Monaco.  A place where the rich, the famous, the beautiful and her who used to be Ginger Spice gather among the the yachts and the palaces.  A place to see, a place to be seen.  A place which closes its roads in late spring and hosts a stately procession masquerading as a Formula 1 race.  The twisting, narrow streets of the Principality are a wonderful place to see cars and drivers at close quarters, but as surely as Geri Halliwell won’t be going to the Indian Grand Prix, you won’t see any passing once the red lights go out.

Or will you?  Starting at the front, as he does so often that he’ll soon have to change his name to ‘Sebastian Vettelsonpole’, the world championship leader probably hoped not.  Behind him were Jenson Button, a master of the off-beat strategy who drives with the precision and fluidity of a ballet dancer, a team mate with a point to prove in Mark Webber and, in Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, two of the fastest, most forceful starters of the season so far.  Further back came Lewis Hamilton, desperate to make amends for Lady Luck’s desertion in qualifying.  One by one, the challengers would be removed from contention, but they had a good number of adventures along the way.

Schumacher was the first man to fall, his Mercedes pulling away well and then slipping into an anti-stall mode, engaging neutral gear when what Michael really needed was 2nd.  He dropped to 10th, machining parts of his front wing away against the back of Hamilton’s car as the field braked for the first corner, before snatching 9th from the 2008 champ in a brilliant piece of opportunism at the Fairmont hairpin later in the lap.  Fairmont has been many things over the years – I still call it Loews, Sir Stirling Moss refers to it as Station and if you came into F1 recently, you’ll know it as Grand Hotel – but it’s never been a prime location for successful overtaking, as we’ll see later.  This perhaps explains Hamilton’s apparent surprise at seeing Schumacher come by, a surprise which turned to supreme disappointment as soon as the Merc started to chew its rear tyres.

Michael believed his tyres were affected by a loss of downforce after his contact with Lewis, but in fact the other Mercedes of Nico Rosberg was soon in desperate trouble too, holding up Felipe Massa and – great Grandma’s spatula! –  Pastor Maldonado.  The Venezuelan, a Monaco expert in the junior classes, was on great form and looking good to break his F1 duck, along with his Williams team’s 2011 points drought.  As time went on, Hamilton and Barrichello would bully Schumi out of the way at Sainte Devote and Mirabeau respectively, while Rosberg lost out to both of his South American pursuers.  Before long, the Silver Arrows were in the pits, Michael for tyres and a new nose, Nico for tyres only, both men emerging just outside the top 20.

None of this concerned Vettel, who built up a 4.5 second lead in the early laps, with Button having Alonso for a dancing partner.  Webber wasn’t really in touch but might still have harboured a faint hope of victory until the first round of pit stops got underway on lap 15.  Button was in first, exchanging his tyres for a fresher set of the supersoft Pirellis and emerging in clear air after a quick turnaround from the McLaren crew.  Vettel came in a lap later for an eagerly-awaited stop.  Red Bull had changed their pit procedures, having been thoroughly bemused by Ferrari’s ability to predict exactly when Webber would pit during the race in Spain, and the watching world was keen to see what kind of effect this would have upon the race.

The new procedure, it seemed, was to get in a muddle over the radio, give Vettel a set of soft tyres when he was due to take the supersofts and then, upon Webber’s arrival soon afterwards, leave him sat on the jacks without any rubber at all.  Ferrari reacted to these developments with, one imagines, a fit of the giggles prior to Alonso’s pit visit, but perhaps there was something in the water.  When Hamilton pitted on lap 23, he found that not only were there no tyres ready, there were no mechanics ready either.  The highlight of Massa’s first stop on lap 27 was the man on rear jack duty completely missing the car and needing a second go to get the rear wheels off the ground.

Once everything had shaken out and Paul di Resta had demonstrated how overtaking moves at Fairmont usually end by driving into the side of Jaime Alguersuari, Button was in front and going away from the delayed, incorrectly-tyred Vettel.  Alonso was 3rd and keeping a watching brief, with nobody else really in the hunt.  Webber’s long, long first stop had dumped him firmly into the midfield, while Hamilton was in the same area, getting racy with any and all interested parties.  Having easily caught Massa, Hamilton opted to dispose of the Ferrari on lap 33, doing so by means of a clumsy move from some distance back on the way into Fairmont.  Could it work?

