Doing what he believed he could and should have done last year, Lewis Hamilton seized the initiative in the World Championship with a sensational charge to victory in a thrilling Monaco Grand Prix.
In an action-packed race that saw as many incidents as changes in the classification, the British ace scythed his way through the chaos, in treacherous conditions, to claim his first win at the Principality and his sixth career victory.
“I am absolutely over the moon,” exulted Hamilton afterwards. “To win here in Monaco is the highlight of my career and an occasion I will always remember. It was a very eventful race. What a day and what a result!”
A collision with the armco barriers in the first few laps looked as though Hamilton’s race was over before it started as he peeled off into the pits with a puncture. But the extra fuel that the Briton took on at the unscheduled stop saw him run long into the race and negotiate changing weather conditions, as well as two safety-car periods, better than Felipe Massa and Robert Kubica, his closest rivals during the tortuous dash around the streets.
“At the Tabac corner, there was a lot of water on the track, and suddenly I had oversteer and hit the barrier,” explained Hamilton. “It was just a slight touch, but the tyre was damaged and I had to pit. Fortunately, the first Safety Car period helped me to close the gap to the front. We changed our strategy, and I had to make only one more stop.”
“When I was about 40 seconds ahead the team told me over the radio to take it easy. The second Safety Car period brought more excitement, but I was able to control the race also after the second re-start.”
The Scuderia were left well and truly in the wake of Hamilton with Kimi Raikkonen throwing his championship advantage away by over-cooking it into the back of Adrian Sutil after the second restart – the Force India driver at that point running an incredible fourth place having fuelled his car to the brim and carving his way through the field during the incident-filled opening two thirds of the race.
“I lost control of the car under braking coming out of the tunnel and I could do nothing to avoid him,” explained Raikkonen. “It s a shame how things went today, as we had the potential to do well.”
Felipe Massa meanwhile while pinned his hopes on a one-stop strategy which failed to pay off due to the absence of predicted rain in the latter stages of the race.
“A shame to have ended up third because of a series of events that did not go in our favour, which can easily happen in these conditions and on this track,” reflected Massa afterwards. “We decided to switch strategies thinking the rain was going to return, but this turned out to be the wrongchoice. On full tanks and on a drying track, the standard rain tyres did not have the same grip as the ones my nearest rivals were using.”
The race began in treacherous conditions – the 3.4km street circuit neither wet nor dry – with most drivers opting for the intermediate tyres. Heikki Kovalainen was the first casualty of the race after he stalled on the grid.
“An extremely difficult race with any chance of finishing in a top position already gone when I could not engage a gear at the start of the formation lap,” reflected a disappointed Kovalainen.
“Consequently I had to change the steering wheel in the pit lane from where I had to start my race. I tried to push as hard as I could, but could only go at my real pace when there was a gap. It is a pity, because my car was good and the speed was there.”
Lewis Hamilton however got a blistering start off the line and catapulted himself past Kimi Raikkonen to take second place behind Massa.
The rain got progressively heavier after start which attributed to Hamilton’s with the armco. By Lap 7 large pools of water were collecting all over the circuit, no more so than at Casino Square. Fernando Alonso was the first to fall victim to the Casino water-pool, the Spaniard aqua-planing into the barriers and picking up a puncture.
David Coulthard was less lucky, the Scot doing exactly the same one lap later only this time writing off his Red Bull in the process. The safety car was deployed moments later when Sebastien Bourdais’ Toro Rosso also overcooked it into the left-hander and ploughed into the back of Coulthard’s RB4 – the Scot still inside his stricken Red Bull. The safety car bought Hamilton right back into contention in fourth place behind Robert Kubica.
“I was having difficulty with my downshifts and got caught out on the entry to Casino,” said Coulthard after his second shunt with the Monaco arcmo this weekend. “I corrected, corrected and corrected, but then ran out of road.”
“It looked like Sebastien (Bourdais) had a similar event and then found me in an area where he was about to have his crash. I m extremely disappointed as this is a race where keeping out of trouble gives you a good chance of getting points.”
The next few laps saw several drivers having nearly moments in the perilous conditions. Fernando Alonso collided with Nick Heidfeld at the Lowes hairpin with Mark Webber and Kazuki Nakajima just avoiding the incident.
