Little it seems is going to prove as much as even a distraction to Max Verstappen on what appears to be an increasingly inexorable march to his third Formula One championship. Certainly the inconvenience of heavy rain at the Monaco Grand Prix only brought out the best in the world champion as he dominated once more on the streets of Monte Carlo to win a race saved from the usual tiresome procession by welcome late drama when the heavens opened.
After what had been a gripping qualifying on Saturday, a fearsome, thrilling, sudden-death shootout that was impossible to ignore, the race for a large swathe of the afternoon had every indication of delivering the usual line-astern anticlimax on the streets of the principality. F1′s long‑acclaimed jewel in the crown once more revealed to be a dusty, flawed, shabby piece of paste, changing hands in the back room of a pub. When the rain came however the jeopardy, the drama was once more all too real and the fearsome challenge riveting.
In both scenarios however Verstappen was majestic. On his way to a commanding win over Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, who was second and Alpine’s Esteban Ocon who was third, Verstappen had owned the first 50 laps. Untroubled once he held his lead into turn one from the off, out front it was a procession in which the top 10 cars did not change position until the first pit stops.
However when the rain began hitting the track at lap 51 and grew steadily in intensity, it altered the face of the race. Conditions were changing by the minute but Aston Martin made the wrong choice in pitting Alonso for dry rather than intermediate tyres during moments of high intensity, as Verstappen grazed the wall at Portiers as he had to ease his way to the pits to take the wet rubber. He made it and Alonso had to follow him in again to do the same, the Spaniard’s chance of an early undercut on the inters and the win gone with it.
Around them a slew of cars pirouetted and slid around the streets, Carlos Sainz, George Russell, Lance Stroll, Kevin Magnussen and Yuki Tsunoda among them, indicative of how tough the conditions were.
With Lewis Hamilton and Russell in their newly upgraded Mercedes finishing in fourth and fifth, they made the best of the changing conditions certainly in terms of the team making the right call on pitting for the wet tyres but Hamilton emphasised how treacherous it had been, especially in the opening moments as the track transitioned from dry to wet.
“It was very, very bad,” he said. “There’s really no word to describe how difficult it was, for my side, I couldn’t get the temperature into the Intermediate tyres, so I was just tiptoeing. I felt it was very, very twitchy when my tyres weren’t working, so it was like I was on ice.”
He had its measure when the rubber was up to temperature however as did out front Verstappen and Alonso and Ocon once they were on the right tyres, their skills highlighted by some of the carnage careering around in their wake.
Verstappen summed up the conundrum he had faced. “When you’re that far in the lead, you don’t want to push too hard but also you don’t want to lose too much time,” he said. “So it’s quite difficult in that scenario and I clipped the walls a few times. It was super difficult out there, but that’s Monaco.”
Yet for all the late drama, it was once more the Dutchman who had an iron grip on the race and with it the championship. This was the circuit least expected to suit the Red Bull, with its strengths in the medium and high-speed corners and on the straights, that they still held a comprehensive advantage on the high-downforce, high ride height of Monaco, is ominous indeed for the rest of the season. They remain unbeaten in 2023 and again demonstrated that they have the potential to take a clean sweep this year.
Just as he delicately sashayed his car through the streets on the slick surface with a disarming insouciance, the numbers too were dancing for Verstappen. This was his 39th career win and with his teammate Sergio Pérez finishing in 16th place after he crashed during qualifying and had to start from the back of the grid, victory has extended Verstappen’s lead in the world championship over Pérez to 39 points after just six meetings. He is now Red Bull’s most successful driver, surpassing the 38 wins Sebastian Vettel scored for the team but while clearly pleased it was impossible not to sense he had much greater figures in mind.
“You have a good car for a while, you can break these kinds of numbers,” he said. “It’s great, I never thought I would be in this position in my career, winning this race is better than I could ever have imagined.”
The lead is a chasm similar to the one he opened last year when he wrapped up the title with ease with four races to go. Wet or dry, street circuit or high-speed autodrome, it is clear he is going to be fearsomely hard to beat this season.
Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz were sixth and eighth for Ferrari, Pierre Gasly seventh for Alpine, and Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri in ninth and 10th for McLaren. – Guardian