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No rain on parade as Webber holds on in Monaco

27 May 2012

Mark Webber claimed a second Monaco Grand Prix victory in three years, but was forced to hold on over the final ten laps as a slow burner produced a tense finish.

The Australian, having inherited pole courtesy of Michael Schumacher's Barcelona penalty, made a rare good start to hold the advantage heading into Ste Devote, with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton - the latter complaining of a poor launch - slotting into second and third.

The top three were then clear of the chaos that erupted in their wake, as Romain Grosjean was destabilised by a brush with a fast-starting Fernando Alonso, and ended up squeezing Michael Schumacher against the outside barrier. While the German was able to continue - as was Massa - Grosjean's Lotus slewed across the track forcing some of those behind to take to the cut-through while leaving those on his outside with little room for manoeuvre.

Kamui Kobayashi was sent skyward as he hit the back of cars ahead of him, while Pastor Maldonado and Pedro de la Rosa were also ruled out of the contest, the Venezuelan nosed into the barriers and the Spaniard returning to the pits with his HRT's rear wing dragging behind him after contact between the two. Despite that, the safety car was only needed for a couple of laps, and Webber again timed the restart perfectly, keeping Rosberg behind him, as Hamilton again lagged and fell into the clutches of the two Ferraris.

The other McLaren wasn't faring any better, with Jenson Button having avoided contact with the aerial Kobayashi and dropped to 14th as he was forced to take the long route around the opening corner. That dropped the Briton behind not only Bruno Senna, Paul di Resta and Daniel Ricciardo, who had all started behind him, but also Heikki Kovalainen, whose good getaway allowed the Caterham to slot into 13th.

Unable to find a way past the Finn, Button's strategy of taking the harder compound tyres in the hope of running longer than the frontrunners and gaining positions was essentially scuppered - along with those of de la Rosa and, after a handful of laps, Vitaly Petrov, who retired with electrical gremlins.

Typical of Monaco, there was little in the way of overtaking in the early stages, even with the current breed of Pirellis having promoted action at the previous five races, leaving the pit-stops for the strategists to try and work their opportunities. Even then, however, the situation was complicated by varying weather forecasts, with different teams predicting rain, of varying degrees, arriving at different times. As a result, even though Toro Rosso stopped Jean-Eric Vergne for the soft compound tyres on lap 17, it was fully ten laps more before any of the frontrunners pulled the trigger, with Mercedes deciding to give Rosberg a new set of boots even though he was hanging on to Webber's tail.

With the rain threat appearing to have abated, albeit temporarily, Rosberg's stop kick-started the copycats, with Webber, Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen in two laps later, and Alonso following next time around, having briefly assumed the lead. Red Bull managed to produce a good stop, returning Webber to the fray ahead of his erstwhile pursuers, but Hamilton, while not appearing to have a poor stop to compare with those in earlier races, found himself jumped by Alonso when the order settled down again.

Felipe Massa led for a single lap before his own stop promoted Sebastian Vettel to the front, but the German, having used his lack of a qualifying lap in Q3 to pick his tyres and opted for the harder of the two options, was in no mood to follow suit, remaining out front almost twice as long as his rivals and, lapping faster than those on new rubber, putting himself in with a shout of the podium. When he finally succumbed to the need for new rubber, on lap 45 as the last driver to stop, another rapid turnaround by the RBR crew allowed the world champion to rejoin in fourth, and with enough in hand to repel a now disgruntled Hamilton up the hill from Ste Devote.

There had been whispers that Red Bull were using Webber to back up the chasing pack in order to help promote his team-mate up the order, but the truth was that the Australian - and presumably those around him - were struggling to get heat into their fresher rubber as temperatures dropped and the suggestion of rain returned.

Once again, however, the threats proved to be largely unfounded, save for the odd drop as the race drew to a close, leaving any overtaking opportunities to come about as the result of technical problems or sheer bloody-mindedness. Schumacher's race, which was never going to produce the win he had jokingly predicted at the start of the weekend, ended quietly as the gremlins first caused him to slow and then to retire to the pits.

Further back, Button remained mired behind Kovalainen even through the pit-stops, prompting the Briton to make lunges at the Caterham around both the chicane and the Swimming Pool. When the latter move resulted only in the McLaren spinning, he tried again - once Kovalainen had been delayed by contact with Perez at Ste Devote - only to disappear down an escape road. After that, he decided to call it a day. Kovalainen, meanwhile, could have hoped for a shot at a maiden point for Caterham with just a little more attrition. Instead, he was left to rue his defence on Perez as their ensuing coming together broke his front wing and precipitated another stop for repairs, dropping him to 13th at the flag.

The combination of late-race drizzle and tyres that had done nearly 40 laps then produced a tense finale as the top five closed up, with Webber holding sway over Rosberg, Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton. Despite the odd look, there were no concerted moves, no slip-ups from the man in front, and no repeat of the midfield shunt that caused last year's race to be halted with just a handful of laps to run.

Massa wasn't quite close enough to the top five to influence the finishing order, while a massive 35-second chasm stretched to the next runners, as Paul di Resta led Force India team-mate Nico Hulkenberg home in seventh and eighth. Both had managed to jump Raikkonen during the Finn's pit-stop, while Bruno Senna finished just half a second shy of the Lotus after being promoted into the points by Schumacher's exit. Perez, who had a fraught race that included numerous trips over the chicane, impeding Raikkonen and incurring a drive-thru' as the Sauber team summoned him for a pit-stop, and then setting the fastest lap of all, came home in eleventh, just ahead of Vergne, who made the odd choice of intermediates at his late second stop.

Keeping the order the same to the flag meant that, despite not having led a lap or stood on the podium before Monaco, Webber became the sixth different winner in as many races to start the 2012 season, and pushed the Australian right back into the title hunt. Alonso's third place moved him three points clear of the tie he previously found himself in with Vettel, who now finds his team-mate sharing second spot with him.

Then the rain arrived.....

What odds Canada producing a seventh different winner? With the likes of Hamilton, Schumacher and Raikkonen still to open their victory account in 2012, and the likes of Grosjean offering an alternative to the established names, it is possible, but the action will need to be better than in the Principality to keep the season's buzz alive.


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