And on Lap 15 Felipe Massa gifted the race lead to Robert Kubica when he ran too deep into St. Devote, luckily avoiding any impact. His Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, who did the same a few laps later, was less fortunate and damaged his front-wing after out-braking himself into the right-hander.
It was in the second third of the race that the track began to dry. Massa pitted for his first stop and was able to re-join ahead of Kubica leaving Hamilton leading the race in clear air.
The McLaren driver, recognising that this was his moment to seize the initiative, proceeded to lap the Monte Carlo street circuit with sensational pace, the MP4-23 clearly enjoying the intermediate Bridgestones on the drying track.
By Lap 54 Hamilton had built a big enough cushion to rejoin ahead of both Felipe Massa and Robert Kubica, the Briton’s pit-stop coinciding perfectly with a switch to slick tyres.
Felipe Massa, hoping for more rain, elected to stay out longer than both Hamilton and Kubica on the intermediate tyres. It was a gamble that failed to pay off, and when the Brazilian finally pitted for the grooved tyres on Lap 57, Kubica had done enough to leap-frog him.
“I am very happy with the result,” enthused Kubica after finishing on the podium for the third time this year. “I didn t expect us to have the pace to finish second. It was a great race with very difficult driving conditions, and we did not expect such heavy rain.”
On Lap 61 the safety car was brought out for a second time in response to a huge shunt at the swimming pool complex, Nico Rosberg this time the victim. The German lost control in the entry to the first part of the complex and careered into the immediate onward facing barrier which flipped him into the opposite wall and left the stricken FW30 stranded in the middle of the track. As a precaution, Rosberg was taken to hospital for routine checks.
When the safety car peeled off into the pits with 11 minutes to go – the eventful race ending on the two hour mark rather than the anticipated 78 laps – Lewis Hamilton led Robert Kubica from Felipe Massa, Adrian Sutil, Kimi Raikkonen, Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel, Rubens Barrichello, Kazuki Nakajima and Heikki Kovalainen.
There was one more drama of the day, and in terms of the title race, by far the most significant.
Kimi Raikkonen, hunting down the gearbox of Adrian Sutil’s Force India, lost control on the exit of the tunnel in a similar fashion to that of David Coulthard in qualifying. The Finn’s Ferrari snapped away from him and while he was able to correct the F2008, he was unable to bring it to a halt quick enough to avoid the hapless Sutil, the collision ruining the German’s race.
Ironically, it was Sutil that was forced to retire from the race, his devastated Force India crew unable to repair the damage. Ferrari on the other hand were able to send Raikkonen out with a new nose cone, albeit to no avail as the Finn finished out of the points in ninth.
The incident promoted Mark Webber to fourth for Red Bull, Sebastian Vettel in the new Toro Rosso to fifth, Rubens Barrichello to sixth, and Kazuki Nakajima to seventh. Heikki Kovalainen, who had spent most of the race at the rear of the pack, picked up the final point.
“That was good, a great result which gives us a lot of points,” enthused fourth place man Mark Webber. “It wasn t the most exciting race in the world in terms of racing, but it was very difficult early on in the wet conditions and we were aqua-planning at Casino.”
Sebastian Vettel who christened the new Toro Rosso STR3 with points on its debut added: “It s great to score my first points of the season at Monaco and with the new car as well.”
Lewis Hamilton now leads the Drivers’ Championship, three points clear of Kimi Raikkonen and four points ahead of Felipe Massa who likewise brings himself right into contention as a result of his team-mate’s Monaco woes.
Pos Driver Team Time 1. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes (B) 2h00:42.272 2. Kubica BMW Sauber (B) + 3.069 3. Massa Ferrari (B) + 4.811 4. Webber Red Bull-Renault (B) + 19.264 5. Vettel Toro Rosso-Ferrari (B) + 24.657 6. Barrichello Honda (B) + 28.408 7. Nakajima Williams-Toyota (B) + 30.180 8. Kovalainen McLaren-Mercedes (B) + 33.191 9. Raikkonen Ferrari (B) + 33.793 10. Alonso Renault (B) + 1 lap 11. Button Honda (B) + 1 lap 12. Glock Toyota (B) + 1 lap 13. Trulli Toyota (B) + 1 lap 14. Heidfeld BMW Sauber (B) + 4 laps