Max Mosley once said he thought that Formula One was like a high speed game of chess. A strategic battle in which the man who calls his pit stops right, who knows when to bang in the quick laps and when to back off, will emerge the winner. And this year's Monaco Grand Prix is perhaps the best example of how a race without overtaking can be exciting after all.
Monaco is a place of contrasts. On the one hand, it is Moronaco. Meeting place for the rich and tasteless. At no other race weekend are there quite so many hangers on with not the faintest interest in motorsport - for that we have Jackie Stewart and the early seventies to blame. His connections with royalty and aristocracy ensured that the Monaco Grand Prix has become an essential event on the society calendar, and these days the place is crawling with the kind of people who make me want to go out and sell the Socialist Worker. One can console oneself with the thought that what with the sheer volume of tax exiles holed up there these days, it resembles Birmingham with its tower blocks, as much as Belle-Epoque Paris. Although it is warmer. This combination of wealth and tastelessness was manifesting itself in a particularly horrid way on the engine covers of the Jaguars at Monaco. Not content with running the cars in a hardly eye-pleasing shade of green (what exactly is so wrong with British Racing Green, guys ?), a deal with a diamond company had resulted in the Jaguar logo appearing in a particularly foul shade of fluorescent pink on the cars. The result was that the R4 looked like nothing so much as a high speed highlighter pen accident. Strange.
On the other hand, the circuit itself is perhaps the purest test of driving ability on the F1 calendar. A place that rewards perfection and punishes error like nowhere else on the F1 calendar. It is not by accident that the three greatest F1 drivers of the last twenty years, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher have won this race 16 times out of the last 20. It is not a 'race' track in the conventional sense - overtaking here is basically impossible in a modern F1 car - but rather a fascinating test of a driver's ability to drive very quickly in confines far, far too tight for an 850BHP racing car.
Nowhere is the driver's battle against the track, and indeed the clock, more pure than in single-lap qualifying. Especially on the Thursday afternoon when the cars are running on near empty fuel tanks and the drivers aren't troubled by the thought that they'll have to race the same car the following day. The big winners on the Thursday were the Ferraris, seemingly confirming the dominance that they had shown in Austria. Jenson Button's appearance in third in a BAR however, suggested that the Ferraris' apparent pace might be at least partially illusionary. Without meaning to discredit either Button or the BAR team, they are not exactly regular visitors to the top of the timing sheets, and it seemed that the Bridgestone tyres had a definite edge over the Michelins. Something which was further confirmed by the appearance of a Jordan in the top ten, and by the fact that the Toyotas, rather than the Minardis, were the slowest cars on the circuit.
Come Saturday's final qualifying session, the tables were turned. Button was no longer a consideration, having lost his BAR in a big way on the exit from the tunnel and landed himself in hospital, but it was in any case clear that he wouldn't be the threat that he had been on Thursday. Saturday morning running confirmed that Michelin tyres were the thing to be on, and the afternoon session reaffirmed this. The first clue came from the pace of Cristiano Da Matta. Having been stone last on Friday, he set a time that none of the next six runners could match, leading some to suspect he was running a very low fuel load (he wasn't). The first man to go quicker was Fernando Alonso. Alonso had struggled at Monaco all weekend, going off the road three times and losing most of his running time in the free practice session. In the event, a reasonably well set up Renault and Michelin tyres were good enough to get him up into eighth. In the middle of the session, Raikkonen set a time which the next seven drivers failed to match. Montoya got close, and Trulli got even closer. Ultimately it was Ralf Schumacher, in a Williams which, on paper, hardly seemed ideally suited to the tight confines of Monaco and at a track he professes to hate, who surprised everyone by wresting away the pole position. This left only the two Ferraris with a shot at the pole, but as it turned out their Bridgestones simply weren't up to the job and they ended up fifth (Schumacher) and seventh (Barrichello), their worst qualifying positions in a very long time. The grid was a most intriguing one - the troubled Ralf Schumacher on pole, with championship contender Raikkonen behind him, Montoya in third, and an impressive looking Trulli in fourth for Renault. Then Michael Schumacher, just ahead of David Coulthard, who had gone the wrong way on set up for his quick lap, followed up by Barrichello and Alonso - all covered by just seven tenths of a second. And nobody knew who was on what fuel loads, which made it all seem even more of a lottery. The winner at Monaco almost always comes from the first two rows of the grid, what with overtaking being near impossible, but this time, a clever strategy might change all that. Or it might not......
The start was surprisingly clean, given what was at stake. The Williams drivers both got away well, while Raikkonen did not, allowing Montoya into second place. Trulli and Michael Schumacher held station in fourth and fifth, while Alonso succeeded in getting the jump on Barrichello and Coulthard to take sixth. At the front, Ralf Schumacher was quickly able to open a gap up ahead of Montoya, while Raikkonen struggled to hang onto the back of the second Williams. An error from veteran Frentzen in the Sauber exiting the Swimming Pool Complex left his car stranded and wheel-less on the track, bringing out the safety car. This affected the race little, for it occurred when the pace was still relatively closely bunched, and the car was not out long enough to enable drivers to save a significant amount of fuel. It must however, have raised grimaces from the Sauber team. Frentzen's place in the team owed much to the fact that they had got fed up with promising novice Felipe Massa doing this sort of thing last year. The race got away again, and once again, Ralf Schumacher sprinted off into the distance. It didn't last for long though - Montoya soon began to reel in Schumacher, and Raikkonen began to close on the pair of them. Behind them, Trulli was around 10 seconds back by lap 15, and it seemed safe enough to discount him, and those stuck behind him, unless.....unless any of them were on a one stop fuel load.
