Then and Now – close finishes at Monaco

There have been many close finishes at Monaco over the years, and some have criticised Mercedes for their decision to bring Lewis Hamilton in for new tyres when the safety car came out only fourteen laps from the end of the race. This article looks at some of the close races through the event’s long history to see if there was any precedent for the decision Mercedes took.

In the pre war years (the first Monaco Grand Prix was held in 1929) overtaking around the tight confines of Monaco was not really so much of a problem. In 1933 Achille Varzi driving his Bugatti had a race long battle with Tazio Nuvalari driving his Alfa Romeo (entered and run by Scuderia Ferrari, long before they started making their own cars). The pair swapped the lead many times, but on the last lap as they went up the hill after Sainte Devote, Nuvalari over revved his engine and it expired, allowing Varzi to take the win. Nuvalari was subsequently disqualified for outside assistance while pushing his car to the finish line.

In 1961 Monaco was the first race of the new 1.5 litre Formula, and there was quite a difference in the power produced by the different engines. Ferrari had the most powerful unit at 180 bhp this was some 30 bhp greater than the climax powered Lotus of Stirling Moss. Still Moss qualified on pole, and was able to maintain his lead despite race long pressure from the Ferrari team to finish some 3.6 seconds ahead of Richie Ginther at the end of 100 laps. Races were much longer then, normally 500km, but Monaco had dispensation to run only 300km as the race time was equivalent to other faster tracks.

1968 was a real ace of attrition, only five cars running at the end and with everyone from third place finishing at least four laps behind the winner (Graham Hill in his Lotus). However it was a close finish with the second placed BRM of Richard Atwood just 2.2 seconds behind at the flag. Despite setting fastest lap Atwood could not pass Hill. By this time the race had been shortened to 80 laps which took only 2 hours and 32.3 seconds to complete. However from the end of the 16th lap only five cars were running.

1970 saw a rare change of position in the closing stages. Jack Brabham had been leading the race since Lap 27 when Jackie Stewart had to pit for a misfire which proved terminal. At this stage Jochen Rindt was up to fourth position after qualifying eighth.   By lap 62 the cars between Brabham and Rindt had retired and the Austrian was nine seconds behind the Australian and he began to circulate faster. Three laps from the end the gap had reduced to four seconds, and on the final corner of the last lap Brabham moved off the racing line to lap a slower car and ended up understeering into the straw bales. Rindt ended up winning by 23.1 seconds after Brabham reversed out and got going again.

The 1975 race started wet but dried out so everyone needed to change to slicks after 20 or so laps. Niki Lauda lost the lead when he made his pitstop on lap 23, but regained it by the time everyone else had changed. In the closing laps his oil pressure began to drop, allowing Emerson Fittipaldi to close to 2.78 seconds at the flag for the time shortened race.

In 1977 Niki Lauda was the driver in second position chasing a slower driver in front, this time Jody Scheckter. The gap at the flag was only 0.89 seconds, but still he couldn’t pass. With this experience of just how difficult it is to pass at Monaco, I do wonder what input Lauda had to the decision making process on Sunday. He was certainly vocal after the race explaining that it was a mistake.

1979 once again saw a rapidly closing car being held off in the final laps by the current leader, with Jody Scheckter remaining in front of Clay Regazzoni by 0.44 seconds at the flag.

1982 did however see the lead change multiple times over the closing laps. The race had started dry but in the closing laps it started to rain. Alain Prost spun into the barriers coming out of the chicne on lap 74, handing the lead to Riccardo Patrese. The following lap Patrese spun at the Lowes hairpin and stalled, allowing Didier Pironi to lead into the last lap, but he ran out of fuel in the tunnel along with Andrea de Cesaris (before he could even take the lead).

Derek Daly who would have taken the lead already had a severely damaged car thanks to a spin, and the gearbox seized before he could start his final lap. All this allowed Patrese (who had managed to restart his car after rolling down the hill) to come through and take the chequered flag. Although there were multiple lead changes this isn’t really comparable to the situation Mercedes found themselves in on Sunday.

1985 may be one of the events that Mercedes had in mind when they made their decision on Sunday. An accident between Nelson Piquet and Riccardo Patrese on lap 16 lead to oil on the track at Sainte Devote. Race leader Michele Alboretto slid wide on the oil the following lap handing the lead to Alain Prost. Alboretto caught and repassed Prost three laps later but picked up a puncture on lap 31 thanks to debris from the Piquet Patrese accident. After stopping for fresh tyres he was down in fourth place, but worked his way past Andre de Cesaris and Elio de Angelis back into second place by lap 63. Although he continued to chase Prost he couldn’t catch him and remained over 7.5 seconds behind at the flag.

