Why Mercedes' Monaco strategy was always destined to fail — MPH

Lewis Hamilton qualified seventh and finished seventh. In his analysis of the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix, Mark Hughes explains what was behind Mercedes' now-familiar struggles in Monte Carlo

Pierre Gasly leads Lewis Hamilton at the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton trails behind Pierre Gasly at Monaco

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Max Verstappen leads the world championship for the first time in his career after an immaculate victory drive in the Monaco Grand Prix. Given the performance traits of his Red Bull and the Mercedes, he was the logical favourite coming in: the Red Bull has more low-speed downforce and switches on its tyres faster. It might not have worked out like that at all – because there was a car which could seemingly do those things even better than the Red Bull. But Charles Leclerc’s pole-setting Ferrari couldn’t take the start and his accident in the dying moments of qualifying had denied the other Ferrari of Carlos Sainz his own pole and victory bid.

Verstappen had also been in contention for that pole, but the Red Bull had consistently been significantly slower than the Ferrari through the middle sector which comprises 47% of the lap. It looked for all the world like if they’d all done their ultimate laps, Ferrari would have locked out the front row. But Leclerc’s adventurous approach – he was leaving zero margins – bit him, rather like in Baku qualifying 2019.

The left-hand (the opposite side to the Saturday impact) driveshaft failure became evident only as Leclerc drove out of the hairpin on his first lap out of the garage on Sunday. It was probably connected to the accident but this has not definitively been established. The concern had been the gearbox – but that turned out to be undamaged. Perhaps the breakage of the part where the driveshaft connects to the internal centre of the wheel came from shock transferring through the diff during the accident. Whatever, the pole position-setting car would remain in the garage for the race.

Start of the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix

Verstappen leads into the first corner, closing the door to Bottas’s challenge

Grand Prix Photo

All Verstappen had to do from there was win the start from the dirty side of the front against Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes on the gripper inside of the second row. That accomplished, Verstappen wasn’t seriously troubled for the rest of the afternoon. Bottas’ front-right wheel refused to come off at his pit stop, promoting Sainz to a disappointed runner-up ahead of Lando Norris, once again outstanding in the McLaren.

Lewis Hamilton qualified and finished seventh.

What do you need to know to make sense of all this?

Mercedes was always set to struggle here

“If you were a proper anorak and you look at our team’s performance at this track over the last several seasons,” pointed out Merc’s tech director James Allison, “even in years we’ve won championships with some ease, we’ve nevertheless struggled here and although we have generally been on a path that has delivered a car that is really a sort of broad-sworded weapon that you can attack most tracks with, here has been a significant Achilles heel.

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“Particularly ironically, a car which one of its best weapons has been its usage of its tyres circuit after circuit after circuit, this particular track we always struggle a bit with that and we’re never really getting them happy on a Saturday, so our grid slots are lowly and then on Sunday, although we are ok at the start of the stint, by the end of the first stint where most of the crucial action takes place at this rather particular track where there isn’t much opportunity for overtaking except around that first stop, we are normally all out of ideas with a tyre that has died a little sooner than our competitors. We have failed to understand that for a number of seasons and we need to figure out from first principles, what are we getting wrong at this track? What is it we are doing year-on-year that is just not right for here?”

It may just be a trait of the car’s concept. It may just be that a long-wheelbase, low-rake car will always struggle around this sort of track. Yes, it dominated from the front in 2019, but that was with a car that had a generally huge advantage over its rivals everywhere. This year, the W12 is a very close match with the Red Bull everywhere. So coming here it was almost bound to be behind it.

Mercedes doesn’t have a specific Monaco wing. At Barcelona it was already running its biggest wing – and that was the one on the car here. The Mercedes cannot be further ramped-up at the back for a slow circuit in the way the high-rake Red Bull (and Ferrari) can. That way, they can increase the downforce by the greater angle of attack. There’s a physical limitation preventing that with the Mercedes – and its aerodynamics are not appropriately configured for that anyway.

Lewis Hamilton in qualifying for the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix

Tyre temperature trouble blamed for Hamilton’s qualifying and race woes

Florent Gooden / DPPI

The longer wheelbase will not help on slow corners. The load transfer on the front tyres, other things being equal, will be slower to build. On a circuit which puts such low energy – both chemical and mechanical – into the tyres, that might give you trouble generating tyre temperatures. The corner can be essentially over by the time the temperatures are getting into their sweet spot. Especially on a cool day like Saturday. “It’s always about tyre temperature here for us,” said Hamilton. “The tyres were just not working the whole way through qualifying.”

Bottas did a better job coping with that than Hamilton. He was just a little more confident through Ste Devote, managed to nudge into the temperature window and that set him up for the lap each time. Hamilton, tending to overdrive to compensate, just didn’t have that confidence and stayed the wrong side of the thermal threshold.

He was angry after qualifying and insisting he’d wanted to go a different route on set-up to that which had been chosen, one which would have brought better tyre temperatures. The reason he was overruled was it came at the expense of pretty extreme wear.

Even with the set-up as it was, Bottas fell away even from the gentle, tyre-managed pace Verstappen was setting after 10 laps because of heavy wear. As the tread became thin, so the temperatures fell – and the car slid more, increasing the wear further etc. There was virtually no tread left on the rears which came off Bottas’ car at the ill-fated pit stop. There was only a little more left on those of Hamilton’s.

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It was this which prevented Mercedes from utilising the planned overcut strategy to vault Hamilton forward. The overcut – where you leapfrog the car ahead by staying out longer and going faster on your warmed up old tyres than your rival can manage on his out-lap on cold new rubber – can work spectacularly well here, as Sergio Perez and Sebastian Vettel demonstrated. They finished fourth and fifth respectively after running their first stints in ninth and eighth, behind Hamilton.

But to make the overcut work, the tyres need to be in good shape at the end of the stint. It wasn’t a feasible Mercedes strategy. They instead tried to undercut Hamilton past Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri, a bid which not only failed because of the Merc’s slow warm-up, but created the opportunity for the overcutting Aston Martin and Red Bull.


Ferrari faster than even it expected

Lando Norris had been studying the Ferrari performance patterns pretty deeply over the last few races, given that it’s McLaren’s main rival. They are two very different cars. The McLaren has more power, is faster at the end of the straights and can seemingly generate more high-speed aerodynamic load. But the Ferrari annihilates it in slow corners, both in direction change and how much load it can maintain through the turn.

Ferrari of Carlos Sainz during the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix

Florent Gooden / DPPI

Carlos Sainz celebrates his second place at the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix

Florent Gooden / DPPI

It also switches on its tyres very fast. Lando had noted all this, thought about Monaco and sent his ex-team-mate Sainz a text, saying he could win Monaco with that car. Devastating low speed and a much-reduced penalty for its power shortfall.

Sainz only began to believe the same after he tried the car on Thursday. It felt fantastic. “I felt I could win from pole with this car,” he later said. His team-mate’s accident put paid to that.