Rencken: Six in six in Monaco
Mark Webber sowed the seed for his second Monaco win during qualifying on May 26 by snatching a surprise second-fastest in the white-knuckle session but, really, the kernel for Red Bull’s second 2012 win were planted by the stewards in Spain a fortnight earlier.
That was when they handed Michael Schumacher a five-place grid penalty for rear-ending Bruno Senna’s car and so, unknowingly, removed Schumacher from pole.
Then rain during Thursday afternoon’s second practice session, when teams generally do full tanks/soft compound runs to gauge tyre degradation, germinated the kernel for it meant the field headed for the start of May 27 78-lap race on the sport’s most idiosyncratic circuit with little idea about the durability of Pirelli’s (red) supersoft compound – formulated specifically for this race and used at the start by nine drivers in the top 10.
CONTROLLED AND CALCULATED
Finally, a sudden drop in ambient temperature shortly before the mid-race stops as threatening clouds gathered above the Alps Maritimes that soar above this enchanting section of Mediterranean coastline, resulted in delayed “switch-on” time for the softs most front-runners had bolted on.
This provided Webber with a final boost, endowing the decisive advantage at the front after the tyre stop reshuffles had been shaken out despite the field closing up as rain dropped towards the end. All this made great headlines, for the sport has feted six different winners in as many races this year – breaking the record set in 1983, where, perchance, that run ended in Monaco.
Had Ferrari, which has in F2012 what is best referred to as a light-footed pig – one still reckoned to be half a second off the pace – realised just how gently the supersoft degraded or how excruciatingly slowly the soft heated up, the outcome could well have been different, with Fernando Alonso becoming the season’s first double winner and good-bye to headlines…
Alonso had lined up fifth, the last driver to benefit from Schumacher’s penalty, and been both peripherally involved and elevated by Romain Grosjean’s Turn 1 crash to lie fourth behind Webber, Nico Rosberg – continuing his excellent season for Mercedes – and a slow-starting Lewis Hamilton (inexplicably, McLaren had told this most opportunistic of drivers to down his clutch settings while on the grid…).
WAIT FOR ERRORS
For 27 laps those at the sharp end held station as the field bobbed and weaved behind them, the gaps concertinaing as they sought to prevent overheating of rubber and mechanicals and lapped back-markers. Then Rosberg dived in for softs, followed two laps later by Webber, then Lewis. Ferrari left Alonso out for another lap, then pulled him in – before twigging that not only did his supersofts still have performance but that Webber and Rosberg were battling with softs.
Alonso would have done the trick for him against the two front-runners, but by now their tyres were up to temperature and all he could do was wait for errors while later protecting his tail from Red Bull’s reigning champion Sebastian Vettel – who elected to sit out Q3 to gamble on a reverse strategy from ninth (elevated from 10th after Pastor Maldonado was docked plus-10 after FP3), and thus held the provisional lead until pitting for SS rubber on lap 46.
Alonso said: “Could I have also got past Rosberg and Webber if I’d stayed out on track a bit longer? Maybe, but at that moment it was the right choice to make. I was definitely very quick with a clear track ahead of me.
“Towards the end I was a bit worried about Vettel on supersofts but luckily I could defend my position comfortably,” said the 2005/6 champion, who now leads the title race with 76 points – three up on Red Bull’s duo – with a rueful look.
'THEN THE RAIN CAME...'
Alonso knows all too well, IF is F1 spelled backwards, and fair dinkum to Webber, who did the business from the front, deflecting enormous pressure from the nose-to-tail trio behind him as the rain ebbed and flowed, making conditions utterly unpredictable.
Webber said: “There were different parts of the race where I had to be incredibly focused and make sure we really capitalised on the positioning we had.
“Then the rain came, which around here is very, very tough,” added the man who owns a vacation home in the area, “but we had composure and great experience on the pits wall. It’s a tough nut to crack but we did it again. I had both hands on [the trophy] and I wasn’t going to let go,” he said.
Rosberg's fine drive to second on the streets where he grew up – father Keke settled here after his 1982 championship – netted 20 points to propel him to 59 and fifth in the rankings behind Hamilton (63) sandwiched between the Red Bullers and the Mercedes driver.
Vettel’s damage-limitation exercise worked – to a degree. He too finished ahead of Hamilton but during the hour-and-three-quarters it took to dispense with 260km of bumpy street circuit he must surely at least once have reflected on 2011 when he reigned supreme, not only here but virtually everywhere – while Webber was mostly nowhere…
Sixth, two seconds behind the Big Mac, was Felipe Massa, having his best race of the season. Yes, sixth in a red car in Monaco is not great, as the Brazilian himself admitted afterwards, but given what had gone before it was a huge improvement.
TENTH TO SENNA
A distant seventh and eighth, 40sec behind the Ferrari, were claimed by Force India twins Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg respectively. They had run reverse strategies, with the former pitting first for SS rubber to maximise strategy and, although the flexibility proved unnecessary, who knows in Monaco where a pace car is generally deployed at least once, as was the case this year in the aftermath of Grosjean’s shunt?
The Grosjean’s Lotus team mate Kimi Raikkonen, who eventually finished ninth after holding up a train of cars (including Vettel) in the early stages, giving all from Alonso forward a breather, is sixth on 51 – meaning six drivers are within a win (25 points) of the title lead after six (of 20) races.
Tenth went to Bruno Senna after Williams impressively regrouped after the garage fire in Spain which not only prematurely ended the team’s victory celebrations after Maldonado’s unexpected win but destroyed virtually all the team’s garage equipment.
Sir Frank’s always been a fighter.
McLaren's Jenson Button, winner in Australia, was nowhere, lining up 12th after a dismal qualifying (‘the worst is I don’t know why…’) before suffering a puncture in a clash with Heikki Kovalainen’s Caterham; qualifying star Michael Schumacher dropped to seventh after his Grosjean tangle before failing fuel pressure called time on his race.
Now all eyes are on Canada in a fortnight with the smart money on Hamilton to make it seven in seven – if McLaren can keep all its silver balls in the air, that is…