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Vettel gamble pays off in Monaco lottery

29 May 2011

Red Bull Racing's decision to stop Sebastian Vettel just once in the 69th Monaco Grand Prix paid dividends as the German, aided by a late red flag, claimed his fifth victory of the 2011 F1 world championship.

The German led from pole position, but appeared to have thrown away the chance of victory when the Red Bull Racing team made an uncharacteristically poor tyre change on lap 16. The slip-up, in which there was a significant delay before Vettel could rejoin, was enough to allow McLaren's Jenson Button to take over at the front of the field.

The Briton, running on a second set of Pirelli's new supersoft tyres, was quickly able to extend his advantage over second place, to the extent that he almost had a full pit-stop in hand over the world champion, but the arrival of the safety car on lap 34 - just after Button had made his second stop - negated his gains, and handed the lead back to Vettel. With Button needing to use the harder tyres, a third stop also allowed Fernando Alonso into second, but the top three closed up as their respective strategies set the race up for an intriguing finish.

Unfortunately, a multi-car accident, right in front of the leaders, triggered a second safety car and, with Vitaly Petrov needing medical attention, the red flag. Instead of calling the result there and then, however, the organisers allowed the final six laps to be run but, with the teams allowed to fit fresh tyres and repair any damage to their cars, the suspense was removed and Vettel pulled away to win.

The first 16 laps may have been standard fare at the front of the field but, further back, the mixed-up grid provoked more passing than was seen in last season's race. While Vettel sprinted away at the front, Button held off a fast-starting Alonso into Ste Devote, while Nico Rosberg vaulted up to fifth, behind Mark Webber. Michael Schumacher dropped to tenth off the line as his Mercedes appeared to lapse into anti-stall mode, but the German was in feisty mood, surprising Lewis Hamilton at the hairpin, having already hit the rear of the McLaren at turn one.

Vettel was 2.4secs in front at the end of the opening lap, and 3.2secs by the end of lap two, but Button began to peg the German's advantage and just over four seconds split the top two by the completion of ten laps. While Alonso, Webber, Rosberg, Felipe Massa, Pastor Maldonado and Petrov held station through to eighth, Hamilton seized the first opportunity to repass Schumacher, diving inside the seven-time champion at Ste Devote, the pair making brief contact as he went through. Three laps later, Rubens Barrichello also mugged his former team-mate, and Schumacher pitted for a new front wing at the end of the tour.

Massa then suffered front wing damage after clipping the back of Rosberg, but it wasn't enough to prevent the Brazilian from passing his rival at Tabac next time around, with Maldonado taking advantage of the Mercedes going off-line to slip through into sixth.

At the same time, Button became the first meaningful pit-stop, dropping to fourth as he took on another set of the supersoft tyres. Rosberg followed the Briton in, but attention quickly fell on the Red Bull pit, which swiftly reacted to McLaren's move. The confusion that followed, however, suggested that the stop was intended for Webber, rather than Vettel, and there was a notable delay as the crew scrambled for tyres, struggling to get the blankets off in their haste to turn the leader around. Webber followed his team-mate in on the same lap, and also lost time as he had to queue for his change, dropping to 14th in the process.

The hold-up, which may or may not have been precipitated by Red Bull's decision to change its pit-stop procedure after believing that Ferrari was on to it, was enough for Button to assume the lead, and the Briton made the most of being on the softer Pirellis while Vettel made do with the harder prime tyre. Button's first lap out front was McLaren's 10,000th since it joined the world championship, and he was soon lapping a second a lap quicker than his pursuers.

His team-mate, however, continued to endure a fraught afternoon, suffering his own slow pit-stop after finding his team unprepared despite calling him in in a bid to pass Petrov. The Briton dropped to 15th on the road, adding to the frustration he felt after what he claimed was a poor strategy in qualifying that left him susceptible to the red flag for Sergio Perez's accident and then the victim of a penalty for cutting a chicane.

