The podium ceremony at the Monaco Grand Prix was painful to watch.
Apart from the thorough mis-management from the organizing team at the track, I was amused to see the win of Sebastian Vettel from P2 marred with controversy when ideally you would expect Tifosi from around the world celebrating Ferrari’s first Monaco GP win since 2001 with Michael Schumacher. Team spirit disappeared into thin air? Or is this a controversy because you have confused the terms pity and deservedness?
To rewind it all a bit for those who still believe this was a “team order”, here’s a small analysis.
Kimi Raikkonen was leading the grand prix with 1.1 seconds gap to Sebastian Vettel in P2, who had a 3-4s advantage over Valtteri Bottas in P3. Behind the Finn, the two Red Bull drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were lined up in P4 and P5 respectively. Around lap 31/32, Red Bull called in Verstappen to the pits in order to attempt to undercut Bottas. However, Mercedes reacted quickly to Red Bull’s call and brought Bottas in for a tire change in a lap or two which resulted in him coming out before Verstappen — keeping the order unchanged.
Bottas’ pitstop was a wake up call for Ferrari, who were now being challenged with an undercut by Mercedes (with Bottas, as he was on fresher tires and could close the gap ahead). Ferrari too, had to react. As ever, the car in the front gets the priority, therefore, Ferrari duly called Raikkonen in for a pitstop – some say he had requested it too. As an unsaid rule in grand prix racing, an undercut is more preferred than an overcut for its high satisfaction rate, and arguably, this must have run in the minds of strategists who had handled Verstappen’s, Bottas’ and Raikkonen’s race.
However, in that time, as Vettel led the race post Raikkonen’s stop around lap 34, Daniel Ricciardo in P2 set blistering lap times on his set of old ultra softs. With lap times consistently in the early 1min 16s, Ricciardo was emerging as a threat. Ferrari’s only other option was to leave Vettel out and try to maximize his pace in the front so that he could try to secure 2nd place after the pitstop. On lap 37, Vettel was given the call to push harder in clear air and he responded back with lap times which were half a second quicker than Ricciardo at that time (see chart) — these lap times (on the old 40 lap old ultra softs) were faster than the fastest lap time Kimi had set on the newer super soft tires. In the meanwhile, Ricciardo had been called for a pitstop and his gains from P2 before the pitstop meant he not only overcut Bottas but also Verstappen, catapulting the Aussie to P3 behind Kimi.
Vettel was called right in after Ricciardo to cover him off. With Raikkonen left into a bit of traffic on his laps, he had already lost 3-odd seconds to Vettel and in addition, Vettel’s quick laps meant he had a clean entry and exit into the pits and out ahead of Raikkonen – who had just cleared his traffic. In other words, he overcut his teammate to retain the lead.
Have a different opinion if you must, but in my understanding of Formula One and racing in general, the man who wins, makes the most of what is given to him. Kimi Raikkonen was flawless in qualifying but it was very obvious to see the Iceman struggling to make the tires work and maintain the gap like his teammate did. It was no conspiracy, it was logic. Ferrari called Raikkonen in, as a response to Mercedes, not as an aid to Vettel. Was it wrong timing? Not at all! A few more laps out and Raikkonen could have fallen to Mercedes’ undercut. Was it bad luck? Possibly, due to the traffic he had when closing the gap to Vettel and Ricciardo.
This incident makes me want to address the most underlying problem of armchair conspiracy theorists — who may be Raikkonen fans or those who really “wanted to see him win”.
Inability to distinguish between supporting a driver because you pity him and doing the same because he deserves it.
Kimi Raikkonen’s supporters are the classic pity-support group who wanted him to win. He hasn’t won since 2013, one of the most popular drivers, been unlucky with strategies so far — a story to be loved really. And personally, I would like to see him win too, as a fan of the sport first. But did he deserve to win at Monaco? Probably not the best performance of his because he was well off-pace in comparison to Sebastian Vettel. In fact, if there was a reason he finished second, it was because Monaco is exactly 1 and a half car widths wide and overtaking can be a suicide move for those behind him. Raikkonen is so popular for his ice-cold nature that he has got a wide enough fan base to cook up theories of why this was a deliberate strategy muck-up when in reality, they are unable to accept that their driver was, in fact, not quick and lucky enough.
Miscalculations and misconceptions
Another widely accepted reason to pity the slower driver is down to the myriad times Ferrari have actually miscalculated Raikkonen’s strategy in the past, making it seem as though Vettel has already been assigned a #1 position in the team — a reason fans of his will probably use as a reason for every non-win in 2017. Thanks to glorifying a perfectly plausible strategy with the prospects of it being fixed pre-race, drivers like Lewis Hamilton are using it as a reason to hopefully sabotage what we now call “the rise of the Scuderia” with his comments like these.
So, must Ferrari let Kimi win in order to prove their innocence? Maybe. But it’s more up to how Kimi responds to strategies and calls Ferrari make here on — just the way Vettel has done before — more recently last race. It genuinely is sad to think Ferrari’s first one-two in Monaco since 1999 is plagued with controversy surrounding it when it need not be.
A driver needs the skill, luck and the strategy to win a grand prix. Luck — to not come out of the pits in traffic, skill — to be able to clear traffic/put in rapid lap times to pull out a gap, strategy — that allows him to fight.
If he’s unable to hold on to the pressures of underachieving in comparison to his teammate, it’s probably time to let go. It is overdue for drivers of the early 2000’s to still remain in the sport after all.
An undercut is a strategy where the driver behind dives into the pitlane first and puts on a set of new tires in hopes that, although he would lose track position, newer tires would help him cover the gap to the driver in front of him virtually so that when the driver in front pits, he would come out of the pitlane behind him.
An overcut is the exact opposite where the driver ahead pits, leaving the guy behind to take lead. The driver who was initially behind now will do everything he can to get into the pitstop window, i.e., build a gap big enough for him to make a pitstop and still be ahead, effectively putting the first pitter behind himself.