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Monaco 2008: Lewis bounces Ta-bac

25 May 2008

Lewis Hamilton emulated his hero Ayrton Senna by winning the Monaco Grand Prix in tricky conditions, but had to thank an early brush with the barriers for the break which put him in position to win.

Once in front, not even a late safety car period could prevent the Briton from fulfilling what many believed to be his destiny, although it did provide a moment that helped reshape the look of the world championship.

Despite being out-gunned in qualifying by Ferrari, Hamilton immediately set about redressing the balance in his quest to show that McLaren deserved to be pre-race favourites by jumping a slow-starting Kimi Raikkonen to slot in between the two scarlet cars on the run to Ste Devote.

The first three, and the rest of the field, made it cleanly through, despite rain during the build-up making the track greasy and tyre choice fraught, but the incidents began at the hairpin, with Fernando Alonso being tapped by Nico Rosberg. The German thus began a procession of drivers heading for the pits over the opening laps, his Williams requiring a new wing. Jenson Button followed suit, having collected Nick Heidfeld at the Swimming Pool, while Timo Glock had to complete an entire lap before making his call fourth time around after an error at Antony Noghes.

The leaders were taking full advantage of their clear track, lapping anything up to ten seconds faster than those mired in the seething midfield, but were about to lose one of their number, as Hamilton clanged the barriers on the exit of Tabac.

The Briton had run slightly too deep into the quick left-hander, running wide and clipping the armco with his right rear wheel. The impact was enough to dislodge the tyre from the rim, but not, apparently, sufficient to damage the suspension, and the McLaren made it back to the pits at reasonable speed. The Woking team then made the tactical decision to brim its tanks and send Hamilton back out on another set of standard Bridgestone wets, despite the conditions worsening.

Indeed, the rain was coming down a lot harder now than it was at the start, when only Nelson Piquet Jr appeared to start on the 'extreme' rubber, and the other Renault was soon heading pit-ward for repairs. Caught out by the amount of standing water at the top of Massenet, Alonso had smote the barriers on the outside of the corner with some force, but again appeared to have got away with minimal damage.

While the Spaniard returned to the pits and received a set of the deeper grooved wets, however, two of his rivals on track were out at the same spot that had almost claimed the Renault. David Coulthard, enjoying very little luck at a circuit that had twice seen him take victory, followed Alonso's route into the barrier, but with substantially more damage to the right-side of the Red Bull. And, if there was any question of the Scot limping back to the pits, Sebastien Bourdais made sure that he was going nowhere by ploughing his brand new Toro Rosso STR3 into the back of the RB4.

The incident brought out the first safety car of the afternoon, but few teams opted to pit their drivers, confident that the rain would abate before too long. Massa had been some 13 seconds up the road at the time the yellows flew, but now had team-mate Raikkonen right in his wake. The Finn, however, was under investigation, amid claims that Ferrari had dallied too long in choosing which tyres to fit. The stewards agreed that the crew had infringed on the three-minute board and duly summoned the world champion for a drive-thru'

Sensibly, Raikkonen used the full extent of his lap allowance before making the call, and was rewarded by opening out enough of a gap that, when he rejoined, he had only dropped to fourth. Hamilton had similarly benefited from the pace the frontrunners had enjoyed at the time of his mishap and, with Raikkonen crawling past the garages, was able to move up one place, back into third.

Renault's decision to fit the extreme wets to Alonso's R28 was also paying dividends. Not having lost too much time pitting after his error, the Spaniard was quickly back into the points positions, and the scythed down the inside of Mark Webber at Mirabeau to claim sixth. Next time around, the Renault was harassing Heidfeld at the same spot, but the German was not about to make it easy. Covering the inside for several laps, the BMW remained in front, but only served to frustrate Alonso, who sensed a shot into Loews. Sadly for both men, the gap was not Renault sized, and Heidfeld was nudged into a lazy spin that only served to delay all involved and immediately behind.

Alonso also had to pit for a new nose, after Heidfeld had recovered by driving over his front wing, while the German did not get off unscathed, his left rear suffering a slow puncture that left him struggling with wayward handling until pitting three laps later, on lap 17.

The other BMW Sauber, however, was enjoying a much more fruitful afternoon, with Kubica now leading the pursuit of Massa. With the conditions playing into the intrepid Pole's hands, the white machine was lapping some seven-tenths faster than the Ferrari. Whether the pressure told on Massa was unclear, but next time around, the Brazilian sailed off into the escape road at Ste Devote, all four wheels locked up on the wet surface. Kubica duly seized the advantage with both hands, passing Massa as the Brazilian attempted to rejoin and quickly opening out a couple of seconds lead.

The wet weather was also providing rare opportunities for unexpected names to shine, with Adrian Sutil taking his Force India into the top ten and easily holding his own. The young German many not have enjoyed the happiest of starts to the season, but was looking at home in a wet Monaco, just as he had done during the third and final practice session last season.

