Daniel Ricciardo – this is the man who takes half chances and converts them into victory gold. So a trifling little loss of 160bhp with 50 laps to go wasn’t going to stop him winning the Monaco Grand Prix. Not when he was leading. Leading from pole and having headed every session of the weekend in a Red Bull that was the class of the field and with a team-mate who had taken no part in qualifying after crashing out in Saturday practice.
But it was only because this was Monaco that he was able to lose so much performance but still retain the lead. That and the fact that it was a seriously tyre-limited race. So Ricciardo’s pursuers were having to back off hugely to keep their tyres in shape long enough to stay on a one-stop strategy and therefore not give up Monaco gold dust of track position. The short wheelbase Red Bull was looking after its front tyres much better than the long Ferrari or Mercedes, which were asking too much of the softest tyre in the range – the hyper-soft, which was being given its debut here – to prevent serious graining.
“Yeah,” said a reflective but still grinning Ricciardo some time later, “I suppose the pace was slow because people were managing the tyres and my pace was slow because I was down on power and managing the brakes.” The loss of Ricciardo’s ERS-k from lap 28 onwards left him not just 160bhp down but having to take the stress from the tiny rear brake discs that were no longer being aided by the torque reversal of the kinetic energy recovery device. “I went 6 or 7 per cent forward with the brake balance,” he related. “Normally we’d vary it by 1 or 2 per cent. I had to lift a lot before braking too, just to keep it all together.”
It’s just possible too, that Ricciardo’s cause in adversity was also aided by a game of tyre-related cat-and-mouse between the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel and the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton in second and third. Because there was no combination of hyper, ultra and supersoft tyre that could do the favoured one-stop comfortably, for them the race was a strategic chess game of track position versus performance.
In theory, if either Vettel or Hamilton had switched to a two-stop late enough in the race – say, 20 laps from the end – that they could have fitted another set of hypers and lapping around 5sec faster, they’d have paid for the extra stop within four laps. Which just might have allowed them to devour the Red Bull. Which would have been cruel for Ricciardo. But the delicate balance of strategy held, neither Ferrari nor Mercedes prepared to risk track position. Because this is Monaco.
The pole fight was only ever about the Red Bulls around here. Which one of them was decided towards the end of Saturday morning practice when Verstappen, setting the track alight as he vied to win the psychological struggle with Ricciardo, repeated his 2016 qualifying accident. Distracted momentarily by passing Carlos Sainz’s slow-moving Renault, Verstappen turned in too early for the right-hander at the end of the swimming pool section, clipped the inside barrier and broke the right-front track rod, leaving him with no way of steering around the following left. The hard contact with the barriers inflicted enough damage that the car wasn’t repaired in time for qualifying, the mechanics’ feverish replacement of the two corners of the car counting for nothing as a crack in the gearbox casing was discovered at the last moment.
Sector three in Barcelona had suggested the RB14 would be the car to beat here, its excellent mechanical traits and low-speed downforce advantage over everything else paying way more lap time reward than the cost from the shortfalls in engine power and aero efficiency.
Sebastian Vettel did well just to get his Ferrari within a couple of tenths of Ricciardo’s pole – and that was with the help of a couple of tenths worth of Q3 engine mode advantage. “They just have more downforce than us,” shrugged Vettel, “even if their aero efficiency is maybe not the best.” Around here the downforce counts, the efficiency doesn’t really, and so right from the moment the wheels began turning Ricciardo and Verstappen were vying for who was top dog. Verstappen was attacking the place like he’d never even heard of the barriers, let alone met them before – and generally seemed to have a tenth or so’s edge whenever they ran together. But Ricciardo was clearly driving with more in hand – and actually headed every session. And didn’t crash.
“It was more a battle with myself than with Max,” claimed the polesitter. “I wanted to be quickest from the start in all the sessions – and we were close. It could be a psychological battle if an opponent sees it that way but personally I just wanted to see my name at the top of the sheets and keep that momentum going.” This was only the second pole of his F1 career – two years after the first, at the same venue.
