Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel rode his luck for all it was worth in Monaco this weekend. He got the pole, then had it inadvertently safeguarded after Sergio Perez’s accident. Then on Sunday, just as he was under massive pressure on worn tyres from Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and McLaren’s Jenson Button, a nail-biting race was brought to a temporary halt when Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari crashed in heavy traffic in the Swimming Pool, taking out Renault’s Vitaly Petrov in the process.
The incident happened as the leaders were threading their way through the backmarkers, but the race was soon suspended as it became apparent that the Russian had momentarily been knocked unconscious and needed medical assistance. He complained of pain in his left ankle at the accident scene, but further examination and a full body scan in the Princess Grace Hospital confirmed that there was no swelling or broken bones and he is expected back in the paddock within a few hours.
When the race resumed for its final six laps, at 16.04, everyone had fitted the freshest tyres they could muster and McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton’s rear wing had been repaired after it had been savaged in the Alguersuari incident. Vettel, back on much-needed fresh rubber, won easily from Alonso and Button.
A frustrating event had started well, with Vettel leading confidently from Button and Alonso. Then Button pitted on lap 15, Vettel on 16 and Alonso on 17. All three were able to resume long before Ferrari’s Felipe Massa led the pursuit, because for a long time he’d been held up by Nico Rosberg’s fast-starting Mercedes.
Now Button was the leader - adding McLaren’s 10,000th Formula One race leadership lap to the team’s tally - after a snafu in the Red Bull pits when Vettel’s front right tyre wasn’t ready.
Vettel was now on Pirelli’s soft compound, not the super soft, and Button opened a commanding lead that at times was as much as 14s. But then the flow of the race was interrupted for the first time when Massa, having just been passed by Hamilton for 10th place, crashed in the tunnel after getting off line. At the same time Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes had ground to a halt at Rascasse.
The safety car was deployed for the first time as the resultant debris was cleared up. Button still led Vettel and Alonso when the racing resumed on Lap 39, but even on super-soft rubber the McLaren driver could not pass the Red Bull and on Lap 48 Button dived in for a third stop, switching to softs. He dropped to third but stayed ahead of a gaggle of cars at that stage led by Force India’s Adrian Sutil and Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi who had both done very long opening stints and then been cleverly pitted by their teams as the safety car had come out.
Now it was Vettel leading again, chased by Alonso, whose Ferrari was now also on soft tyres. Could they both possibly go the distance without a further stop?
As the race progressed, Alonso decimated Vettel’s one-time five-second lead, as Button came storming in on them. It was building up to a fascinating climax, with Alonso admitting later that he was prepared to try a do-or-die effort when the time came, when the incident happened on Lap 68 that blew the race.
Under pressure from an overtaking Pastor Maldonado in the Williams, Sutil went wide at Tabac and hit the wall in the Swimming Pool with his right rear wheel. As the Force India then ran wide in the second section of the Pool, a lapped Alguersuari ran over the kerbs and launched himself into the back of Hamilton, who’d just passed Maldonado, smashing the McLaren’s rear wing and inadvertently then forcing an innocent Petrov into the wall with a heavy impact.
As the decision was taken to suspend the race, everyone stopped on, but didn’t cross, the start/finish line at the end of the 72nd lap. It’s permissible to work on the cars, so everyone went for the freshest tyres they had. After the restart behind the safety car at 16.04, Vettel was able to open the gap he needed over Alonso as Button fell back, so the top three was all sealed long before the 78th and final lap.
Behind them, it was a different story, as Kobayashi squeezed past Sutil, who had been lucky and stopped under the safety car for a fresh right-rear wheel. The Sauber driver couldn’t contain Webber, however, who slid by at the chicane, so Red Bull took fourth as well as first, and Sauber fifth.
Hamilton had an awful afternoon. He dropped to 10th at the start, using soft tyres, pulled a brilliant pass on Schumacher at Ste Devote on the 10th lap, then passed Felipe Massa for 10th at the hairpin on Lap 34, though they touched. That earned him, as earlier it had Force India’s Paul di Resta when he brushed Alguersuari during a similar move, a drive-through penalty.
That dropped the 2008 winner back again, but he fought through yet again and was always in the upper midfield fight. He finally got lucky with the safety-car intervention after Alguersuari had damaged his rear wing as it was repaired during the race’s suspension, but then he collided with Maldonado at the restart at Ste Devote on Lap 74. After a post-race investigation by the stewards, Hamilton had 20 seconds added to his race time for causing the collision. As he was the last car on the lead lap, he keeps his sixth place.
Kobayashi’s pass on Sutil was also investigated. The Japanese driver eventually received a reprimand and stays fifth. Jerome D’Ambrosio, who finished 15th for Virgin, is also being investigated.
Sutil brought his Force India home seventh after a smart race, with Nick Heidfeld eighth for Renault ahead of Rubens Barrichello, who earned Williams their first points of the year. Sebastien Buemi completed the point scorers in his Toro Rosso.
Rosberg had a terrible race for Mercedes, pitting on Lap 15 and falling way off the pace as a result. He led Di Resta home, the Scot’s race ruined by his drive-through when points were a possibility, and again when he tagged the rear of D’Ambrosio in the hairpin.
Thirteenth and 14th positions were a fillip for Team Lotus, ahead of D’Ambrosio’s Virgin, while Tonio Liuzzi’s weekend finally came good as he brought his HRT home 16th ahead of team mate Narain Karthikeyan.
Besides Schumacher and Massa, and Alguersuari and Petrov, Virgin’s Timo Glock retired after swiping a wall and Maldonado did likewise after his late brush with Hamilton.
Vettel’s fifth victory from six races takes him to 143 points, as Hamilton hangs on to second place with 85 from Webber on 79, Button on 76 and Alonso on 69. Red Bull’s first and fourth places take them to 222 points in the constructors’ stakes, with McLaren on 161 and Ferrari on 93.