There are no prizes for guessing correctly.  The Brazilian turned in, as late as a man reasonably could do without inadvertently checking in to the Fairmont Hotel, there was contact and the two cars became intertwined in a slow speed kiss until corner exit.  Through Portier and down to the waterfront, Felipe remained ahead, but coming through the tunnel he ran wide as Hamilton drew alongside again, smacking the wall with enough force to bring out the safety car.  Lewis maintains that the initial contact was Massa’s fault, but it’s really not unreasonable of the man ahead to turn into a corner if you’re not clearly alongside.

Button, runaway leader at that point, had just pitted for another set of supersofts and could really have done without his team mate coming over all Mad Max.  By pitting just before the safety car emerged, Jense had unwittingly given up the lead to Vettel, who elected to stay out and see how far a set of soft tyres could take him.  Red Bull’s mistake at the first stops had just given their star driver brilliant track position.

Michael Schumacher no longer had any track position at all, victim of an airbox fire as the field slowed for the safety car period.  Alonso had been in for a set of softs and no longer had any need to stop again, while Button was now 2nd but hadn’t yet ran on the soft tyre, as demanded by the regulations.  Adrian Sutil and Kamui Kobayashi were 4th and 5th, both trying the one-stop route and doubtless thrilled to have Webber and Hamilton behind them on fresher rubber.  Maldonado, Vitaly Petrov and Nick Heidfeld rounded out the top 10 as the race got underway again.

What a race it was shaping up to be too.  Vettel had lapped cars between himself and Button on the restart, but the Englishman scythed through the backmarkers and a deficit of 4 seconds was whittled away to nothing in the blink of an eye.  By lap 42 he was right there with the Red Bull, but with another stop to make and Sutil holding up everyone from P4 backwards on his worn tyres, Jenson was in for his final tyre change on lap 49.  He ceded 2nd place to Alonso, who was now on a mighty forward charge of his own, while a drive-through penalty for clobbering Massa dropped Hamilton to 9th, the last man on the same lap as the leader.  He wasn’t the only Brit in the wars, with di Resta taking a second penalty of the day for another botched pass at Fairmont, this time against the Virgin of Jerome d’Ambrosio.

And then there were three, with Vettel reasoning that if he tried to hold on and failed, the worst he could possibly do was finish a solid 3rd.  Better to stay out and hope to do better, rather than pit in and guarantee himself the lowest step on the podium.  Alonso’s tyres were fitted on lap 35 and much fresher than Vettel’s, which had been going round in circles since lap 16.  Fernando clearly fancied his chances against a man asking for 62 laps from a set of boots, but Button was carving whole seconds per lap out of the pair of them.  By lap 60, having confirmed to his team that he knew Vettel was trying to go the distance, Jenson was back with the battle for the lead.  Alonso was clearly faster than Vettel but couldn’t get the power down well enough to get himself in a passing position, while Button seemed content to keep a watching brief for the time being, reasoning that he could pick up the pieces should anything go wrong.  It very nearly did on lap 65, with the Spaniard bailing out of a DRS-assisted move at Sainte Devote just in time to avoid creaming into the back of the Red Bull.

Behind them, patience had finally begun to snap somewhat in the queue behind Sutil.  Kobayashi was first to crack, passing the Force India at Mirabeau.  His methods, which involved getting horribly sideways, crashing into Sutil and shoving his car out of the way, were unconventional but there was no denying their effectiveness.  Petrov was next to have a go, making a pig’s ear of a move at Sainte Devote and letting Webber through.  Before lap 67 was out, Mark had dispatched Sutil too, leaving an almighty queue of cars bobbing around in the German’s wake.  Of greater concern to the leaders was that because of Sutil’s lack of pace, this battle was now taking place directly ahead of them as they came up to lap the protagonists.

