You could have cut the atmosphere in the Renault pit with a knife
immediately after qualifying on Saturday, before the stewards handed Michael
Schumacher the penalty that took him from a controversial pole position to the
back of the Monaco grid. But on Sunday the blue team were smiling broadly again
as Fernando Alonso extended his world championship lead by six points, and
Giancarlo Fisichella’s fighting sixth place helped move Renault 28 points ahead
of arch-rivals Ferrari.
The speed of Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren apart, the only fly in the ointment
came in the form of the penalty that dropped Fisichella from fifth on the grid
(which would have been fourth with Schumacher’s penalty) to ninth and thus
condemned him to race on a strategy that had been dependent on a position close
to the front. The Italian put in an aggressive performance and some excellent
overtaking - Rosberg, Coulthard, Villeneuve and Liuzzi all succumbed - in the
course of a fighting race that underlined Renault’s bulletproof reliability.
For McLaren, a race that held the possibility of victory for the first 50
laps ultimately yielded a sound second place. The MP4-21 was well suited to
Monte Carlo, but a new cooling package ultimately let it down. Raikkonen had a
fire on Thursday when a carbon heat shield malfunctioned, and a similar failure
while behind the safety car triggered the wiring harness fire that stopped him.
Juan Pablo Montoya, meanwhile, had a stage in his second stint when his McLaren
handled the way he wanted it to, and rapidly hauled in Alonso, Raikkonen and
Mark Webber’s Williams. But just as quickly he fell back as they all encountered
the lengthy trains of
traffic that were such a feature of the race, and when his car started
oversteering again he had to settle for second place. The eight points took
McLaren’s total to 50, only 13 behind Ferrari but a long way from Renault’s
The red team had a torrid weekend, with Felipe Massa crashing on his first
flying qualifying lap and thus starting from the back alongside his team mate.
Both received fresh engines prior to the start, since neither could be penalised
further, and Schumacher elected for a single-stop strategy and a start from the
pit lane. He quickly scythed through the backmarkers, got caught for a while
behind Jenson Button, and then pushed up to join the midfield scrap. Eventually
he worked his way through thanks to his pit-stop strategy, and in the closing
stages set the race’s fastest lap. Technical director Ross Brawn particularly
praised the performance and durability of Bridgestone’s tyres, just as Alonso
had Michelin’s. Schumacher’s fastest lap was 1m 15.143s set on the 74th lap,
which compared well with Alonso’s 1m 15.671s from the 11th and Raikkonen’s 1m
15.325s from the 19th.
“I don’t think the fastest laps are really representative at all of the
races,” Alonso said, “and today the track was improving every lap.” But the tyre
war would have been fascinating had Schumacher started from the front row.
Williams were the other big loser, and one wonders what Mark Webber has to
do to finish a race on the podium this year. He was in superb form with the
agile Cosworth-engined FW28, and the second stint revealed the package to be
highly competitive until, almost inevitably, he lost time in the traffic. The
problem that stopped him was not, as it seemed from the fire captured by the
television screens, an engine failure, but an electrical fire triggered by a
faulty exhaust. Nico Rosberg, meanwhile, crashed at Noghes on the lap that the
safety car went in because of a sticking throttle.
Right now, Williams have the pace, but their reliability has cost them
dearly at a time when so few other cars break down.
For Red Bull, Monaco was the place where everything came good. Superman
David Coulthard’s podium finish was his first in two years but also Dietrich
Mateschitz’s best showing since he bought the team. It was a solid result, a
product of effort and commitment, the decision to change from a two-stop
strategy to a one-stop, and the blend of luck that you also need in a place like
Monte Carlo. It was none the worse for that. It was a disappointment that
Christian Klien lost out on a solid helping of points as his car suffering loss
of drive, while the sister Toro Rosso team suffered from the tyre choice that
was available to them (Tonio Liuzzi stunned in qualifying after running
Michelin’s harder tyres generally deemed to be seven-tenths of a lap slower than
the softer compound others raced), and Liuzzi also lost out when the team kept
him out too long so that he gained no advantage from a single-stop strategy.
Scott Speed, meanwhile, struggled after a good start with his STR 01’s nervous
BMW Sauber took two points, courtesy of a fighting drive from Nick Heidfeld
in which last year’s second place finisher avoided making mistakes in a car with
poor rear-end grip while keeping it ahead of clearly faster machinery. Jacques
Villeneuve might have challenged for points too, but delayed himself with a
drive-through penalty after overtaking Nico Rosberg while the safety car was
Toyota looked all set for an eventual third place, as Jarno Trulli worked
his way unobtrusively through following the various retirements and other
incidents. But then his TF106B suffered a sudden hydraulic failure that left him
parked on the climb to Massenet. That moved Ralf Schumacher into the points in
eighth place, but that was scant consolation to a team that could have done very
nicely with a podium slot in the Principality at a time when its effort is
nowhere near as impressive as it was last year.
Honda, too, had a tough time. Things seemed to have played into Rubens
Barrichello’s hands as Schumacher and Fisichella got
moved back on the grid, for he had qualified with a hefty fuel load. He made a
good start and defended well against faster cars, and was also on course for
that podium slot until he went speeding in the pits and was awarded the
drive-through penalty that dropped him a place and left him open to late-race
attack from Michael Schumacher. Jenson Button, however, never featured and could
not better an 11th place finish in his worst-ever Formula One outing. Plagued by
handling inconsistencies, he never had a chance.
Midland’s race began in unusual fashion, as fast-starting Christijan Albers
swept across from the left-hand side of the grid and promptly swiped team mate
Tiago Monteiro into the pit wall. The Portuguese driver gave it a good bash and
had to pit at the end of the lap for a new nose before continuing. He went on to
have a 40-lap scrap with Franck Montagny’s Super Aguri, which included a
nose-to-tail shoving match exiting Casino Square when Monteiro said he thought
the Frenchman had braked far too early. They both survived, to take 15th and
16th places respectively. Monteiro was unhappy that this was behind Albers, even
though the Dutchman received a drive-through penalty for causing an avoidable
accident on that opening lap. Albers said he was very happy with 12th,
considering his penalty, and reported that his M16 was going really well.
Further back, Takuma Sato was his usual energetic self, but was stopped by
electrical problems after 48 laps.
With the fast sweeps of Silverstone coming up, it’s anyone’s guess whether
Renault, Ferrari or McLaren will be supreme, but watch out for Williams too, and
don’t write off Honda yet.