Verstappen was distraught as he crashed down to earth from his beautiful high-wire balance. He knew what he’d potentially just lost in that brutal moment.
The introduction of Pirelli’s hyper-soft was responsible for much of the 1.3sec Ricciardo’s pole time knocked off Räikkönen’s record from last year. The Ferrari seemed to respond to this tyre better than the Mercedes, which was graining the fronts more, but even on the Ferrari they weren’t easy. “In the first corner I just couldn’t drive the way I wanted,” explained Vettel of the under-temperature fronts at the start of the lap, “but for the rest it was OK. It was a tricky session in terms of getting the tyres together. We were playing around with the set-up quite a bit trying to squeeze out everything because we knew we had to as it was obvious how strong the Red Bulls were. I think we got as close as we could.”
“We struggled a bit to make them work straight away in the first two corners,” admitted fourth-fastest Räikkönen, a couple of tenths and two places back, “just getting them into the correct temperature window and to get the car to turn where we wanted. If you are not 100 per cent sure of how it’s going to be in turn 1, then you lack a bit of confidence…”
The Mercedes was having no problem getting the hypers switched on and so was fast in the first sector, but it was graining the fronts and overheating the rears by the end of the lap. Hamilton split the Ferraris but was disappointed not to have pipped Vettel to the front row on his final run, having been well up on him at the end of sector two – only to then suffer the graining and overheating.
Hamilton and Bottas had both made big changes to their set-ups after morning practice, and in completely different directions as they tried to solve the tyre conundrum. Bottas rued that it gave him a car in which it was difficult to have confidence and was a couple of tenths off Hamilton, in fifth. Both Mercs had tried the ultras in Q2, which if they’d got through to Q3 on them would have given a significant race-day strategy advantage. But they simply weren’t quick enough to overcome the 1sec+ penalty to the hypers, which they were eventually forced to use to get through.
Behind the three premier teams was a great little scrap between Force India, McLaren, Renault and Toro Rosso. Esteban Ocon eventually headed this group, putting his Force India sixth, impressively out-pacing circuit specialist team-mate Sergio Pérez who was three places back. Those three places represented just 0.1sec and nestling between the Force Indias were Fernando Alonso’s McLaren (with a set-up that had finally brought the car alive just in time for qualifying) and Carlos Sainz’s Renault. Pierre Gasly had been shaping up for a tilt at Ocon’s time but touched the barriers as he exited the swimming pool, costing him vital momentum and leaving him only 10th. This was a disappointing outcome as the STRs could’ve been on row three/four, as usual the car very strong on stop/start sequences. Brendon Hartley had been at least as quick as Gasly through the practices but simply didn’t find the gaps between the traffic and the yellow flags and didn’t even make it out of Q1, 16th.
Renault’s Nico Hülkenberg just wasn’t on his usual top form and consistently lagged a couple of tenths off Sainz, putting him 11th, first of those to have a free tyre choice for the race.
A small problem with the gearbox, discovered just before qualifying began, meant Stoffel Vandoorne’s very strong practice form for McLaren couldn’t be replicated. It changed the balance of the car and left him 12th. Sergey Sirotkin was on fine form in the Williams and had made great progress with it since Thursday when it had looked much more difficult. By Saturday he was teasing a decent McLaren-chasing performance from it and was just a couple of tenths off Q3, in 13th. This totally eclipsed the performance of team-mate Lance Stroll, who was generally around 0.5sec slower each time they ran and complaining of no front end, back in 18th.
Charles Leclerc, on his home track, again got the Sauber through to Q2, where he was a couple of tenths off Sirotkin but ahead of Romain Grosjean. The Haas just wasn’t working around here, not getting its tyres up to temperature and team-mate Kevin Magnussen was a solid last (apart from the non-running Verstappen).
“He could’ve been in Apollo 13 the way he was dealing with problems today,” said Christian Horner in admiration of the job Ricciardo did.
Problem number one: Beating Vettel off the line. Easy. The run to Ste Devote is short enough that even against a more powerful Ferrari, all he had to do was an adequate start, a little move left to stop him being squeezed and Vettel quickly ran out of options in trying anything. Hamilton won the drag race with a brake-locking Räikkönen for third and Bottas fended off Ocon.