Ralf Schumacher was the first to pit, on lap 22 and he was followed, two laps later by Montoya, who had managed to record a couple of incredibly quick laps free from the obstruction of his team mate, and jumped into the lead of the race. Raikkonen was next in, and he too was able to leapfrog Ralf Schumacher's Williams, moving into second place, and hanging gamely onto Montoya's tail. Next in was Trulli, followed quickly by Coulthard, rather blowing the theory that either of them might win the race on a one-stop strategy.
They could now be scratched from considerations - and when it became apparent that Alonso too was on a two stop strategy - and emerged from the pits behind Coulthard, he too was out of contention. The Ferraris ran longer, perhaps explaining their relatively poor qualifying performances, but when they pitted on lap 31 and 32, they didn't seem to spend enough time in the pits to take on sufficient fuel for the finish - they were on a two stop strategy like everyone else. Michael Schumacher at least emerged in front of Trulli and his brother's Williams. Barrichello remained a distant and unimpressive eighth.
Montoya came in for his final stop on lap 49, and it appeared that Raikkonen might have a shot at taking his second win of the season. The gap between the two was only just over two seconds the lap before Montoya pitted, so all Raikkonen had to do was lap quicker on low fuel than Montoya could on heavy fuel. In the end, two things would prevent Raikkonen from leap frogging Montoya. The first was that Montoya was incredibly quick on his first laps out of the pits - lapping nearly as quickly as he had been able to do on a near empty tank. The second factor was that Raikkonen was now in traffic - losing time in particular behind Villeneuve's BAR. And so Raikkonen pitted on lap 53 and remained behind Montoya.
Michael Schumacher now led in the Ferrari, though he was one stop down on Montoya, and only six seconds in front of him. After two seasons dominated by Ferrari we began to wonder - was Michael on a one stop strategy ? It didn't seem he had taken on enough fuel at his first stop for that - but what if he had pitted on a less than empty tank ? It turned out not to be so - Schumacher pitted on lap 59 and the race was now Montoya's - provided that he kept going, and provided that Raikkonen didn't prove to be the first man all weekend with the inspiration to pull an overtaking manoeuvre off (excepting the various backmarkers who swapped positions rather enthusiastically in the opening laps of the race). Montoya made no mistakes, and despite having to short shift his overheating BMW engine in the closing stages, Raikkonen was unable to find a way past him (though Michael Schumacher came up very close behind both men in the closing stages as Montoya backed off to preserve his car.)
And so Montoya took his first win since September 2001, Williams first win in over a season, and the team's first win at Monaco since Keke Rosberg's tyre gamble brought him victory back in 1983. It was certainly not the result we had been expecting before the weekend began ? Weren't the Williams too unwieldy to be quick round here ? Weren't Schumacher and Coulthard the Monaco experts ? Wasn't Montoya, the aggressive man most at home on tracks like Monza and the old Hockenheimring, liable to throw his car off the road here ? Not today it would seem, and with relations between Williams and its engine suppliers BMW somewhat strained at present, this was exactly the kind of weekend that both parties need to get them to focus on pulling in the same direction and winning races.
Behind the lead four, there was more frustration for Coulthard and a surprise bonus for Alonso. Coulthard seemed clearly the quickest of the bunch, but he found himself trailing Trulli, and pitting at exactly the same time, the pair lost enough time for Alonso to leapfrog the pair of them into fifth. If it was a great weekend for Montoya, a good weekend for Raikkonen (he increased his championship lead over Schumacher) and a reasonable weekend for Michael Schumacher (his car, or more particularly, his tyres, weren't really up for it, third was a decent result in the circumstances), it was an awful weekend for Coulthard and Barrichello. They scored points, but that really wasn't enough and it looks like any dreams either driver might have of picking up a world championship this year are fast slipping away.
The rest ? Well they were really nowhere - all at least a lap down on the leaders. The Jaguars looked reasonably quick (Michelins, after all.....) but neither car lasted long. Jacques Villeneuve and Giancarlo Fisichella might have done better had they not been hampered by tyres that really didn't seem to work all weekend Da Matta acquitted himself well for Toyota to finish 'best of the rest' in a distant ninth, in sharp contrast to Panis whose precise problems were a little hard to put a finger on, but who was nowhere near the pace on race day and who finished four laps down in last. Heidfeld took an entirely unremarkable 11th for Sauber, just ahead of Firman's Jordan. The Minardis seemed to hang on to the tail of this group quite well in the early stages, but neither car made the finish.
So Juan Pablo Montoya was our fifth different winner in seven races. Surely nobody expected that at the start of the year ? Oh for sure, most of us doubted that Ferrari and Schumacher would dominate in quite the way they did last year, and equally certainly, the new Ferrari still seems to have the edge over the rest of the field, so long as its Bridgestones are there or thereabouts but still - they had won five races at this point last year and this time its only three. Last year of course, Monaco was the last race of the season which was not won by a Ferrari, but who seriously thinks that is going to be the case this year ?
To return to racing lines.