How Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton took a race win from under Red Bull's nose

Formula Spy's Thomas Maher on a thrilling Monaco Grand Prix

Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton, Daniel Ricciardo, Monaco, Red Bull

Mercedes Lewis Hamilton leads Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo on his way to victory in the 2016 Monaco Grand Prix at the Circuit de Monaco, Monaco. Picture by: David Davies / PA Wire/Press Association Images

This article originally appeared on Formula Spy.

While Hamilton had some luck on his side, an eight lap stint in the first half of the race allowed the champion to win in Monte Carlo for the first time in eight years. Lewis Hamilton’s return to the top step of the podium in Monaco marks his first win of 2016, as unthinkable as that would have been if said during Mercedes’ unbelievable pre-season testing program. It’s also his first win since October 2015 at the United States Grand Prix, and his first Monaco victory since 2008.

Hamilton’s 2008 win came in wet to drying conditions, just like the 2016 event, but came about as a result of a fortuitously timed tap of the barriers and resultant puncture, that allowed McLaren to fuel Hamilton correctly to optimise a later swap to dry tyres. Luck played its part that day, and some was needed for the 2016 event as well.

Mercedes order Rosberg aside

Make no mistake about it, this race should have been a Red Bull victory, and Daniel Ricciardo’s face on the podium couldn’t have demonstrated his thoughts on that more clearly. The Australian, having nailed his first pole position down on Saturday with a sublime lap on the UltraSofts, led cleanly away after the Safety Car start in the wet and quickly built up a massive lead. Hamilton, bottled up behind Nico Rosberg, could only watch on as the Red Bull powered away in the tricky conditions. Averaging almost a second a lap faster than the squabbling Mercs, Ricciardo had a thirteen second lead over P2 Rosberg on Lap 15 and that was the point Mercedes decided enough was enough. Ordering the struggling Rosberg to move aside for Hamilton, Nico acquiesced accelerating away from Ste. Devote and this allowed Hamilton to start hunting down Ricciardo. "It was a simple decision to accept the request from the team to let Lewis past – even if it hurt very much in that moment," said Rosberg afterwards. "I was very far off the pace and Lewis quite clearly had the speed to win for the team."

Unlike previous years where a big lead at Monaco was not particularly useful due to the prevalence of Safety Cars, the increased use of the Virtual Safety Car where drivers are all forced to slow down and maintain gaps between each other meant that incidents and accidents weren’t to help Hamilton close the 15 second gap ahead to Ricciardo. He set about doing so, reducing it from 14 seconds on Lap 15 to 11.2 by Lap 22. Nico Rosberg had already fallen out of the picture by this point, due to his lack of pace and a stop on Lap 20 to change from the full wets to the intermediate rain tyre.

Race winner Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, center, of Britain, second placed Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo, left, of Australia and third placed Force India driver Sergio Perez, right, of Mexico react during the podium ceremony after the Formula One Grand Prix at the Monaco racetrack in Monaco, Sunday, May 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Lap 23, and Daniel Ricciardo pitted to do the same thing. Taking on the green striped Inters, he re-emerged behind Hamilton in P2, almost 8 seconds behind. Utilising the fresh rubber on a track that was rapidly starting to dry out in the sun, he quickly caught up on the Merc, Hamilton having seemingly made a strategy blunder that would see him fall back down the order as he struggled around on the full wet tyre.

Red Bull screw it up

By Lap 27, Ricciardo had completely closed up on Hamilton. Just half a second separated them with the ball seemingly in Ricciardo’s court, but is was becoming evident that Hamilton was not planning on taking on the Intermediates and was trying to get to the point where he could take on the dry tyres. Ricciardo, armed with the more appropriate tyre at that point, had to find a way past, and fast, due to the ever diminishing window to swap to the dry tyres. But Hamilton fended off the Red Bull, including a tight moment at the chicane which was aggressive and drew Ricciardo’s ire, but was fair enough. Had Ricciardo gotten past Hamilton at that point, he could have pulled away some more before they both made another stop to change to the dry tyres. But Ricciardo couldn’t get past, and this allowed Hamilton to get into dry tyre territory. Changing from the wets to dries on Lap 31, Ricciardo had to follow suit just a lap later. That one lap was enough to build a lead big enough to stay in front of Hamilton, due to the track still being slippery while Lewis struggled around on his first, cautious lap, but Red Bull had other ideas.