The colourful pack jostled up that classic climb to Casino. Following on from Ocon were Alonso, Sainz, Pérez and Gasly, all on the hypers they’d been obliged to use in Q2 to make the run-off. Next was Hülkenberg, first of those outside the top 10, and who had opted for the ultra – as had most of the rest. This made possible a much better strategy as the hypers generally wouldn’t be able to do much more than 15 laps, and so gently would they need to be treated during that time that there’d be very little field spread to the more robust-tyred cars behind.
Verstappen, with new gearbox and, significantly, new ERS-K, had chosen this way too – planning to run long enough to be able to get on the fast-but-fragile hyper at the end. He quickly dispensed with the Haas team and the Williams team took care of itself. He would build upon this solid start with a nice drive that balanced control with attack, as required. It was very much on his mind that his number one priority was to get to the end.
Problem number two: Attack or caution? Monaco isn’t a conventional race from a strategic viewpoint. The limitation of the front graining meant that no one was going to be able to run this race at anything close to flat-out. In this sense, it was much like an old-style Pirelli race from pre-’16; just run at a pace that will extend the tyre life to achieve the stint length required to be on the best strategy (ie one-stop around here). So did Ricciardo bunch the field, ready to sprint clear as the pitstop window approached, leaving his pursuers without a suitable gap to drop into after stopping? Or did he just drive the gap to Vettel behind, ensuring he was always just out of undercut range?
He opted for the latter – and that was the story of this first stint. Ricciardo had the gap out to 1.7sec from the third lap and proceeded to lap in the mid-high 1m 17sec, around 7sec slower than his pole time, only around 3sec of which is accounted for by the fuel weight, another circa 2sec for the lower engine setting. The remaining 2sec was just how far off the pace everyone was driving to extend the life of the graining hyper-softs.
“This pace is quite slow,” said Hamilton after three laps. But soon he’d need to be lapping even slower as the graining problem was far worse on the Mercedes – and to a lesser extent, the Ferrari – than on the Red Bull. “Our car’s quite long,” said Hamilton, “and I think that has something to do with it.” Big steering angles on a long wheelbase car will impose significantly more initial load on the outer front than on a shorter car. The Red Bull is around 25cm shorter in wheelbase than the Mercedes, 13cm shorter than the Ferrari.
So Vettel kept out of Ricciardo’s wake and Hamilton stayed out of Vettel’s and turned everything down. “It was just tootling around, not racing,” said Hamilton. But anything more than that and the front left would begin peeling apart. Räikkönen and Bottas followed equidistant behind and they all pulled away from the Ocon-led second group. Sirotkin was called in from the back of this group for a stop/go as his wheels were not fitted at the three-minute start signal, a delay caused by a cross-threaded wheelnut. This took him out of the picture but it had been a generally positive weekend for him as he made a breakthrough in performance.
This moved up Vandoorne, Leclerc, Hartley and Stroll, the latter two soon to be passed by Verstappen. Stroll later punctured twice as a result of runaway brake temperatures causing rim sealing failures.
Hamilton’s front tyres were finished by the 12th lap and he was brought in to anticipate any Räikkönen undercut attempt. This was before he’d even got the 20sec advantage needed to clear Ocon – but the old-tyred Force India was easy meat three laps later. This was early to have made a first stop and led to Vettel (also with a very badly grained front left) stopping four laps later to prevent a Hamilton undercut – obliging Red Bull into bringing Ricciardo in. “I thought at that point, this could be a two-stop race,” he related. Just before stopping, he’d upped his pace by 1.5sec to leave Vettel gasping.
These stoppers – including Räikkönen – were all fitted with ultras but when Bottas trailed in he was fitted with super softs, the hardest tyre Pirelli brought. It was, reckoned Mercedes, the better tyre. They hadn’t fitted it to Hamilton only because they needed the ultra’s extra pace in order to pass Ocon as he came out. Hamilton was not a fan of either tyre – nor of this style of racing.
