Posted on May 27, 2021.
Report by Tony Cotton
I’ve always believed that if you want to see a person’s true personality, observe them in adversity. We’ve recently had the opportunity to see that a few times. The first involves the saga of the bendy wings.
Article 3.8 of the technical regulations says “any specific part of the car influencing its aerodynamic performance must remain immobile in relation to the sprung part of the car.” Clearly, this is nonsense. Simple physics tells us that if a load is applied to a structure, it will deform, depending on how rigid it is. It cannot be completely rigid; even the stiffest structure will move a little – see bridges and skyscrapers for example. And so to this end there are a series of static deflection tests specifying how much certain parts of the wings can move (Art 3.9). These rules are as much a part of the regulations as the engine being 1600cc, and to object to a car being built to the rules is in my view as childish as complaining that the engine is a full 1600cc and not 1590.
However, our friends at Mercedes do have an escape clause for their wing whingeing. Article 3.9.9 says “In order to ensure that the requirements of Article 3.8 are respected, the FIA reserves the right to introduce further load/deflection tests on any part of the bodywork which appears to be (or is suspected of), moving whilst the car is in motion.” In other words, this is one area where the FIA can change the rules as they go along. Mercedes have effectively said “Hey guys, our people aren’t clever enough to make wings that work at their best within the rules, how about changing the rules so we can win again?” to the which the FIA have replied “If you say so chaps”. Not, I would say, a sportsmanlike way of addressing the adversity of being out-engineered.
And yet Herr Wolff compounded the issue by petulantly threatening to launch “a messy legal action” if the FIA didn’t bring their hastily thought through rules in even earlier. Many doubted his understanding of engineering and design if he genuinely thought such rapid redesign was possible. One wonders if such an irrational reaction to adversity is reflected in internal management, bearing in mind the loss of key Mercedes people to RedBull engines and, dare one say it, the litany of Mercedes errors at Monaco?
But if there is to be a clamp down on drag-reduction wings, what, may I ask, has happened to innovation? The last major push against the envelope that I can recall was Brawn in 2009 with their double diffuser. They got away with that and won the championship. I wonder what became of them?
The lead up to qualifying was a wonderful appetiser for what was to come. Throughout practice Ferrari showed signs that the car suited Monaco, heading P2 and being only just pipped by Verstappen in P3. Come qualifying, there was a shock as Alonso failed to escape Q1 and further pause for thought as Ricciardo stuck at 12th, which must have been especially frustrating when his team-mate reached 5th. Lando outlined his more intense approach to driving in the run-up to the race, so perhaps there’s something to his changed attitude.
Leclerc did an almost perfect lap to claim pole, being the first Monegasque to do so since Louis Chiron in 1936. Sadly, “almost” wasn’t perfect enough for Charles who, with the confidence of pole in hand, pushed a bit too hard and caught the barriers at turn 15, ending in the barriers at the next corner.
There were times when Sainz looked good enough for pole, but, in his own words: “Unfortunately, my last attempt was a bit compromised with traffic during the preparation lap and then I didn’t have the chance to finish the flying lap due to the red flag. It was my first chance to put it on pole here in Monaco and lining up P4 is really frustrating. I’m not happy.” Team Racing Director Laurent Mekies, however, did seem pleased: “We came to this event aware that we could do well, but we never got carried away. Our aim was to be just behind the two teams fighting for the championship, but we managed to do much better than that.”
Separating the two Ferraris were Verstappen, disappointed that he wasn’t able to try to usurp Charles, and a Mercedes. Not “that one”, but Bottas. Hamilton, at this track where overtaking is so difficult, languished in 7th, and if Carlos wasn’t happy, the Ham was furious. Apparently with everybody but himself. If it really was the car’s fault that the “Greatest of All Time” couldn’t outqualify a Minardi (Gasly 6th with the Alpha Tauri), this must show massive cracks appearing in the hitherto impregnable Benz edifice.
