Deep in the heart of Texas, at a new venue for the sport, the drivers of the IndyCar Series put on a fantastic weekend at the state-of-the-art Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
Daniel Ricciardo doesn’t win boring races, and despite what some may say, his gutsy win with a dodgy engine around the famous streets of Monte Carlo was no exception.
The Monaco Grand Prix is no ordinary race. It isn’t fast like Monza or sweeping like Spa, nor is it wide like Baku or purpose-built like the upcoming grand prix in Le Castellet; it is something different entirely.
The principality might host one of the slowest races on the calendar, but in blending the weight of history with the mental stress of threading the needle 78 times around the serpentine circuit it presents a challenge unique to Formula One.
It’s the sort of race that can make a driver laugh or cry, and in Daniel Ricciardo experienced both ends of the emotional spectrum on the way to claiming his first and long overdue Monaco Grand Prix victory.
The Australian dominated Thursday and Saturday in Monte Carlo, topping all three practice sessions and every segment of qualifying, including the top-10 shootout for pole position. He was a man on a mission, motivated by victory lost through no fault of his own in 2016.
The momentum he had built up to Sunday morning was incontrovertible, and when he got away from the lights cleanly and executed a straightforward pit stop on lap 17, the road seemed clear for Ricciardo to finish what he started in 2016.
But just as clouds had rolled into the Monaco harbour on what had been forecast to be a sunny day, so too did Ricciardo’s fortunes darken on lap 18.
“Losing power,” he radioed back to his engineer, an all too familiar message for the Renault-engined Red Bull Racing team, and the times showed it: earlier capable of lapping at around 75 seconds, his pace slowed to a grinding 79 and 80 seconds per lap, allowing the second-placed Vettel to cut down his three-second deficit to less than a second.
“I wanted to close my eyes and start crying,” Ricciardo told Sky Sports. “I thought that was it, that my race was over.”
Indeed Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner later revealed he had been advised that his leading car would need to be retired in a matter of laps. The power unit’s MGU-K – the kinetic energy recovery system worth around 120 kilowatts of electrical power – had suffered an unrecoverable failure, and cumulative effects of the problem left Ricciardo down on power by around 25 per cent, enough to render seventh and eighth gears effectively useless.
Worse, losing the MGU-K means the power unit is no longer recovering waste energy from the brakes, leaving them liable to overheating – think Ricciardo’s first win at the 2014 Canadian Grand Prix, where Lewis Hamilton retired and Nico Rosberg limped to the finish with overheating brakes when Mercedes suffered the same problem.
But you don’t just retire from the lead of the Monaco Grand Prix.
‘Winning at the slowest possible speed’ is an old Formula One adage that often gets a workout around this time of year, and Ricciardo put it to good use in Monte Carlo, positioning his car centimetre-perfectly at key parts of the circuit to minimise the hunting Vettel’s ability to take advantage of his lack of straight-line speed, which was down on the Ferrari by more than 20 kilometres per hour.
It would have been easy for Ricciardo to make a mistake – a lock-up borne of overheating brakes, a missed apex as he busiest himself managing his ailing power unit or a crash as he tried to eke the life from his tyres – but for a taxing 60 laps he maximised what was left of his car to take the chequered flag.
“The pace was slow for the power, the pace was slow to manage the tyres and then the pace was slow because I was managing brakes,” he said. “Hence why it felt like a very long race but obviously we got it home.”
This was a career-defining drive for Ricciardo – indeed Horner likened it to Michael Schumacher’s famous second place at the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix, where the German was stuck in fifth gear for most of the race – and one that has boosted his stocks to record highs as one of the grid’s most complete drivers.
“I think it was definitely my best weekend and the most satisfying,” he said. “Right now there’s still a lot to process but … once it all settles I think, yeah, I could probably say that.
“As a whole this is probably the best weekend of my career.”
It wasn’t a pretty race, and though it wasn’t devoid of overtaking, it wasn’t an action-packed afternoon either, but the victory was decided by what the Monaco Grand Prix is all about: driving challenge overcome by individual excellence.
That kind of race can never boring.