Both Ricciardo and Vettel took care to bring in their ultras very carefully and were initially slow. Räikkönen did likewise, allowing Bottas to close down what had been quite a significant gap. Then stalemate.
Ocon-Alonso-Sainz had spread out from each other in the group behind the top five. Sainz was first of them to pit, on lap 16, to prevent a Pérez undercut. He needn’t have worried, Sergio was stuck in the pits for an age with a right rear wheel that was jammed on, putting him out of contention. This brought Gasly up a place, and the Toro Rosso just kept going as Alonso and Ocon pitted for the super-softs. He couldn’t quite get a pitstop’s worth of gap over them but did remarkably well to get a set of hypers to last for 37 laps, and this boosted his position. The Toro Rosso/Gasly combination was for some reason fantastically easy on the hyper and with everyone around him conserving rubber, once he was on clear track, he was able to overcut his way up the order. “The car was just so fast!” he enthused. “I tried to be careful with the tyres from the beginning, but when I was alone on track I could just push flat out because I was feeling good with the car.”
Sainz’s enforced early stop lost him a lot of ground and a place to the Toro Rosso. After finally stopping for his super-softs, Gasly began to chase down Alonso, whose tyres were 18 laps older.
Problem number three: ERS-k failure. It was on lap 28, 12 laps into the second stint, 50 laps still to go when Ricciardo, just as he was thinking it was all under control, felt the sickening sudden loss of power. Not just a small reduction – but a full 160bhp. The ERS-k had failed. “Yes, we see the problem,” the team radioed. They could see the temperature of the unit had gone sky high.
The loss of power was alarming – but not immediately debilitating. Ricciardo was amazed that Vettel had not just immediately devoured him, but the Ferrari had problems of its own. Its front left was graining badly and in fact he locked up into the chicane as he tried to take advantage of the Red Bull’s problem.
Daniel took stock, as did the pit wall. First order of business was to move the brake balance massively forwards to prevent the tiny rear discs from overheating and catching fire. Most of the rear braking of these cars comes from the torque reversal of the ERS-K upon the axle, hence the tiny discs that are very easy to overheat into nothing.
That done, his initial response was to corner especially hard in an attempt at maintaining a decent lap time. His lap times actually improved over what he’d been doing in the healthy car, showing just how much he’d had in hand before. From high 1m 18sec/low 19sec, after the failure his times dropped into the low 18sec for a couple of laps. He especially took care to be as fast as possible through Portier in order to get good speed through the tunnel to keep him from being vulnerable to Vettel into the chicane. But he couldn’t keep pushing hard through the rest of the lap if he was to keep his tyres in shape. As he realised Vettel – with his severe graining, just like Hamilton behind – was making no inroads, so he backed off a little and just adapted his driving to the new reality. Using his in-cockpit brake temperature graphics to guide him, he began backing off early for corners, allowing the drag to do the initial deceleration, keeping those overworked front brakes from overheating as well as looking after the tyres. But he’d continue to attack Portier – to keep the Ferrari off his back. “He had it covered,” related Vettel. “Every time I got close I’d just lock up because of my tyres.”
Meanwhile in the Red Bull pits there was discussion about whether to retire the car. “The risk with an ERS-K failure is that shrapnel can get into the engine and destroy it. But my position was ‘we are leading the Monaco Grand Prix. We’ll run till it stops,’ – and Adrian [Newey] concurred.”
Ricciardo was pumping the pit wall for information. “Is it going to come back?” he enquired. “Negative,” came the response. “But just keep doing what you’re doing.” They instructed him only to use the first six gears, as the best way to get the performance from the engine without the help of the electrical boost was no longer to use the torque in seventh. Eighth isn’t used around Monaco even with a healthy car (the ratios are fixed for the season).
So much slower was the pace as everyone tried to get these tyres to last that they weren’t using as much fuel as expected – and Ricciardo’s gear-changing strategy would help with burning some of the excess off, although there was still 14kg in the tank at the end.
