Nothing can throw chaos into a Formula One event like an unexpected bout of bad weather. And when it rains at the normally orderly Grand Prix of Monaco, making the correct adjustments is often the difference between winning and losing.
Charles Leclerc found out the hard way this past Sunday that sometimes no amount of skill behind the steering wheel can overcome a fatal mistake by the people on the other side of the radio.
Saturday’s qualifying session, where a strong performance is vital for success at Monaco, was a brilliant day for Ferrari. Leclerc claimed his third consecutive pole after posting the fastest lap in all three segments, and was joined on the front row by teammate Carlos Sainz, who beat both Red Bull drivers for less than a tenth of a second in Q3.
Both Sainz and third-best Sergio Perez had to delay their post-qualifying interviews after Perez spun out at the end of the final session and was then tagged by a sliding Sainz.
Lando Norris posted a Q3 time just a quarter of a second behind Sainz to take the fifth starting spot, after nearly being caught out in Q1 by a questionable late red flag, which caused a full-field rush to get in a final lap before time expired.
Pierre Gasly wound up near the back of the line and ended up eliminated and starting 17th after seeing the session-ending lights turn on as he was just milliseconds from crossing the starting line.
While Leclerc’s starting position gave him a strong advantage at the nearly pass-proof Circuit de Monaco, he would need to overcome the “curse” that has led to a series of disappointing finishes on the racecourse made from the streets he grew up on.
The native Monegasque’s history on his home track includes crashing out of his first two Formula One Grand Prix, a crushing mechanical failure causing him to not even start after taking pole position in 2020, and even crashing a classic 1974 Ferrari originally piloted by Niki Lauda during a demonstration last month.
No one from Ferrari was happy to see the start of the race delayed by a rainstorm that drenched the track just 15 minutes before the scheduled start. But the team’s luck took a dramatic upswing when an electrical problem occurred that would prevent the field from making standing starts (which usually offer some of the few passing opportunities), and instead started the race rolling in single file with the two Ferraris in front.
Leclerc would have the advantage of being the only car not having to deal with a water spray from a competitor, as well as having arch-rival Max Verstappen starting three cars behind.
While the Ferrari drivers fulfilled their main requirement of keeping the cars pointed forward and away from the barriers, it was the team strategists who ultimately ruined the day for the team. The first issue came when the team called Sainz into the pits to change from the slower full-wet tire onto the faster intermediates.
Sainz was able to overrule the decision, telling the team the warm track was drying fast enough that staying out a few more laps would allow them to go straight to the dry-weather slick tires, saving them the time lost in an extra pit stop.
Leclerc, meanwhile, trusting that the Ferrari strategists were being paid a salary for some meaningful purpose, ended up making the extra stop – but the call to switch to the intermediates came two laps later than Perez, by which point the Red Bull driver had made up enough time to cause Leclerc to come out of the pits in third, behind both Perez and Sainz.
Having successfully taken Leclerc’s advantage away, the Ferrari strategists went to work on ruining the team’s remaining chances. A mere three laps after Leclerc’s change to intermediates, Sainz, who had inherited the lead but was still using the slowest full wet tire, was called in to change to the dry weather hard compound tires.
Not only did this turn out to be several laps too early, but the team bizarrely told Leclerc to come in again as well, then tried in vain to yell on the radio for him to stay out when the mistake was realized.
Perez used this period on the intermediate tires to make up track position, and just one lap later Red Bull realized he now could also change to the same slick tires as Ferrari and remain in front. As a final insult, the Red Bull strategy brought Verstappen out in front of Leclerc as well, leaving the Ferrari driver to scream at his team on the radio in frustration.
After all the tire swapping had been finished by Lap 23, even though two-thirds of the race distance remained, all the point positions had essentially been decided. The only remaining change in the top 10 would be caused by a five-second penalty to Esteban Ocon for contact with Lewis Hamilton, which dropped him from ninth to 12th.
Ocon’s response to the penalty perhaps summed up Formula One racing at Monaco, as he lamented that even attempting to pass another car could only result in losing positions from a steward’s ruling.
One other thing: there is still no agreement between Liberty Media, which owns F1, and the promoters of the Monaco race on extending their longtime entitlement agreement. Rumors have both sides talking sometime in July or August, and Monaco organizers are optimistic a deal can be struck.
through the field
The race weirdly split into two separate parades following the switch to dry weather conditions, when Fernando Alonso, running in seventh, decided to save wear on his tires, backing up the remainder of the field behind him until they trailed the top 6 by more than 30 seconds.
* The early success of the Haas team seems to be becoming a distant memory following another horrible day for the team which saw Kevin Magnussen retiring with a water pressure issue and Mick Schumacher suffering a scary-looking crash which saw the rear section of the car containing the wing and suspension entirely ripped off.
Schumacher was unhurt, but the team now has only two points in the last five races. George Russell’s fifth place means he has now finished third, fourth or fifth in every race this year.
After taking a week off the series will head to another battle held on European streets, this time on the much more pass-friendly Baku City Circuit in Azerbaijan.