One of the fun things about Monaco is the shake up of qualifying and the remaining places gave food for thought. Lando was 5th, seven places ahead of Ricciardo, and Gasly’s 6th compared with Tsunoda in 16th, without the benefit of Monaco experience. Much is made of Monaco experience of course but my two most talented historic racing friends both got podiums having never previously driven there, so obviously modern stuff is a bit different. The last three places in Q3 were a mix of an ex-world champion in a midfield car (Vettel), a mercurial midfielder in a leading car (Perez) and the surprising Giovinazzi in a normally difficult Alfa.
There were threats against Charles’ pole position. Did the slap against the Armco mean a new gearbox, and so a 5 place drop? No, the suspension was deranged but the gearbox was good. Would he be penalised for deliberately crashing to protect his pole? Such a suggestion showed the lack of knowledge of the keyboard warriors behind it. Of course he wasn’t. So it looked good. Until the out lap.
After a few corners, Charles’ car showed signs of a problem with the left side driveshaft fixing to the wheel and he had to pit immediately. It only took a few minutes for engineers and mechanics to realise that the damage could not be repaired in the short time prior to the start. This does raise a few questions. As the driveshafts don’t incur a penalty for changing, and the shock of a bang on the right goes straight through the gearbox to the left, why were they not changed? I suspect that question will be asked at Maranello. But also, have cars become too complex? If a driveshaft was the only issue, I recall (40 years ago) one being changed in minutes while a car sat on the startline at Shelsley Walsh.
In any event, the race started without Charles who “went to hospitality”, which I assume is a euphemism for “bladdered himself to oblivion”. It’s certainly what I would have done. There was the usual jousting for position but it didn’t benefit anybody. With the current cars the excitement in Monaco is on Saturday, not Sunday. Carlos started 3rd and ran there until the first pitstops. At those, the right front wheel nut didn’t engage with the gun on Bottas’s car and the complex web on the nut was machined off. It was an accident which could happen to anybody, and promoted Carlos to second. He later said “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.”. We trust it will not be the last podium.
Further down the field, Hamilton had apparently been told to hold fire until the pistops. Imagine his surprise when he dropped behind Vettel at the stop, only to see Vettel stop and still be ahead of him. It got funnier when the poor old engineer had to tell him that Perez had hopped up from 8th to 4th. It’s fair to say that Hamilton did not accept adversity with panache.
The final result was Verstappen, who went to the top of the drivers’ table, Sainz, and Norris, which was grid order, with Perez only a second behind the McLaren, ensuring that Red Bull went into the lead of the constructors’. Vettel followed the Mexican into 5th, and with Stroll in 8th, the Astons showed that their multiple change of name hasn’t stopped their habitual first class mechanical behaviour bringing its rewards at this least aero of tracks. Gasly stayed ahead of Hamilton, and one can’t help but ask if Red Bull’s biggest mistake of recent years was swapping him and Albon a couple of years ago? Ocon and Giovinazzi completed the top ten, while languishing in 12th, former winner Dani Ricciardo was lapped by Lando and must have wanted a bit of severe “hospitality” afterwards to help forget the race.
The astute will have noted that I have not depleted my store of synonyms for “exciting”. The excitement was in pit stop overtakes, in watching Mercedes fall apart in management, strategy, pitwork, driving and behaviour, and in determining whether or not Stroll crossed the pit exit line after a stop. As a result, there were comments that Monaco needed to change to accommodate the cars. I don’t see how this could be done given the nature of the principality where a square metre of land is worth roughly the same as my entire house. Moving the race but calling it the Monaco Grand Prix is inconceivable. The fault lies in the cars, not the track. For example, the tyres won’t work if the cars follow too closely. And yet the FormulaE race a couple of weeks ago was exciting, with a brilliant overtake by Mitch Evans at Beau Rivage. The historic cars a couple of weeks ago were colourful and (breath it quietly) entertaining. Has F1 got too big, too inflexible, too complex and too dull?
Finally, one of the joys of the day was watching Charles in adversity. He should have won the race, and could have. If that driveshaft had been changed he would have, yet he still joined Carlos at the podium ceremony, looking a bit downhearted, but behaving well. Could it be that he is a bit of a gentleman? Or is it, to quote their hashtag #essereFerrari, just the way that you do things at Ferrari?