What happened next takes a certain amount of unravelling, but let’s have a crack and see where we end up.  Going into Tabac on their 68th lap, Maldonado passed Sutil on the brakes.  Sutil ran wide and clouted the barrier, puncturing his right rear tyre.  At the same time and only a few feet further back, Hamilton was passing Petrov, who backed off to avoid contact and let Alguersuari come past too.  Maldonado scooted off to safety as the pack entered the swimming pool complex, but Hamilton had to lift as Sutil struggled to keep control of his stricken machine.  For whatever reason, the sight of a damaged car about to cut straight across the racing line hadn’t inspired the same caution in Alguersuari, who rode up over the back of the McLaren and connected with terra firma again just in time to pitch Petrov off the road.  Vettel, steady of pace and clenched of buttock, picked his way through the mess along with the other leaders, while the race was red flagged after a brief spell behind the safety car.

The stoppage was to ensure that Petrov received prompt medical attention.  Vitaly had complained firstly that he couldn’t feel his legs and then, when he could, that he was in considerable discomfort.  He was duly extricated and taken to hospital, where scans revealed no injuries.

A red flag was a mixed blessing for McLaren.  They had believed that Vettel’s tyres were just about to give up all of their grip, presenting Alonso and Button with an open goal and plenty of time to find it.  The red flag period allowed Red Bull and everyone else to fit a new set of tyres before the race got going again, thus robbing McLaren of their victory hopes and depriving the fans of what would have been a storming finish.  It also gave the team a chance to fix Hamilton’s rear wing, bent out of shape by Alguersuari’s aerobatics.

The benefits of this could be seen when the race restarted with 5 laps remaining, Lewis punting Maldonado out of 6th at Sainte Devote.   Lewis maintains that the initial contact was Maldonado’s fault, but it’s really not unreasonable of the man ahead to turn into a corner if you’re not clearly alongside.  He will one day learn that it’s sensible to take responsibility for your own mistakes, but it would seem that today is not that day.  Kobayashi had already picked up that lesson, defending 4th from Webber by ignoring the harbour-front chicane and immediately realising that he had to let the Australian come by.  5th was still a fine result and a timely fillip for Sauber after the worry over Sergio Perez yesterday, while a retrospective drive-through penalty didn’t affect Hamilton’s final placing.

At the front, nothing was going to affect Sebastian Vettel.  His adoption of the perfect strategy was a complete fluke in the first place, he couldn’t possibly have planned to take advantage of a race-stopping crash just as his tyres began to fade, he had no real business winning the Monaco Grand Prix under the circumstances and yet he did.  It was the kind of win runaway champions always seem to fall into.  Seems appropriate enough.

Race Results
2011 Monaco Grand Prix, Monte Carlo, Monaco

78 laps of 2.075 miles

1. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), 2hrs09:38.373
2. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), +1.138 seconds
3. Jenson Button (McLaren), +2.378 seconds
4. Mark Webber (Red Bull), +23.101 seconds
5. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber), +26.916 seconds
6. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), +47.210 seconds*
7. Adrian Sutil (Force India), +1 lap
8. Nick Heidfeld (Renault), +1 lap
9. Rubens Barrichello (Williams), +1 lap
10. Sebastien Buemi (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +1 lap
11. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), +2 laps
12. Paul di Resta (Force India), +2 laps
13. Jarno Trulli (Lotus), +2 laps
14. Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus), +2 laps
15. Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin), +3 laps
16. Vitantonio Liuzzi (HRT), +3 laps
17. Narain Karthikeyan (HRT), +4 laps
18. Pastor Maldonado (Williams), +5 laps, accident, completed 90% of race distance

Not classified

19. Vitaly Petrov (Renault), +11 laps, accident
20. Jaime Alguersuari (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +12 laps, accident
21. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), +46 laps, accident
22. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), +46 laps, airbox fire
23. Timo Glock (Virgin), +48 laps, suspension

* Time includes a retrospective penalty of 20 seconds for incident with Maldonado

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