Ricciardo came in to stop and put on the SuperSoft, but the team had seemingly been caught unawares. The car was jacked up, the wheel guns wailed, the Inters were torn away from their mountings, but there were no other tyres ready to go on the car. Precious seconds ticked past as the mechanics scrambled to find something to put on the car. Finally, he squealed away, having lost nine seconds to Hamilton due to his team’s tardiness. Had he pulled away nine seconds during Hamilton’s exploratory out-lap?

The answer was no. While he emerged out of the pitlane almost alongside the Mercedes, Hamilton had more momentum coming out of the first turn and managed to keep the lead. Despite his problems, Ricciardo had still almost kept the lead, a testament to how much pace he had had available to unlock during the Intermediate tyre phase. But now, track position had been lost, and the only way back was to get past Hamilton, or hope that his SuperSofts would outlast Hamilton’s UltraSofts over the forty laps remaining.

 

Hamilton denies Ricciardo recovery

Ricciardo never did manage to get back past. Despite his best efforts at snaking past into the chicane, despite negotiating meandering traffic, despite coaxing Hamilton into leaning on his UltraSoft tyres as hard as possible, it was Ricciardo who had to give up the fight in the closing stages. A late 1:17.739 from Hamilton proved that tyre life wasn’t an issue for him and he completed the 47 lap stint without much trouble on Pirelli’s new compound. Ricciardo’s SuperSofts actually gave up before Hamilton’s, and he crossed the line 7.2 seconds behind the winner.

"On the extremes in the beginning we were quick and I did everything I had to," complained a frustrated Ricciardo afterwards. "I asked a couple of times how the people on inters were doing but they said that my pace was really good on the extremes so we stayed out and that was no problem. And then they said 'box this lap'.

"We put the inters on and then we came out behind Lewis. Then when Lewis pitted we tried to pit the lap later to overcut him. It was all prepared and then I came into the pits and there were no tyres.

"I actually hate being like this. I hate being miserable."

 

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain leads Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Formula One Grand Prix at the Monaco racetrack in Monaco, Sunday, May 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

Lewis Hamilton’s decision to stay out on the wet tyre on a track that had not much water left on it meant that he had to struggle around for eight laps with a much faster Red Bull breathing down his neck, but he resisted the pressure. Exalted afterwards, he explained that this had brought him into play, but still needed the Red Bull blunder to pull off the win: “It’s very unusual that I’m able to take any credit for a strategy decision – but when the team first asked me to box, I could see the track drying and my tyres still felt pretty good. So I told them all that and they said to stay out, which worked out great. I just carried on looking after the tyres – picking up the pace a bit when I saw what times people were starting to do on the intermediates as it dried out. I was matching their times at that stage so I thought 'I could actually hold onto this until it’s dry'. Staying in that window was really tricky, though, as the first two sectors were almost dry. When I came out on the slicks it was like driving on ice. It was tough knowing how hard to push and we came out very close together. If he hadn’t had a bad stop I wouldn’t have been ahead."

Red Bull apologise to Ricciardo

"A very disappointing day.” said Christian Horner after the race. "We as a team owe Daniel a huge apology today as we failed to support him in the way we did to get him to his first pole position yesterday. The delay at his pit stop cost him the lead and despite some excellent driving to get close to Lewis, he couldn’t get past, as is so often the case here in Monaco."

Helmut Marko said: "We presented it to Mercedes. Unfortunately, a lot of misunderstanding and not the right communication. We will investigate and find out [what happened], but it was a human mistake. I feel really sorry [for Ricciardo]. All we can do is apologise to him."

Ferrari not in the hunt

Red Bull and Mercedes squabbled over the win, even if their second drivers weren’t able to join in the fight. Max Verstappen crashed in qualifying and then again in the race, a massive comedown from the jubilation of Barcelona. Rosberg’s issues were later explained as brake related, but it was the obvious lack of Ferrari fight that shows the Scuderia are struggling to keep in the title fight.

Kimi Raikkonen’s weekend was compromised by a gearbox problem at the end of FP3, leading to a grid penalty. A lacklustre qualifying meant he took P6, demoted to P11 with the penalty, and then he crashed out early in the race. Caught out in the wet, he slid into the barriers at the hairpin and was out. Sebastian Vettel, running behind the Mercs in the early phase of the race, got shuffled behind Sergio Perez in the changeover to dry tyres and was doomed to P4. Traffic played a big part in Ferrari not being able to show race pace, but the continuing trend of poor qualifying will worry the Scuderia. With Red Bull and Mercedes now seemingly ahead in the performance stakes, can Ferrari fight back in Canada to make it a three way battle?