While team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella struggled, and ultimately succumbed, with the loss of second gear in his 200th GP, Sutil latched onto the rear of Webber's Red Bull, following the Australian past the struggling Heidfeld and into sixth. Likewise, Rubens Barrichello was running eighth, with Kazuki Nakajima, Piquet and Sebastian Vettel giving chase. Behind the German, Heikki Kovalainen continued to make up ground after stalling on the warm-up lap, and was now circulating in twelfth.

By lap 22, and with the rain having been gone for a while, times began to tumble, with Kubica and Massa swapping fastest marks as the gap between them ebbed and flowed slightly. Such was the leaders' pace that the chasing Hamilton and Raikkonen were some two seconds a lap adrift.

Kubica ended the exchange by pitting for the first time on lap 26, BMW opting to fit the standard wet as Massa reclaimed top spot. The Pole returned to the track just as Raikkonen was passing pit exit, and the BMW appeared to distract the Finn, who reprised his team-mate's trip into the escape road at the opening corner. Unlike Massa, however, the world champion had made contact with the barrier and would have to make his own stop at the end of the lap, the F2008's front wing dangling precariously from its mounts.

Just as Sutil was benefiting from Jarno Trulli's travails on the extreme wet, which slowed the Toyota and those behind it, so Raikkonen also capitalised, slotting into the gap behind the Force India, as Hamilton joined those chasing fastest lap honours.

The Briton had suddenly come to life, and was trading quick times with Webber's RB4 as the target continued to come down in leaps. Massa, too, wasn't to be out-done and banged in a new benchmark just prior to pitting. The gap back to Hamilton wasn't big enough for the Brazilian, however, and he duly resumed in second spot, having regained track position on Kubica during their respective stops.

Despite speculation that the rain might return, Hamilton was able to press on, and had 17 seconds on his pursuers by lap 29, half-distance, extending that gap, at times, by as much as a second a lap. Such was the pace now being set, that slicks soon came into the equation. Rain was still being reported as only a matter of minutes away, but the fine line between the choice of tyres was closer still.

In the end, Alonso and Renault - now with nothing to lose after dropping well out of contention - were the first to take the plunge. The Spaniard had been reticent to move to the grooved rubber, and his early laps on it appeared to confirm that reluctance, but soon the rest began to follow suit.

Webber, running fourth, was among the early adopters, when the move still appeared risky for the frontrunners but, when McLaren used Kovalainen as a guinea pig, it was clear that all were considering it, leaving just the question of when.

Massa seemed to be most in need, the Ferrari having dropped three seconds a lap off Hamilton's pace at times, but the Scuderia hesitated longer than almost everyone. Kubica stopped for his change on lap 53, along with the still impressive Sutil, while Hamilton was in next time around, his now 37-second advantage over Massa allowing the McLaren to rejoin still in front.

In the end, Ferrari didn't react for another couple of laps - enough time for Kovalainen to turn Jenson Button around at the chicane - and it proved costly for Massa, who had had his cushion over Kubica whittled away by the Pole, who gratefully accepted second on the road. Raikkonen, too, was late making the switch, but was able to resume in fifth, between Sutil and Webber, with 30 laps still remaining on the original race distance.

The wet start, however, meant that it was the clock that the teams needed to keep an eye on, but that attention would have been diverted by the sound of crunching metal and carbon fibre from behind the pits. Rosberg, having already required two new noses, gave the Williams team an even bigger repair job by comprehensively destroying his car against both sides of the Swimming Pool complex.

Fortunately, the rapid German was unhurt in the shunt, but the amount of debris required the safety car to make a re-appearance, eliminating Hamilton's 32-second lead at a stroke.

Just six cars remained on the same lap as the Briton at the point the race was neutralised, but the resumption would still provide controversy - and a degree of heartache. While the top three made it a clean getaway, no-one prepared to pull a risky move on the still damp surface off-line, the world champion - of all people - found himself caught out.

What followed capped a disappointing return to Monaco for the man who messed up in qualifying last year, but also spelt the end of the dream for Sutil and Force India. Raikkonen did not appear to be close enough to make a move on the German, or preparing to make one, but the Ferrari suddenly got into a tankslapper on the downhill exit from the tunnel and, even as Kimi fought to control the car, slammed into Sutil as the youngster prepared to turn in.

The damage was not enough to take either man out on the spot but, while Raikkonen was able to rejoin after another change of nose, there was no happy ending for Sutil who, having limped back to the pits, was told that suspension damage would end his afternoon. Unsurprisingly, the German was inconsolable, and not even the knowledge that Raikkonen would not score could soothe the hurt.

The incident had no impact on the podium, but allowed both Nakajima and Kovalainen into points positions they would not have expected as the clock ticked down. It also promoted Webber to fourth, Vettel to fifth and Barrichello to sixth as Monaco again produced an unusual result.

There was no doubting the happiest man in the Principality, however. Having told journalists how much he wanted to emulate his hero, and how he was confident he could do it whatever the weather. Lewis Hamilton duly delivered. He thanked his crew, apologised for the early scare and called on the team to party with him into the night.

Given his lap five fortune, however, McLaren might well decide on a night at the casino.....


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