The news of Eduoard Michelin's death in a strange boating accident on Friday threw a dark cloud over proceedings in Monte Carlo this weekend. This however paled in comparison to the thunderstorm that was to come in qualifying on Saturday.
In the dying moments of qualifying, Michael Schumacher looked like he'd cooked it going into the penultimate corner Rascasse. Locking brakes, he slid wide but managed to keep it off the wall. The German then found himself out of room on the exit. Then, alleged Michael, the engine went into a stall and he was basically stuck on the exit. Behind him, a few drivers were still on hot laps. Michael had secured pole but Fernando Alonso was going at a tremendous rate of knots and looked to snatch the top spot. Michael Schumacher's "stall" put paid to that plan. The Spaniard clearly hesitating going to in Rascasse with waved yellows forcing him to slow down. Alonso was close, mere hundreds of a second away but still lost the battle for pole.
This brought the wrath of the paddock on Michael Schumacher. It must be said that Michael has over the years practised a lot of gamesmanship off and especially on the track. Sometimes he'd even resorted to argy bargy. But certainly, the experienced hands in the paddock were under no illusions about any "engine stall." The action was deliberate to force his competitors to slow down in the mousehole sized Rascasse hairpin and therefore secure his pole. The stewards agreed and Michael was penalized, forced to start the race from the pitlane.
No one expected Monaco to be quite so warm at this time of the year. Indeed Europe entire has been caught in a heat wave uncharacteristic of spring. Nevertheless, Monaco being a very low grip and bumpy track meant that the teams would be bring the softest compound rubber available. But perhaps the compounds they brought might have been too soft.
In a track that is simply next to impossible to overtake on, positioning is absolutely important at the start. Can't get pole, then your start had better be superb. Advantage Renault. And so it was when the lights turned green. Alonso sprinting away from the line. Behind him, Kimi Raikkonen attempted to squeeze Webber on the outside of St Devote. Webber just managed to make it through. Way back behind the two Midlands got themselves into all sorts of daftness, with Montiero getting the worse of it, losing his wings.
Michael Schumacher was in a charging mood though and was right behind Massa going into Mirabeau where Massa once again performed the Ferrari number two trick of simply letting him past. Michael went further and took Montagny on the inside of the Loews hairpin. The Frenchmen might be a better driver than Yuji Ide but he was simply asleep. Michael would continue his progress rather rapidly though and by the end of the first lap had gotten past both the Super Aguris.
Up front, Webber made an error in St Devote and went wide. Kimi snuck in on the inside and climbing up the hill past Beau Rivage, the Finn took second from Webber. Straight away the McLaren went after and caught up with Fernando, much to everyone's surprise including the boffins in Renault. Kimi started the race on brand new rubber, whereas Mark Webber elected to start on used tyres. But if anyone thought the Williams would be easily dropped they'd be wrong, for despite the error Mark hung on grimly with the two leaders ahead of him.
For much of that first stint, Kimi was right behind the tail of Fernando Alonso. It is such a pity that Monaco is such a tight circuit because the cars don't seem to be affected by aero turbulence at all. Following closely behind the car in front looked to be quite comfortable albeit it plays havoc with the car's cooling. Had Monaco had a little more space, cars would be overtaking left right and centre on this track.
By lap 4, Michael Schumacher had dispatched both Christian Albers and Scott Speed and was right behind the hapless Jenson Button who was in absolute horrid form this weekend, the Honda suffering enormous understeer. But here Michael would stay a long time.
In front, the four leaders Alonso, Raikkonen and Webber kept closely in touch with one another and slowly but surely dropping fourth placed Juan Pablo Montoya. Despite sporting a new front wing to provide him with better front end bite, the Colombian was still struggling relative to his teammate. Despite that, the quartet were simply leaving Rubens Barrichello behind for dead. The suspicion was the first four were doing two pitstops versus a single stop for Rubens behind.
Rubens in addition to being dropped, created a huge traffic jam behind him. Rosberg, Coulthard and Fisichella in close company and looking massively quicker but quite frustratingly not finding anyway through the Brazilian. A short gap to Trulli and then another short gap to another massive traffic jam. Christian Klein in the second Red Bull holding up Heidfeld, Ralf Schumacher, Liuzzi, Villeneuve, Button and Michael Schumacher.
Alonso and Kimi in the front meanwhile kept trading fastest laps between them and were slowly dropping Mark Webber. On lap 21, Michael Schumacher, albeit in a massively quicker car made a superb move on Jenson Button going into the Nouvelle chicane. This being the first of many amazing overtaking moves we would see today from a number of drivers.
To the surprise of the conventional wisdom, the first of the pitstops came on lap 21. Montoya, being the first to blink. But by then, the first four were so far ahead of fifth placed Barrichello (39.1 seconds) that Montoya emerged with his fourth place still intact. On the very next lap, Kimi Raikkonen came in as well, to the delight of the Renault crew who could now hope to run faster for longer before their stops.
