Formula 1 2021: From Verstappen leading championship to Leclerc's elimination, talking points from Monaco GP

As expected, Qualifying in Monaco GP delivered more action than Race day. But even if Sunday didn’t deliver blockbuster action, it sure delivered a few very interesting narratives.

Mithila Mehta and Kunal Shah May 24, 2021 08:54:22 IST
Formula 1 2021: From Verstappen leading championship to Leclerc's elimination, talking points from Monaco GP

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen celebrates with his team after winning the Monaco Grand Prix. AP

After a forced two-year break due to the ongoing pandemic, the Monaco Grand Prix returned to the Formula 1 calendar with much fanfare and excitement. As expected, the Saturday in Monaco delivered more action than the Sunday. But even if Sunday didn’t deliver blockbuster action, it sure delivered a few very interesting narratives.

After winning the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix, Max Verstappen leads the Drivers’ Championship for the first time in his Formula 1 career. Red Bull Racing took the lead over Mercedes in the Constructors’ Championship. In fact, the Drivers’ Championship saw five movements in the top-10 — the most notable one being Lando Norris grabbing third place ahead of Valtteri Bottas.

The Constructors’ Championship was impacted, too. After all, eight of the ten teams scored points in Monaco — Alfa Romeo finally opening their points tally courtesy Antonio Giovinazzi’s spirited drive. But there are three distinct battles for spots P1, P3 and P5. Mercedes trail Red Bull Racing by two points for P1; Ferrari trail Mclaren by two points for P3 and for P5, Aston Martin, AlphaTauri and Alpine are separated by a point each. Based on form factor from the first five races this season, one expects these three battles to only intensify further.

Could Ferrari have won?

Ferrari was the surprise element in Monaco. The circuit characteristics seemed to suit the SF21 and both Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr had front-running pace through the weekend. After taking provisional pole in Saturday's qualifying session, Leclerc crashed his Ferrari into the barriers on his second attempt in Q3. The crash brought out the red flag and ended the qualifying hour prematurely. Given the importance of track position in Monaco, Verstappen, Bottas and Sainz Jr. were visibly disappointed at not being allowed to finish their final qualifying lap — one that they all believed would have put them on pole.

While Leclerc kept his pole position, the team and driver were concerned about possible damage to his gearbox and if it required to be changed pre-race — a move that would have earned Leclerc a five-place penalty on the starting grid. Ferrari’s inspections revealed that Leclerc’s gearbox was okay and that a change wasn’t necessary. However, Leclerc hit trouble on his first out-lap after the pit lane opened 40 mins prior to the race. The Monegasque driver left his home race with a ‘Did Not Start’ against his name.

In the aftermath of Leclerc’s retirement, it was only obvious to question the quality of Ferrari’s inspection and their decision-making behind not changing Leclerc’s gearbox. After all, wouldn’t starting the race from P6 be better than not starting the race at all? Ferrari’s Mattia Binotto explained post-race, “There was no gamble on the gearbox. We are confident the gearbox would have been okay for the race.”

Binotto continued, ”The failure is on the driveshaft into the hub on the left-hand side. So it's not a gearbox problem we had. The gearbox had been inspected yesterday evening, it has been reviewed, and I think the gearbox was okay for the race. What happened is on the opposite side compared to the accident. So it may be completely unrelated to the accident.”

Sainz Jr salvaged Ferrari’s weekend by scoring second place — equalling his best finish in Formula 1 and his first podium for the team.

"The first podium in a Ferrari is an incredible feeling that I will never forget, especially being in Monaco! We knew we had a chance and the pace to make it to the podium this weekend and we executed a flawless race. The bittersweet feeling is still there though as I feel for Charles and for the team,” he said.

Error-free weekend from Red Bull Racing, Max Verstappen

Despite starting from P2, Leclerc’s absence on the start grid meant that Verstappen was the first starting driver of the race. Verstappen aggressively blocked off Bottas’ attempt to lunge on the inside at the start and then pulled away to build a comfortable gap over his rivals. In a race that saw no Safety Car period or even a yellow flag, Verstappen and Red Bull Racing ensured that they timed their one-stopper to perfection to claim a lights-to-flag win — Verstappen’s first in Monaco.

