By: Sam Moores
It’s that time of the year again, late May, traditionally when the Monaco Grand Prix is held. The original street race in the Principality is home to a stunning marina, and one of the most iconic weekends on the sporting calendar.
Friday saw this year’s Monaco Grand Prix weekend get underway, with the race on Sunday, how fitting would it be to go back and re-live last year’s race?
2021 was the first race in the country in two years, after an absence in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a great welcome back to F1 for Monaco, but this iconic race will be remembered for everything but the racing.
It was the fifth weekend of the season, a season which looked at that point to be heading towards a Lewis Hamilton championship win. His eighth.
The Brit had just won his 3rd race of the season in Spain, whilst his main title rival Max Verstappen had won just the one in Imola, the second race of the season. He had a 14 point lead on the Dutchman heading into that weekend.
Ferrari were the talking point of Friday’s practice sessions however, as they looked to have one of the fastest packages of any team on the grid. It was the first time they’d been that high on the timesheets on a Friday since 2019. That was down to their car’s strong point, low-speed corners.
And we all know that there are plenty of those in Monaco.
Mick Schumacher had a huge crash in FP3 on Saturday, one that ruled him out of qualifying that afternoon. He lost the rear of the car at the corner of Casino Square. Luckily he was okay to race on Sunday.
Qualifying in Monaco is the most important Saturday of the season, as due to the lack of overtaking on the track, it plays a huge part in the race result on Sunday.
Due to the nature of the track, it’s also one of the most difficult Saturdays of the season for the drivers. Anything can happen as the track temperature gets warmer and warmer, cars are setting their fastest laps all over the place. One mistake and you can be punished, even more so than anywhere else.
After Q1, the eliminated drivers were Mick Schumacher (non-participant), and Nikita Mazepin in the Haas, and Nicholas Latifi in the Williams from 20th to 18th. Fernando Alonso, and Yuki Tsunoda perhaps more surprisingly were in 17th and 16th in the Alpine and Alpha Tauri. Tsunoda was struggling with the Alpha Tauri at the time, but it still had pace, Alonso on the other hand, was caught out, and couldn’t put the lap time together when it mattered.
Mr Saturday struck once again, getting that Williams into Q2. Sadly for George Russell, he could only manage P15 in that session. Kimi Raikonnen and Lance Stroll were to line up in front of him in 13th and 14th respectively. Daniel Ricciardo could only manage to qualify in P12, in one of a fair few disappointing Saturday performances over his time at Mclaren, an unfortunate day for the man who’d won the race in 2018. Esteban Ocon would line up next to him in 11th, whilst you have to admire the performance from Antonio Giovinazzi, putting the Alfa in Q3!
The top-10 shootout of Qualifying 3 in Monaco is more of a normal Q3 session, as there’s less time to prepare for a lap. The teams only normally get two or three push laps. After the first runs, it was the hometown hero Charles Leclerc on provisional pole, 2 tenths faster than anyone else.
Max Verstappen was behind him in P2, whilst the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas was two-hundredths of a second behind him in 3rd. Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, in the other Ferrari and Mclaren, made up the top 5. Those two were actually two hundredths behind Bottas. That’s what you get with a circuit as short as Monaco, tiny margins. Pierre Gasly, Sebastian Vettel and Antonio Giovinazzi topped off their impressive qualifying sessions with a provisional P6, P8 and P10 placing.
Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez, much like Alonso couldn’t put a lap together on the first run, sitting 7th and 9th respectively. Unfortunately for them, that’s where they’d remain as well, as the session was red-flagged just as everyone was attempting their second and final push lap. That was due to the provisional pole sitter Charles Leclerc having crashed at the swimming pool chicane. Was it intentional? We’ll never know.
Leclerc hit the wall on the exit of turn 14 and went straight over the chicane that was to follow, and into the wall in front of him at turn 17, damaging his front wing and the structure of the car. That meant he was on pole for the race, but whether he’d be able to start there or not was a different question.
Ferrari believed that they’d repaired Charles’ car in time and that it was good to go to start from pole in the race on Sunday afternoon, sending him out to the grid when the pit lane exit opened. On the way out to the grid, we heard the Monegasque driver come on the radio and express concern with “No!, the gearbox guys.” Leclerc made his way to the pitlane to see if there was anything they could do to fix the issue, even if meant they’d have to start from the pitlane, but what actually turned out to be a drive shaft problem wouldn’t be repaired in time.
So unfortunately for Charles’ his Monaco curse continued and he would not start the race. He’s never finished a race in his place of birth, never.
That meant that Max Verstappen would line up alone on the front row, with Bottas to the right and behind him, with nothing but turn 1 in his field of vision.
Strategy wise, the top 10 all had their used softs from Q2 to start, as was the rule at the time, the two Haas drivers joined them on that tyre. Lance Stroll and Yuki Tsunoda opted for the hards, whilst the rest of the grid was on the medium tyre.
