Feature: Lewis Hamilton’s Monaco drive – good but not that good

There was no doubt about where the man himself rated it. “I think it was the hardest race I've had,” said Lewis Hamilton after his dogged Monaco Grand Prix triumph last Sunday. Elsewhere he added that it was “probably the most intense race I've ever had.” When the race was in progress he described the win as requiring a “miracle”.

He wasn’t alone in allocating it in that bracket; plaudits flew from elsewhere too. Martin Brundle for one opined that that Hamilton “drove a champion's race” and that it was “a masterclass”. Gary Lineker – one who admittedly, as far as we can tell, doesn’t bring detailed insight on F1’s historic expanse – reckoned the drive edged Hamilton nearer the status of greatest ever.

Hamilton’s Monaco win indeed had plenty to commend it. He was under close attention from probably F1’s most willing and aggressive overtaker Max Verstappen for fully three-quarters of the way. And this using medium compound tyres not designed to go nearly that distance – he did 67 laps on a compound supposed to only last for 50 – and which were clearly well past their best for much of that time. Yet Hamilton held on in the lead. And he did it without any mistakes that anyone could see; indeed without particularly offering Verstappen so much as an opportunity to get by.

At torturous Monaco, track position is not so much nine tenths of the law but ten tenths. Yet ten tenths of Monaco law is also not making mistakes and staying out of the ever-present forbidding barriers. On these counts Hamilton was immaculate. And immaculate in those most trying of circumstances.

And of course the track position that Hamilton benefited from didn’t fall out of the sky; it was set up by him putting in a magnificent pole lap when it mattered.

But equally, for all of the drive’s virtues, one wonders if the praise is marginally on the excessive side. For starters, it was far from unprecedented – due to that track position being ten tenths of the law point. And we only have to go back to last year’s Monaco race for a close parallel, when Daniel Ricciardo retained his lead and won despite his own severe impediment for the vast majority of the distance, in his case being minus his MGU-K and therefore of 160bhp with a few other headaches thrown in on top. And runner-up Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari not only was unable to pass but, curiously, didn’t even get onto Ricciardo’s Red Bull gearbox.

And this was despite Ricciardo, just like Hamilton, having to run at a severely compromised pace. At one point 12 months ago, as if to underline how the race had stepped through the looking glass, the front two were just about the slowest of anyone out there and Lance Stroll, stone last and two laps down, bolted on a new set of hyper-softs and lapped 4.4s faster... It wasn’t just about tyre degradation either, as at another point Nico Hulkenberg was the fastest out there – on rubber 43 laps old.

It is said these days with increasing frequency that Monaco makes a nice change from grand prix racing - Clive James

The 2018 case was itself far from unprecedented. We can recall spells of the 2002 race when leader David Coulthard’s Michelin tyres entered their notorious ‘graining phase’ (and after that one Juan Pablo Montoya – who’d followed DC during that period – suggested that a F3000 car placed on pole for the Monaco Grand Prix would probably win it). We’ve had Vettel in 2011 in an almost identical situation to Hamilton last Sunday, clinging on with tyres thought way too soft to reach the end and, on his tail, a haughty rival very conspicuously wanting by. We’ve had a massive queue build behind Mark Webber in 2012 when rain spotted late on.

It’s not even exclusively a modern phenomenon. We can even wind back 40 years to 1979 to find Jody Scheckter’s Ferrari winning by dint of track position, leading all the way from pole with an ever-rotating cast of cars on his tail but unable to get by. In the late laps Clay Regazzoni, who’d started 16th, closed in on Scheckter at almost two seconds a lap. Scheckter placed but eighth in that race’s fastest lap classification.

Time after time at Monaco the first on the track can be about the last on pace, but hangs on for grim death. And, given where they are, is able to. As F1 fan and general wit Clive James noted once upon a time: “it is said these days with increasing frequency that Monaco makes a nice change from grand prix racing”.

And of course there was the quintessential case in 1992, with the late-race Ayrton Senna vs Nigel Mansell showdown that has gone into folklore. A few have drawn parallels indeed between this and Hamilton vs Verstappen last Sunday; Edd Straw for one described this latest offering as “the hyper-tense, drawn out version… What lasted three frenzied laps in 1992 was played out as a calmer, 64-lap slow burner in 2019”.

Time after time at Monaco the first on the track can be about the last on pace, but hangs on for grim death. And, given where they are, is able to

Yet what 1992 lacked for running time it made up at least as much for in intensity. We never got to see exactly how much faster Verstappen was than Hamilton in clear air – the ease with which he closed back up on him after running wide at the swimming pool late on suggests it was significant – yet all indications are that the pace differential was never of the scale of Mansell’s freshly-tyred Williams FW14B over Senna’s McLaren MP4/7.

