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Monaco Grand Prix - Coulthard Breaks the Bank

After a fortnight of increasingly tedious debate on the rights and wrongs of Ferrari's race-fixing fiasco in Austria, what Grand Prix racing really needed this weekend was for somebody to really make a race of it this weekend. Monaco didn't seem the place that was likely to provide us with such a thing, though there has been the odd great race here, more often than not it has tended to produce dull, processional races. Nelson Piquet described racing around the streets of the Principality as like "trying to ride a bicycle in your living room" while as long ago as 1959 Phil Hill was of the opinion that modern grand prix cars had outgrown the place. Yet somewhat against the form book, Monaco provided us with the best race of the season so far, and one was not won by somebody with the surname 'Schumacher'.

Qualifying was, at least initially, a six way battle for pole, with the usual suspects - the Schumacher brothers, Montoya and Barrichello, joined by two interlopers. The first was an on-from David Coulthard, who was finding his underpowered Mercedes engine less of a handicap than it has been elsewhere this year and was delighting in the opportunity to put one over his young team mate. The second was Jarno Trulli, who has always impressed in qualifying at Monaco and, for much of the session, looked like he might break the Ferrari/McLaren/Williams lockout on the front two rows. In the end, Montoya won out with a time that was four tenths quicker than anyone else's - set in the dying seconds of the session, thus banishing any memories of his rather clumsy, unconvincing performance at the track the year before. Coulthard joined him on the front row, while behind those two - predictably, was Michael Schumacher. His brother lined up fourth, while Barrichello was fifth, feeling that his shot at pole had been ruined by traffic. Raikkonen was nowhere near the pace of his team mate, while Trulli's early promise faded and he lined up seventh in his Renault, nonetheless outqualifying his team mate Button. The surprisingly quick Toyota duo filled the fifth row, with Salo as ever slightly faster than McNish. Ove Andersson's boys have impressed throughout the year, but still one can't help wondering just how fast the Toyota might be with a driver of real class behind the wheel. The big losers on Saturday afternoon were the Saubers, who were uncharacteristically slow and well down the second half of the grid, and the Jaguars, neither of whom were able to outqualify Mark Webber's Minardi, despite the fact that Webber himself felt that he hadn't really gone as quickly as he might have done - he felt that displacing Villeneuve for fourteenth was a real possibility, which would have been the best qualifying performance a Minardi has managed in many a year. One way or another it all looked set for a fascinating race.

In a sense, the Monaco Grand Prix was decided in the opening 100 yards. Coulthard's traction control system proved to a little more clever than Montoya's electronic box of tricks, allowing him to outdrag the Williams into St Devote. From there, the Scot was never headed. However, to describe the race thus would be to ignore the fact that it was the most closely fought, action packed race of the season. In the early laps, Coulthard's tyres clearly weren't at their best, and he faced enormous pressure from a train of four cars behind him, headed by Montoya - surely the most likely driver on the whole grid to pull of the impossible and overtake at Monaco. Coulthard didn't crack though, and to the credit of all four drivers, they ran nose to tail for several laps, darting and weaving, but never making contact with each other. When Montoya slowed and then finally stopped with a cooked BMW motor, Coulthard had pulled out a sufficient lead to ensure that he would come out from the tyre stops ahead. This however, was not the end of his day's work. Freed from being stuck behind Montoya's Williams, Schumacher was clearly the fastest man on the track and over the last twenty laps he put Coulthard under sustained pressure, hustling him in an ultimately futile attempt to pressure the McLaren driver into a mistake.

Behind the lead three, others were making rather more mistakes. McNish was the first to make his exit, shunting his Toyota at St Devote. Fellow rookies Takuma Sato and Alex Yoong soon followed suit - Sato being lucky not to take out his team mate again in the process. Fisichella survived Sato's kamikaze moment in the tunnel to run home fifth, offering further encouragement to the troubled Jordan team and making Trulli work hard to keep fourth in the closing stages.

Felipe Massa had two accidents at St Devote, first running into the back of Bernoldi as the Arrows driver went past him, and then exiting the race shortly after when his brakes failed at the same corner. Panis and Button were also to exit the race at St Devote, disputing the same patch of tarmac as the Briton tried to make his way back up the field after falling to the back at the start. Barrichello did for the chances of the second string McLaren and Ferrari when he ran into the back of Raikkonen at the Swimming Pool chicane, eliminating the Finn entirely and ending his chances of coming away from the Principality with any points. We can at least be grateful that he didn't contrive to hit Coulthard's McLaren or we would be spending the next two weeks discussing whether the Brazilian was under orders to act as Schumacher's battering ram too. Elsewhere down the order, Frentzen picked up a point for Arrows but missed out on fifth when his fuel rig failed, forcing him to make two pit stops. The Jaguar's trundled round at the back, finishing ahead of Webber's Minardi only after the Australian suffered a tyre delamination towards the end of the race. Heidfeld finished an entirely unremarkable eighth for Sauber - perhaps suggesting that the car's mechanical grip lags some way behind its aerodynamic grip - or else that the team's two inexperienced drivers simply can't cope with Monaco.

For the first time this year, somebody other than a Schumacher came home first - and a refreshing and much needed change it was too. For all that, the race could have been even harder fought, had Montoya's car gone the distance. Schumacher remains the only realistic candidate to be world champion this year - and even here his Ferrari F2002 looked the fastest thing on the track come race day. For once, though, Ferrari showed they were not entirely invincible and it would be good to think that messrs Coulthard, Raikkonen and Montoya could offer some much needed opposition to Michael at individual races even if they can't run him close for points over the course of the whole season. In two weeks, the teams go to Canada, and being a power circuit, the McLarens are unlikely to figure. If its hot though, the Michelin tyres might allow Montoya to take his second win of the season - and the Renaults are looking ever more competitive. Whatever, memories of the farcical Austrian race were put to the back of peoples' minds today, and Grand Prix racing itself was the winner.


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