“I’ve never been on the podium here and then the first time it’s a win, so it’s a bit of redemption for the other races I’ve had here,” said Verstappen, who has had a history of crashes in the previous editions of the Monaco Grand Prix.

“I think pace wise, we were always in control because every time someone tried to push me in terms of lap time, we were able to respond and increase the gap,” he added highlighting the limited challenge he faced enroute to his race win.

Sergio Perez could manage only a ninth place in qualifying on Saturday. On Sunday, he drove a fine race aided by smart tyre strategy to recover to a 4th place finish. The Mexican used the powerful overcut to good advantage by jumping Hamilton, Pierre Gasly and Sebastian Vettel in the pits.

“We saved the tyres and used them when we needed to which was key and we did two or three qualifying laps to jump the queue of cars to get fourth,” summarized Perez.

Lacklustre Mercedes

Mercedes ended a 53-race streak of being championship leaders after a disastrous weekend in Monaco. The team struggled to solve Hamilton’s balance issues all weekend — one that saw the reigning World Champion not be in contention for pole position or a podium finish. After starting P7, Hamilton was stuck behind AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly for the entire race duration — a situation that impacted Mercedes’ tyre strategy for the Briton. After a failed attempt to undercut Gasly, Hamilton lost further ground in the round of pit-stops to Vettel and Perez.

As for Bottas, the Finn suffered from excessive tyre degradation and failed to challenge Verstappen for the race lead from P2. Pit-stops have been Mercedes’ Achilles heel in the 2021 Formula 1 season and the team experienced their worst since many races while servicing Bottas on lap 29.

A jammed wheel nut forced Bottas to retire — his second retirement of the season. After losing the lead to Red Bull Racing in the championships, Mercedes’ Toto Wolff said, “You have to take a weekend like this on the chin — today we lost a few points but this is a long championship, it is going to swing back and forth and in the end we will see in Abu Dhabi who has their nose ahead. We will regroup and look back, as much as it hurts, to learn the lessons and come back stronger."

Norris shines again

Norris scored his and Mclaren’s second podium of the season. After qualifying fifth, the young Briton, who renewed his Mclaren contract in the days leading up to Monaco, was the immediate beneficiary of Bottas’ retirement from the race.

"Awesome. Monaco podium! It's pretty incredible, I never thought it could happen coming into this weekend at all, so I’m super, super happy,” said an excited Norris.

The other Mclaren of Daniel Ricciardo struggled all weekend. The Australian was eliminated in Q2 of qualifying, failed to score a point and was in fact lapped by his team-mate in the race.

Vintage Vettel

Sebastian Vettel scored his first points of the season by racing to a fine fifth at the finish. The German was aided by smart race strategy by Aston Martin — one that saw him overcut Gasly and Hamilton in the race. Vettel came out alongside Gasly after his pit-stop and pulled off a daring move into Massenet, the fast right-hander. Aston Martin’s reverse strategy (hard-soft) for Lance Stroll helped the Canadian go from 13th at the start to eighth at the finish. The 14 points haul was Aston Martin’s best of the season and hopefully a sign of the team’s struggles coming to an end.

The other driver to use the overcut to his advantage was Alpine Esteban Ocon — who returned to racing in Monaco after 3 years. The Frenchman overcut Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi to finish ninth in the race.

Ferrari’s new-found pace and Mercedes’ struggles seem to be circuit specific. As we look forward to the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix in a fortnight, expect ‘flexi wings’ to lead the chatter all through.

Jehan Daruvala scores a solitary point

The Red Bull junior driver had a tough weekend in Monaco. From the three Formula 2 races, he managed to score just one solitary point (Race 2) and slipped from 3rd to 8th place in the championship standings. In two out of the three races, Jehan lost out on competitive advantage on the last lap of the race.

In Race 1, a stubborn move by Marcus Armstrong saw Jehan lose out on the reversed grid pole for Race 2. In Race 2, he lost the final points scoring position (8th) on the last lap — a position that was reinstated after a disqualification to the race winner and former Red Bull junior driver, Liam Lawson.

“I think the most challenging part was just mentally feeling like I lost the opportunity to start on pole for Sprint Race 2. It’s not very often you get a chance to win in Monaco, so that was hard to accept but that’s racing — you have to put it behind you as quickly as possible and move on. I will prepare well for Baku and try to come back to where I belong — the top!” summed up Jehan.

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