Let’s be honest — if you tuned into the Monaco Grand Prix expecting 100 minutes of wall-to-wall action, you really should’ve known better.
Monaco, the most famous race of them all, isn’t known as a festival of overtaking, particularly in this modern era of wide cars, fast acceleration and late braking. The narrow Monte Carlo streets simply aren’t made for extended bouts of wheel-to-wheel racing.
But to adjudge it on this basis as lacking value — to write it off as nothing more than a historic anachronism past its use-by date, as some have proffered after the last few events — is to completely miss the point.
Formula One continues to race at Monaco because there’s no other track on the calendar that demands such a high level of precision in execution. From the outside the race may appear straightforward, but the challenge of piecing together a weekend in which even a small mistake can be extremely costly is immense.
The psychological pressure to deliver is unparalleled, and Lewis Hamilton’s hard-earnt drive to victory this year, the 90th anniversary of the first running in 1929, was a particularly colourful example.
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain points to his hat to tribute Niki Lauda . (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
The Briton’s race hinged on human error. He was stopped for an early tyre change behind the safety car on lap 11, and though his team was confident in its choice to switch him the delicate medium compound, it quickly became evident that the pursuing Max Verstappen, shod with the more durable hard tyre, was on the better rubber.
Hamilton was tested over and over again by the Dutchman in an excruciating 67-lap siege on first place. With each tour the Mercedes was becoming visibly more difficult to drive, the front tyres increasingly unwilling to grip the road as it snaked along the famous Monte Carlo waterfront.
The longer the race went on, the more emboldened Verstappen became. He ran alongside Hamilton at the hairpin, daring him to leave the door even fractionally ajar as they rocketed down to Portier, but the Briton’s defence was centimetre perfect, even as the pair touched entering the chicane on the penultimate lap.
Verstappen was in good spirits after the race, having enjoyed attempting to pry the lead from Hamilton’s grasp, but the onus to do so was more than for victory itself. Red Bull Racing had earnt him a five-second penalty for unsafely releasing him into Valtteri Bottas’s path during that crucial safety car pit stop window.
Bottas should have been comfortably second, but a swift Red Bull Racing pit stop ejected Verstappen into Bottas’s side, bumping him into the pit wall. Valtteri was forced to make a second stop on the following lap, dropping to fourth behind Vettel.
Such are the fine margins in Monaco that the speedy release would’ve been a non-event at any other circuit, but with mechanics crowding visibility and the fast lane so narrow, a seemingly routine pit-stop challenge for Bottas became a race-defining moment.
And the early opening of the pit window itself, triggering the 67 laps of high tension that reconfigured the podium? That was caused by an egregious string of pressure-borne errors at Ferrari, ironically by Charles Leclerc, who was racing nowhere near the front.
The Monaco Grand Prix (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
Ferrari was desperate to make a mark on the weekend to start the long and unlikely rebuilding of its championship campaign. Sebastian Vettel’s crash in FP3, a sin in Monaco given the importance of qualifying, was a window into this desperation.
Vettel’s car was repaired in time for qualifying, but he brushed up against the barriers twice more in Q1, risking a lowly grid spot — but it wasn’t the German the team should’ve been worried about.
Leclerc had set a so-so Q1 lap, flat-spotting his tyres in a lock-up at Rascasse. However, rather than send him out on another set to ensure his progression, Ferrari kept him in his garage, trusting the data that projected his time would be good enough for Q2 and banking on saving a fresh set of tyres for later.
But the data was wrong, and in a painful irony it was Vettel on a last-gasp lap that eliminated Leclerc from the session in 16th.
The Monegasque foreshadowed he’d put in an aggressive all-or-nothing drive from his unrecoverable position on Sunday, and he made good on his promise right down to bumping into the barriers and picking up a puncture in an impatient attempt to pass Nico Hulkenberg for 11th place.
His tyre delaminated as he desperately sped back to the pits in a vain attempt to salvage something from his home race, but all he managed to do was destroy his car and spread torn rubber and shattered bodywork across the track, triggering the safety car.
The pressure of the Monaco Grand Prix compounds in a way unlike any other circuit on the calendar. Navigating from Thursday practice to the chequered flag not only unscathed but having maximised your potential is uniquely difficult on those unforgiving streets, around which only the best of the best can excel.
“If you crack up here [pointing to his head], then you’re done — everything is done,” Hamilton said after the race. “There was every opportunity to crack today, particularly with that pressure.
“I was determined to not crack.”
The battle of wills is what Monte Carlos is all about, and that’s what makes Monaco magic.