Once Kimi had done his stop, Mark Webber decided it was time to put the hammer down and make his bid as well. The Australian quickly breaking into the 1m 15s behind Alonso in an effort to leap ahead both Kimi and Fernando. Kimi was having none of it posted the fastest third sector on the next lap. On lap 24, it was Fernando's turn to dive in. He emerged ahead of Kimi but not by much. Somehow one would have expected him to much further ahead but nevertheless his in lap was not very quick.
All eyes were now on Mark Webber who had been going quicker than anyone else at that stage. Could he make it? On lap 25, we would find out but sadly the Australian still emerged back in third. Obviously two stops was the way to go today. After the leaders had stopped, Barrichello was still some 30 seconds adrift. Although it has to be said that the Honda was holding up the cars behind.
All was not well with Fernando in the lead though. On lap 30, it was quite obvious the world champion was slowing down. Not that he was so much quicker after his stop, doing 1m 17 laps. But now it seemed like he was in real trouble, his lap times going to to the 1m 18s. It seemed that Fernando was having trouble with his second set of tyres. Alonso was not only slow but ragged, mixing apexes and simply not having the mechanical grip required to throw the Renault around.
At the time, we were left wondering whether this was a repeat of last year when his tyres simply gave way midway through the race. Surely not with tyre stops being allowed. Later it emerged that Fernando was deliberately slowing down at this stage in a bid to conserve his tyres before the final big push before the second round of stops. A good decision, given the tempratures and the soft rubber compound this weekend.
Michael, had he been a front runner this weekend would definitely been a major force. In clear air, the German could very easily match the pace of the frontrunners. He quickly caught Villeneuve ahead of him. Then Rosberg after the Williams came into the pits on lap 24. Michael made up another place when Fisichella came in and came out behind him.
Coulthard then came in and went back out again ahead of Michael and both got caught up in a massive squabble as the Red Bull driver had to contend with the traffic jam ahead of him and a red hot Michael behind. The Scot definitely all over the place in the effort trying to keep ahead. The cause of the jams at this stage was Nick Heidfeld.
Michael Schumacher finally made his stop on lap 37, which was far longer than anyone else in front. Had he been in front, one would have thought that a race win was definite for Michael. But having said that he spent much of that first stint behind much slower cars lapping at a pace some 3 seconds slower than the leaders. Effectively the Ferrari was on fuel economy mode so its difficult to say but surely he would have stopped later than Alonso.
In front, Alonso's pace continued to be erratic dropping into the 1m 19s, bunching up the leaders. Behind them, Barrichello carried on his merry way holding up Jarno Trulli in the Toyota. Finally both these drivers went into the pits on lap 45. But their strategies worked for they retained the places. Behind them Klein, Fisichella and Coulthard had already been lapped by Fernando Alonso.
Lapping Fisi and Coulthard was in fact one of the most interesting moments of the race. Perhaps confusing Fisichella for Alonso, Coulthard perhaps gave Fisi a little too much room and the Italian, also spurred by the sight of his teammate about to lap him, dived brakes locking and tyres smoking into Nouvelle clipping the kerbs hard but got past the Scot. Klein was next but the Austrian was not to be fooled. The Red Bull pits keeping him well informed of the situation.
Quite unfairly though Mark Webber got held up lap after lap by Fisichella and Klein, the Australian having some choice words for the two of them. On lap 49, Mark retired with a very disappointing engine related failure on the exit of St Devote. As he was blocking the pit exit lane, the safety car was deployed. Spotting this everyone came into the pits for their second and final stops.
The safety car period saw another high profile retirement. This time it was Kimi with engine failure. One suspected the engine failure was caused by tempratures climbing sky high during the safety car period as cooling efficiency dropped dramatically. Montoya meanwhile was stuck in the queue with a great gaggle of cars between him and Alonso.
After the restart, both Fernando and Juan Pablo were running in much reduced pace. Juan Pablo giving up and settling for the runner up spot. This gave Fernando a much easier time. The race meanwhile boiled down to Michael Schumacher's great charge to catch the people ahead of him. The German unlapping himself on Alonso and going quicker and quicker dropped the chasing Fisichella far behind. The Italian had no answer for the Schumacher's raw pace.
Now over the years, many have called Michael Schumacher a lucky man. And today, his luck would help him out. Ahead a number of retirements saw Michael Schumacher end up finishing in fifth place. Disappointments for the likes of Klein (gearbox) and especially Jarno Trulli who inherited the last podium spot after Barrichello had to make a stop and go penalty for speeding in the pitlane. David Coulthard benefited as well making his way up to fifth which became third at the end of the race.
Still take nothing away from Michael. He battled hard and drove well. Indeed its really ironic that a driver as great as Michael should tarnish his reputation with unsporting and underhanded behaviour. His fifth placed was well deserved and under the circumstances the best he could expect. Along the way, he set a blistering pace and set the fastest lap of the race 1m 15.143s. We are left wondering what would have happened had he been battling Alonso at the head of the field.
A great race and a great result for Alonso, now extending his lead even further from the pursuing Michael. A hard task made harder but the Ferrari is proving itself to be a very pacy car especially in slow tight circuits like Monte Carlo. The season is far from over but you might say that Fernando's chances of retaining the title are higher now.
Written by Eddie Azman, Pitstop Editorial Team