In 1990 although Ayrton Senna finished just 1.087 seconds ahead of Jean Alesi at the flag this was more because Senna slowed in the closing laps rather than Alesi speeding up. Alesi had instead a race long battle with Senna’s team mate Gerhard Berger with the pair separated by less than 1.5 seconds for the last ten laps. Berger could not find a way to pass the Frenchman.

1992 is the race that Mercedes should have been thinking of when they made their decision on Sunday. Nigel Mansell had been leading the race comfortably in the dominant Williams, with Ayrton Senna 29 seconds behind. On lap 71 Mansell felt something wrong coming into the tunnel, and suspecting a puncture told the team he was coming in for new tyres.

There turned out to be nothing amiss with the tyres, and the problem was perhaps a loose wheel nut. After his pitstop Mansell emerged some 5.2 seconds behind Senna, and set the fastest race lap nearly 1.9 second quicker than Senna had managed earlier in the event. The gap dropped to 0.2 seconds by lap 75, but over the remaining three laps Senna drove the worlds widest McLaren (according to Murray Walker) and fended of a visibly determined Mansell to finish 0.215 seconds in front.

The 2003 race had no recorder on track overtakes at all. The cars were competitive though with Juan Pablo Montoya finishing only 0.602 seconds ahead of Kimi Räikkönen and just 1.720 seconds ahead of Michael Schumacher.

2004 was better in terms of overtaking, but once again in the closing laps the faster car in second couldn’t find a way to pass the leader. On this occasion Jenson Button was doing the chasing, with Jarno Trulli taking the win by just 0.491 seconds. To be fair, Trulli did have plenty of practice in making his car difficult to overtake, and could often be seen holding up a train of drivers behind him, as he usually qualified better than he raced.

In 2011 there were a couple of safety car periods. The first was called on lap 33 when Hamilton and Massa touched in the tunnel, causing Massa to crash while at the same time an airbox fire started in Schumacher’s car just as he was about to pit. When racing resumed the lead was fought between Vettel, Alonso and Button, all on different tyre strategies. Vettel had made his single stop on Lap 16, while both Alonso and Button stopped under the safety car as well. Where Vettel and Alonso were on the harder of the two available compounds, Button went to the super soft tyre, and stopped again on lap 48 for a further set of tyres.

So as the race reached its closing stages Vettel was in front on a very old set of soft tyres, Alonso closed I so that by lap 56 he was less than a second behind, while Button on really fresh super soft tyres rapidly caught pair of them at a second a lap so that by lap 62 he was less than a second behind Alonso. Then on lap 69 the safety car came out as a result of a chain reaction accident involving Hamilton, Sutil, Alguersuari and Petrov. During the safety car period no came into change tyres, and it was promising to be entertaining as the drivers struggled after the re-start.

Unfortunately the race had to be red flagged on lap 72 as Petrov was still trapped in the car. The red flag period allowed not only repairs to be done to Hamilton’s car, but also for the entire grid to take o fresh tyres, with the result that there was only one overtaking manoeuvre in the final five laps of racing, as Mark Webber passed Kamui Kobayashi for fourth place. So Vettel lead Alonso home by 1.138 seconds. It is just possible that Mercedes were thinking of this race when they made their decision to call in Hamilton on Sunday, thinking that more of the field would follow suit (as it is very difficult to generate heat in worn tyres).

The following year should have served to remind Mercedes just how difficult passing is at Monaco. Nico Rosberg spent the whole race less than two seconds behind the eventual winner Mark Webber with the exception of a couple of laps where he attempted to undercut the Red Bull driver by pitting first. This didn’t work, and by lap 30 he was back staring at the Red Bull gearbox, and maintained that position to the flag, finishing 0.643 seconds behind.

So the overwhelming evidence is that overtaking at Monaco is virtually impossible, even if the car behind has fresh tyres. The only time drivers have taken on fresh tyres in a similar situation was in 2012 when the race was red flagged six laps from the end of the event, and then everyone changed tyres. That the team were fooled into thinking they had the time to make the stop due to an apparent glitch in the timing information as the virtual safety car was deployed (the gap to Rosberg was 19.196 seconds on lap 63, but is 25.727 seconds on lap 64, it had previously been growing at 1 – 2 seconds a lap) should be irrelevant as they shouldn’t really have been considering a stop unless Hamilton had a puncture.

However Hamilton has said they win and lose as a team, and has also stated that he asked for tyres in the mistaken belief that the others had already changed onto fresh rubber (this from catching sight of one of the TV screens that was showing the team ready with tyres in the pit lane). That no-one in the team informed their driver that none of his immediate rivals had changed is hopefully the lesson they have learned for the future.

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