Monaco — Recipe for a great Monaco Grand Prix: First, inundate the track with water, put one of the fastest drivers at the back of the pack, the championship leaders in second and third on the grid, then let loose the 22 cars in the narrow city streets. Two hours later, on the penultimate lap, let the rain fall again.
That was the scenario set by Mother Nature here on Sunday, and it produced the hoped-for result: an exciting race. Unfortunately, for the second race in a row, Daniel Ricciardo, the best driver in the field, paid the price for a blunder by his Red Bull team and finished second.
This time, though, the winner was not Ricciardo’s teenage teammate, Max Verstappen — who crashed out after only 34 laps of the 78-lap race — but the Mercedes driver, Lewis Hamilton, who finally put an end to a streak of eight disastrous race results.
Starting from third on the grid, the reigning world champion took advantage of every opportunity available to take his first victory since the United States Grand Prix last October. It was the 44th victory of his career and his second in Monaco. He last won here in 2008, when he also started third in the rain.
“Just when you feel that it can’t get worse, it gets better,” said Hamilton. “I prayed for a day like this, and it came through, so I feel really blessed.”
His teammate, Nico Rosberg, who won the first four races of the season, as well as the final three last year, dropped from second place on the grid in Monaco to finish in seventh position, after losing a final position on the last lap thanks to the rain. Rosberg had won the three previous Monaco Grand Prix.
Two weeks ago, the two Mercedes drivers collided on the first lap of the Spanish Grand Prix, knocking each other out of the race and handing the lead to Ricciardo in his Red Bull. The Austrian team then used a strategy that favored Ricciardo’s teammate, making Verstappen the youngest winner in Formula One history, at 18.
Striking back in Monaco, Ricciardo started from the first pole position of his career on a track where the pole is the usual prerequisite for victory. He then drove a perfect race. But then, on Lap 32, the team called him for a tire change that the pit crew was not ready for, costing him precious seconds.
He returned to the track just behind Hamilton’s Mercedes, and could never pass the British driver again, as overtaking is next to impossible in Monaco.
“Two weekends in a row now I have been screwed, it sucks, it hurts,” Ricciardo said, using uncharacteristically crude language. “We had the speed, on the wet, on the start. I thought I was the best in all conditions. But then the pit stop.”
For his part, Verstappen showed the limits of raw, inexperienced youth in Monaco. First he crashed out of Saturday’s qualifying session, destroying his car and forcing him to start the race at the back of the pack. Then came his crash during the race, making this the second year in a row he did not finish here.
However naturally talented a driver might be, Monaco requires not only speed but also experience, understanding and full concentration.
All of those qualities came together for Hamilton, who ended a bad run that seemed to get worse at every race, including during qualifying on Saturday in Monaco, when he had another problem with his car that prevented him from taking part in the full session. He nevertheless managed to qualify third, with Rosberg starting second. It rained early Saturday morning, and the rain continued during the start of the race, which began behind a safety car to avoid accidents.
Rosberg got off to a very slow start, blocking Hamilton and allowing Ricciardo to speed off to a lead of 13.1 seconds by Lap 16. That is when Mercedes told Rosberg to let Hamilton pass to attack Ricciardo. But despite Hamilton’s charge, Ricciardo was never in trouble or out of control. He had dropped behind Hamilton after making a first pit stop on Lap 23, but easily climbed back up to the British driver.
Hamilton then made his pit stop on Lap 31, and Ricciardo came in the following lap. The Red Bull engineers failed to communicate correctly with the mechanics, and he had to wait several seconds without any wheels on his car as his team scrambled. He returned to the track just behind the Hamilton. With a normal pit stop, he would have returned to the track far in the lead.
“We will investigate and find out,” said Helmut Marko, one of the Red Bull team directors. “But it was a human mistake. I feel really sorry, and all we can do is apologize to him.”
One of the most outstanding drives of the race was that of Sergio Pérez, the Mexican driver for the Force India team, who finished the race in third position after starting seventh, and just ahead of Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari.
“In these conditions, it was one of my best races in Formula One,” said Pérez, who has scored six podium finishes in the series, but never won a race.
Rosberg leads the series with 106 points, and Hamilton is second with 82, so there is less than one race victory of 25 points between the two Mercedes drivers. Ricciardo is third, with 66 points.