeared to be working in giving him the grip he was missing through Sainte Devote and the Massenet/Casino combination. On what was set to be his final lap, he was quicker than either Perez or Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz through Sector 1 and with the track still getting quicker, he looked poised to finally become the faster Red Bull.
But it was a lap he didn’t get to complete – because of the accident of Perez at Portier. This secured Perez’s third place and ensued he was the leading Red Bull in the race – which turned out to be crucially important.
With Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz having locked out the front row, the lead quartet ran the early stages of the race in grid formation, all on wet weather tyres. On a drying track the strategic conundrum was going to be whether to gets the wets to last long enough to be able to change straight onto slicks. Or whether it would be better to run a middle phase on intermediate tyres, which were far faster than the wets but entailing an extra pit stop.
Perez and Red Bull together forced this conundrum on Ferrari by pitting early, on Lap 16, as soon as there was a gap in the traffic for him to drop into. He had been 8s adrift of the leader Leclerc as he came in. Ferrari now had a problem of what to do. Did it pit Leclerc in response? If it did so, the danger was that the wets-straight-onto-slicks strategy may turn out to be faster – and Verstappen would possibly use it to jump them.
Ferrari ideally needed to pit Sainz rather than Leclerc at this point. But this would have immediately lost Sainz a position to Perez. Sainz furthermore was pushing to stay out on his wets and wanted to miss the intermediates out. Ferrari felt it could delay the decision by a lap after Perez made the stop because of that eight-second margin. But that was to underestimate just how much faster the intermediates were.
In pitting Leclerc two laps after Perez, rather than one lap later, they allowed Perez to undercut past Leclerc. Perez’s immediate pace on those intermediates was a crucial part of wrong-footing Ferrari and therefore of his subsequent victory.
That still left Sainz to conquer. He stayed out in the lead on his old wets until Lap 21 before pitting for slicks. Perez’s continuing pace on the inters had brought him threateningly close, but he still needed to make the stop for slicks.
It was going to be tight between them, as Perez gave it everything on his in-lap while Sainz exited the pits. Crucially, as the Ferrari accelerated up to speed it was passed by Nicholas Latifi’s Williams, which was effectively unlapping itself. This badly slowed Sainz, who was unable to repass until the beginning of the tunnel, further slowing him by preventing him getting the tyres quickly up to temperature.
That was all the help Perez needed and he was accelerating out of that pit exit just as Sainz was exiting Sainte Devote. The estimated 1.5-1.7s delay Sainz suffered behind the Williams had made all the difference.
With no more stops to make and the lead established around a place where overtaking between equal cars is so close to impossible, Perez had essentially now broken the back of the race – and was on his way to a stunning victory.