Finally, the gloves are off. The ‘jolly good pals’ act has been relegated by the reality of two evenly matched drivers fighting it out in the best car. And, almost inevitably, Monte Carlo provided the melting pot.
Nico Rosberg won the Monaco Grand Prix, 9,2 seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton. Another Mercedes one-two. But the difference this time was that pole position, the trump card you need for this race, was claimed by Rosberg under controversial circumstances.
Rosberg, who lost the lead of the championship when Hamilton won in Spain two weeks before, grabbed the psychological edge throughout practice and was quickest as the final laps of qualifying began. Rosberg, knowing Hamilton would launch a last-minute attack, pushed too hard, locked his brakes into the downhill right-hander at Mirabeau, took to the escape road and momentarily thought about reversing out of the cul-de-sac.
Out came the yellow flags. Hamilton, behind on the road but two-tenths of a second up on his previous best, had no option but to back off. His body language, as he climbed from the car and later spoke at the press conference, indicated that he felt Rosberg had done this deliberately to protect pole. With overtaking being difficult, if not impossible, the scene was set. Rosberg, by his own admission, had been making poor starts. Photographers quickly booked their places for the stand at the first corner.
This time, Rosberg made a perfect getaway. Hamilton’s Option One had gone. With Rosberg, the winner at Monaco last year, unlikely to make a mistake, Hamilton’s only chance lay with using a better strategy associated with the single pit stop. As that moment approached at one-third distance, Hamilton was 1,1 seconds behind and wondering about his options as the leaders closed in on back markers.
Then Adrian Sutil lost control of his Sauber on the notorious bump leading to the 280 km/h approach to the braking area for the harbour chicane. With debris everywhere, the Safety Car was inevitable. Cue more controversy at Mercedes.
Hamilton arrived at the chicane not long after and saw the Sauber in the escape road. “This is the difference between Mercedes and [my former team] McLaren,” Hamilton said later. “At McLaren each driver had his own strategy guy looking after his race and doing the best for his driver. At Mercedes, they have one guy doing it for the whole team. He’s absolutely brilliant. But it’s for the team and the guy in front.”
Instead of diving into the pits immediately as he would have liked, Hamilton had to wait for the Safety Car to appear and the call for both drivers to pit, Hamilton queuing behind Rosberg. When asked what would have happened if Hamilton had come in regardless one lap before, Toto Wolff, the Mercedes F1 Team Principal, said bluntly: “The drivers don’t decide.” Option Two gone.
There was a glimmer of hope for Hamilton at around half distance when Rosberg was told to coast, short-shift and save fuel. The gap between the two cars was never more than a second as they continued to push as hard as they could and pull 15 seconds on the rest, lead by Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull. But, when the fuel situation stabilised, Rosberg opened the gap to two seconds for the first time. Option Three gone.
Now Hamilton had a new problem. A tiny piece of dirt had found its way into his left eye. With 10 laps to go, Rosberg was suddenly 5,7 seconds ahead. “What’s the gap?” Hamilton asked his engineer. “Ricciardo is nine seconds behind,” came the reply. “The gap to Nico!” responded an increasingly frustrated Hamilton. “I’m not interested in Ricciardo!” He soon would be.
Ricciardo, having qualified third, made a poor start but was able to move up two places when Sebastian Vettel retired his Red Bull with turbo trouble and the fast-starting Kimi Räikkonen’s Ferrari picked up a puncture. Showing a maturity and calm that is fast-becoming his hall mark, Ricciardo looked after his tyres and, for the first time this season, Red Bull were able to take the fight to Mercedes.
The Australian was right on Hamilton’s tail for the final five laps but, given everything that had been going on during his weekend, Hamilton was not about to give away another three points.
The Mercedes drivers stood side by side on the podium but barely spoke. Later Hamilton said they were not friends. Rosberg, in a separate interview, said they were. Whatever! Battle has well and truly commenced. Round seven is in Canada on 8 June.