Button was 14secs up the road by lap 30, and looking for a possible second Monaco victory, when Timo Glock coasted to a halt in the Swimming Pool section with suspected rear suspension failure. Perhaps believing that a safety car would be called to cover the recovery of the Marussia Virgin, McLaren called Button in for his second stop, dropping the Briton behind both Vettel and Alonso, while Williams pitted Rubens Barrichello for the first time, dropping the Brazilian from fourth to 14th.

If McLaren had been a little premature in anticipating the safety car for Glock's retirement, it clearly didn't foresee its other driver being involved in an incident that saw the race neutralised just a couple of laps later. Hamilton, clearly still fuming after his early race travails, had already tangled with Massa at the hairpin, the Briton claiming his rival turned in on him despite the McLaren hardly being alongside, but worse was to come as the pair raced through the tunnel. As Massa ran wide, Hamilton seized the opportunity to go through, but the Ferrari continued into the barrier before skating down the left-hand side of the track and into retirement.

The location of the stricken Ferrari, however, prompted the stewards to call for the safety car. The Scuderia took the opportunity to pit Alonso for the second time, dropping him behind Button, but Vettel steadfastly remained out on track. Adrian Sutil and Kamui Kobayashi both pitted and benefited from the safety car, remaining fourth and fifth respectively.

The pace was controlled for just four laps, and Button was quickly through the backmarkers to continue his chase of Vettel but, with the German still not stopping and Button again on supersofts, his chance of victory appeared to lay in his ability to pass the Red Bull. Alonso remained third, ahead of Sutil, Kobayashi, the recovering Webber, Hamilton, Maldonado and Petrov, with the second Renault of Nick Heidfeld in the final points position, but a lap behind the leaders.

Hamilton's afternoon got worse when he was handed a drive-thru' penalty for the contact with Massa, dropping him to ninth, and McLaren decided to throw the dice with Button in an effort to pre-empt its rivals following suit with Vettel and Alonso. Although the Briton dropped to third as a result of the stop - Sutil and Kobayashi were a long way back and no threat for the podium - he again began to reel in the top two, his soft tyres in better shape than either Vettel or Alonso's. All three remained viable victors, provided that neither Red Bull or Ferrari flinched and pitted their driver, and were nose-to-tail by lap 60, with Alonso looking for a way through into Ste Devote on a number of occasions.

Further back, the action had not abated either, and a sideways Kobayashi scythed inside Sutil at Mirabeau to claim fourth. Webber took advantage of the German's fading tyres to move ahead of the Force India a couple of laps later, but Sutil was still to have a big effect on the outcome of the race as, on lap 69, he ran wide and collected the barrier at Tabac. Attempting to nurse his car back to the pit with the right rear tyre hanging off, the German slithered across the road entering the Swimming Pool, causing the chasing Hamilton to check up. That move caught Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari unawares and, as the Spaniard climbed over Hamilton's rear wing, Petrov found he had nowhere to go but into the barriers.

With Alguersuari and Petrov's cars too badly damaged to continue, and the Russian in need of medical attention, there was no option but to recall the safety car - a decision that was quickly followed by the appearance of the red flag. With 75 per cent of the race run, many expected that to be it, but the field lined up on the grid, and work began on repairs and tyre changes for the six laps that remained.

After a lengthy interruption while Petrov was extracted and ferried to hospital, the race resumed behind the safety car but, with everyone on the same, fresh, tyres, there was, predictably, no further tension at the front. Hamilton again attracted the attention of the stewards for a move on Maldonado that saw the impressive Venezuelan end his race in the barriers, while Webber did his bit to enliven the proceedings, lunging down the inside of Kobayashi for fourth at the chicane. Hamilton's sixth looks likely to come under threat from a second penalty which, if confirmed, could shuffle the order. Until then, however, Sutil remains seventh, with Heidfeld, Barrichello - with the first points of 2011 for Williams - and Sebastien Buemi completing the scorers.

In a city known for its casino, however, it was perhaps fitting that gambling on making it to the finish on a set of tyres - and ones fitted by mistake during the pit-stop chaos at Red Bull - was enough for Sebastian Vettel to extend his championship lead and, perhaps, take a firmer grip on a second world title.


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