And so he settled into a new groove, all while keeping Vettel off his back. After a while Hamilton noted he couldn’t hold their pace and look after his tyre – and slowed to a few seconds back. Räikkönen in turn wasn’t in a position to take advantage – and Bottas latched onto Kimi’s tail but couldn’t do anything once he got there.
“Any other circuit and the problem would’ve lost me the race,” said Ricciardo. “But the layout of this place means you can take the piss more, lapping slowly without losing position.” That much is true, but the tyre situation meant the others couldn’t have taken advantage anyway. Ricciardo’s tyres were in great shape. He and Vettel – and the others who’d started on the hypers and thus had a long second stint – were just slow for different reasons.
A little indication of how slowly they were driving came when Stroll pitted with his second puncture, had a new set of hypers fitted and – over half a lap down – proceeded to lap 4sec faster than the leaders.
An intriguing possibility began to open up. If Vettel – or Hamilton – pitted, they’d exit just behind Bottas but be on tyres at least 5sec faster than those of Ricciardo and the others. But it would require those tyres to be hypers – and they only had a wear range of around 20 laps on these cars. So Ferrari and Mercedes began playing a cat-and-mouse game, Ferrari mechanics coming into the pits, then going back into the garage, Mercedes preparing to do the same.
This might have brought the race alive as they chased down and tried to pass Bottas, Räikkönen – and Ricciardo, on much faster tyres. But they couldn’t do in until around lap 47-48. In the end, neither of them dared. It wouldn’t have been certain they could have overtaken and besides, as the moment came when it was late enough to get onto hypers, Ocon had got himself close enough that they’d have come out behind him too.
The long-running Gasly and Hülkenberg were running a temporary sixth and seventh, still on their original tyres. As recalled, it got Gasly more than a pitstop’s worth of time over Sainz, but not quite over Alonso. Hülkenberg couldn’t quite get a stop’s worth over team-mate Sainz and would eventually exit just behind him after finally making his stop for new supers on lap 50, and with Verstappen (who’d been fitted with fresh hypers) now on his tail. This required Renault asking Sainz on ancient rubber to move aside for his team-mate, while not letting Verstappen through. He accomplished this perfectly, blending out up the hill out of Ste Devote. But Verstappen eventually forced his way past at the chicane in a robust but fair move. Sainz was not displeased so much about that as about the choice of putting him on the delicate ultrasofts for the second stint rather than the supersofts he’d have preferred. Were it not for that, he’d almost certainly have beaten Hülkenberg, as well as Verstappen.
Just ahead of them, the fresh-tyred Gasly was chasing Alonso down for seventh when the McLaren’s gearbox failed, the McLaren pulling off at Ste Devote. Thus the Toro Rosso youngster claimed another place after a impressive drive. The sister car of Brendon Hartley was running 11th, a few seconds behind Sainz and chased by Leclerc. Eight laps from the end, Leclerc stood on the brakes for the chicane and the left-front brake disc shattered. He had nowhere to go but between Hartley and the barrier, using the impact with the Toro Rosso to lose some speed before then coming to rest down the escape road. As Hartley limped his damaged car back to the pits, a VSC was applied and everyone backed off. It was late enough in the race that no one took the opportunity to pit – except Vandoorne who threw the dice with nothing to lose. He exited a lap down between Ricciardo and Vettel – which was bad news for the Ferrari driver.
As the VSC was cancelled Ricciardo was straight into attack mode and pulled away from Vettel who simply couldn’t generate any temperature in his worn tyres after going slowly under the VSC. It was the same story for Hamilton, Räikkönen and Bottas. So Ricciardo – minus his entire electrical energy system – pulled away from them. Game, set and match.
It was a remarkable drive, but only made possible by the combination of a unique circuit and a delicate tyre. “He came into this race so focused after what happened here two years ago,” said Horner in reference to the stolen win from pole of 2016 when his tyres weren’t ready at his pitstop, “and with a car that could win, that there was no way he was letting this go. Nothing was going to stop him.”
“Yeah, it feels like redemption,” the winner grinned, even wider than usual. “I thought my race was done. Even after we kept it going there were still a few doubts but… we won Monaco!”