As the five red lights went out it was Valterri Bottas who got the better getaway, but Verstappen was quick to put an end to that, aiming his steering wheel directly to the right from the very start to cover off the Mercedes driver into turn 1. That caused the Finn to lock up.
Daniel Ricciardo’s misfortunes got worse as he lost two places at the start to Stroll and Raikonnen. Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso made up for Saturday’s misfortune by getting past Russell and Latifi who themselves overtook Yuki Tsunoda on the race start.
Unfortunately for us, there wasn’t really much to scream about for the first 20 laps or so, as is usually the case when racing around Monte Carlo. We saw Bottas remaining around 2 seconds, sometimes over, sometimes under, behind Max in the Red Bull, but unable to really build on that with how hard it was to follow under the previous regulations.
There was one overtake though, just the one, but it was an interesting one as it involved two teammates. Mick Schumacher of Haas was closing on his teammate who was really struggling all weekend with a position swap likely incoming. Young Schumacher instead decided to deal with things himself, sending his VF-21 down the inside of his teammate at the iconic hairpin on Lap 3.
By Lap 20 Valterri had lost the race leader and was starting to struggle on his tyres that took a beating on the opening lap. Carlos Sainz, who was encouraged on the radio to go get him, was lapping way faster. Shortly after, he was on the back of the race leader. Sainz got to within a second and a half, but as you’d expect it came to nothing with the limitations of the circuit.
Lewis Hamilton was the first car to come in on Lap 30, trying to undercut Pierre Gasly in the Alpha Tauri. Lewis would need to nail his out lap and ideally would want clear air in front of him. Little did we know that the next few laps would be the only exciting few laps of the entire race. Unfortunately for Mercedes, the next series of events went horribly wrong.
Their leading car was the next one to come him, obviously car number 77 was struggling with his tyres so it seemed logical. What was meant to be a change to assist Bottas’ potential fight for the win, turned into another pit crew mistake. Mercedes famously had the unfortunate double mistake in Bahrain the winter before. Bottas parked up between the lines on the pit lane, 1-2-3 on, good stop. Oh, wait, what’s happened with the fourth. The fourth was stuck. The wheel nut of the front right on that car was jammed by the wheel gun so bad that it couldn’t be removed, causing the car to retire from the race. 43 hours later the tyre was finally removed, going down as ‘the longest pit stop ever.’
Any chance of Mercedes scoring significant points soon faded as the undercut attempt did not go well, with Lewis losing position to not only Pierre Gasly but also Sebastian Vettel who managed to jump the two of them.
Seb came out alongside the Frenchman, going up through Beau Rivage side by side before Gasly who was on the inside had to give up the position at Massenet. The only wheel to wheel battle we got in the entire race, and we didn’t even get to see the end of it live because the local TV director cut to Lance Stroll mounting the kerb at the swimming pool chicane. An instant meme worldwide. That 5 minutes or so will forever be remembered for the absolute bundle of chaos it was.
In the aftermath of all that, Carlos Sainz came into the pit, optimising a window that the Bottas disaster left him. We also saw Hamilton upset at why he was the first to come in when he had been saving his tyres to go long, expressing his feelings on the radio to his team.
The seven-time world champion’s race got even worse on Lap 35 as Sergio Perez completed the overcut on not only him but also Vettel and Gasly, going all the way up to P4. That’s where positions are won and lost in Monte Carlo, in the pitlane. Max Verstappen came in the lap before his teammate, getting away in 2.0s, and maintaining the lead of the race.
After everyone had new tyres in the expected one-stop race, Esteban Ocon and Lance Stroll had not only been elevated to the top 10 but also ahead of Antonio Giovinazzi, the medium (Ocon) and hard (Stroll) tyre strategy working well for the two of them. Lando Norris’s excellent qualifying lap was rewarded with a likely podium, the Brit was sitting in P3 in his Mclaren.
Lap 52 was a difficult one for his team, as it saw Lando Norris lap Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian was to stand on the top step of the podium later in the season, but at this point, his performances as a Mclaren driver were not looking great at all.
Norris came under a little bit of pressure from Sergio Perez towards the end of the race, the Mexican even got to within DRS range on lap 65, but was unable to get any closer to car number 4.
Lewis Hamilton was a pit stop clear of 8th place on lap 68, so he was brought in for a fastest lap attempt, every point mattered in both championship fights. LH44 achieved that feat in an otherwise disappointing weekend.
And that was it for the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix, Max Verstappen took the checkered flag waved by Serena Williams, and also took the lead of the drivers’ championship for the first time in his career. It was the Dutchman’s first-ever podium in the Principality and one that he will look back on as one of a few key turning points in his World Championship-winning campaign.
The race will never be remembered for the action that we saw on track but will go down in history for what it meant in the best championship battle in a generation, and for everything that went wrong.