The footage of Mansell swarming all over Senna’s rear tells us that. As does that Mansell closed in on Senna by 2.4s on one lap when homing in. Verstappen for all his worthy efforts on Sunday only had one Hail Mary lunge at passing at the chicane as well as at one point forced Hamilton to defend the inside at Station Hairpin. Mansell sought to get by Senna on virtually every corner and straight (albeit often in melodramatic acts of futility – which you might say was somewhat typical of Our Nige).

Another point to make is that Hamilton wasn’t the only one last Sunday to bolt on medium tyres under the safety car on lap 11 then run to the end. Daniel Ricciardo’s Renault and Kevin Magnussen’s Haas did too. Granted, neither ended up with a stellar result – Ricciardo got ninth and Magnussen 14th, but that was in large part a function of them, unlike Hamilton, losing several places when making their stops then, more pointedly, getting caught behind Lando Norris’s self-admitted go-slow (plus Magnussen later got a time penalty).

After Ricciardo, on the same strategy, got into clear air on lap 46 he managed to close on Hamilton by 11.2s by the end of the race. He also set his fastest lap on the final tour

There wasn’t much wrong with Ricciardo’s pace on this strategy either. As Jolyon Palmer noted, after Ricciardo got into clear air on lap 46 he in fact managed to close on Hamilton by 11.2s by the end of the race. He also set his fastest lap of the race on the final tour, which was the fourth fastest of anyone the day plus close to half a second quicker than what Hamilton did at any point.

Magnussen’s team-mate Romain Grosjean, in a separate but related matter, himself managed 50 laps on the soft tyre.

What a difference 12 months makes too. Last year when Ricciardo eked out his struggling car to win from the front at Monaco he did get praise, particularly in the specialist media. But there was simultaneously an at least as conspicuous howl about the unpalatable things his ability to triumph despite the problems said about Monaco more generally.

“Sunday comes and what are we left with? A frenetic scramble to Ste Devote followed by some 90 minutes of sub-optimal driving,” tooted one contribution on that week’s Autosport letters’ page. “What a waste of talent and of spectacle. I watched this year’s race delayed, but from lap five or so at 12x speed. I missed nothing and saved myself an hour or so. Time for a format change if we are to keep this most iconic of circuits.”

“During the snore-fest that was last weekend’s Monaco GP,” said another submission, “worthy winner Ricciardo’s best race lap was nearly five seconds shy of his, admittedly brilliant, pole time.”

It was a mixture of Hamilton’s radio and Verstappen’s aggression that made this race worth watching at all - Jolyon Palmer

But there was a crucial difference one year on. While Ricciardo was unflinching and stoic amid his struggle (as far as we could tell), Hamilton this time frequently shouted on his radio about what an impossible task he’d been given and what a struggle it was to ensure that he both stayed ahead and stayed out of the scenery. And we all got to hear it on the TV world feed. Repeatedly.

In this sense Hamilton – intentionally or not – ensured he was framing his own narrative. And there’s perhaps a more fitting Mansell parallel herein. Hamilton’s always had a Mansell-esque tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve as well as on occasion Mansell’s outward projection that things are, somehow, never entirely straightforward. As with Mansell, it’s a tendency not to everyone’s taste, but equally it adds considerably to his legend.

Hamilton too admitted afterwards that pitting for a second time was never an option. It never was going to be, for the reasons we’ve outlined. Perhaps it was a bluff intended for other teams to hear; perhaps he finds ‘sounding off’ helpful to get himself into the zone as it were. Perhaps it’s just his way. Yet whatever is the case, it undoubtedly added both to the drama and to the sense that Hamilton was, in his words, performing a “miracle”.

“It was a mixture of Hamilton’s radio and Verstappen’s aggression that made this race worth watching at all,” Palmer outlined. “After all, Vettel offered nothing in third this year and he offered nothing for the win this time last year when it was Ricciardo out front with a serious engine issue. Hamilton’s dramatic radio is what turned the race into box-office entertainment.”

It was stressful but perfectly executed. Probably most drivers could have kept the lead if you’d put them in that situation. But he was in the lead because he set pole - Mark Hughes

In the broadest consideration of where Hamilton’s drive fits, Mark Hughes likely put it best. It was “stressful but perfectly executed,” Hughes reckoned. “Probably most drivers could have kept the lead if you’d put them in that situation. But he was in the lead because he set pole.”

Was Lewis Hamilton’s race-winning Monaco drive very good? Of course it was. Was it a drive for the ages? That’s not quite so clear.