Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull Racing team used the perfect strategy in the gambler’s paradise of Monaco: they risked everything on stopping just once and it paid off handsomely with the World Champion’s fifth victory of the 2011 season.
On a weekend when the beautiful harbourside circuit bared its teeth, Vettel started from his fifth pole of the year, the 20th of his career, pitted with less than a quarter of the 78-lap race distance gone, and profited from a late-race Safety Car period to extend his World Championship lead to a massive 54 points.
As the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button’s McLaren completed the podium places, Australia’s Mark Webber yet again produced the move of the race to overtake Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi on the final lap and claim fourth in the second Red Bull.
Webber also claimed the fastest race lap, a 1:16.234 on his final tour of the 3.34-km street circuit, his fourth of this season and the 10th of his F1 career.
“A crazy race”, said Vettel, who added: “I think the roulette was spun last night and kept on spinning during this race.”
The Safety Car was deployed for the second time in the race with 69 laps gone after a multi-car accident triggered by Jaime Alguersuari in the Toro Rosso. Attempting to pass Nick Heidfeld’s Lotus Renault, the Spaniard was caught out when Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren braked in front of him.
While Hamilton carried on with his car’s rear wing askew, the main victim was Heidfeld’s team-mate Vitaly Petrov. Left with nowhere to go between Monaco’s intimidating barriers, the Russian hit the wall on the left and had to wait for medical crew to extract him as he complained of leg pains – though hospital scans revealed no broken bones.
The race was red-flagged with six laps left to run and some drivers, Webber included, admitted to being surprised that it was re-started – but the Australian was one of the few men to benefit when it did resume.
Webber produced a trademark passing move up the inside of Kobayashi at the chicane out of the famous tunnel to claim what had seemed an unlikely fourth place after a botched pit stop dropped him to 15th with only 16 laps gone.
“At Monaco you don’t get away scot-free with a pit stop like that,” said the man who dominated the Monte Carlo streets last year. “There was a communication problem in the pits, with the result that the guys weren’t ready for me. I knew I was in for a difficult afternoon after that, but I kept my head.”
The chicane where Webber pulled off the race’s outstanding manoeuvre was the same one that had claimed the cars of Nico Rosberg and Sergio Perez earlier in a weekend that sparked fresh debate over Monaco’s fitness to host the high-speed spectacle of modern Formula One.
Rosberg’s Mercedes hit the barrier on the right out of the tunnel in the final free practice session and was briefly airborne over the kerbs but avoided the barrier that faces the cars head-on; in Q3 Perez replicated that accident but hit the barrier hard with the right-hand side of his Sauber and it took medical personnel a considerable time to extract the young Mexican, F1’s find of the season so far.
Happily Perez suffered only concussion and bruising to his legs but was unable to race on Sunday, leaving 23 cars to start after the HRT duo of Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan did enough in practice to get round their failure to come within 107% of Vettel’s pole-winning time.
Among the non-finishers was Michael Schumacher, for whom a fire in his car’s airbox completed a miserable weekend for Mercedes.
In the race’s other main talking-point Lewis Hamilton was penalised for causing an avoidable accident when he tangled with Felipe Massa at the hairpin, an incident that led almost immediately to the Ferrari driver’s retirement and triggered the first Safety Car intervention.
Massa called for more penalties against the former World Champion for over-aggressive driving, while Hamilton claimed other drivers – Massa and Pastor Maldonado, whose Williams he also hit with three laps to go – were “stupid”.
The World Championship now has a two-week break before round seven, the Canadian Grand Prix at Circuit Jacques Villeneuve, the almost equally spectacular island venue in the mighty St Lawrence Seaway in Montreal.
1. Vettel 143 points
2. Hamilton 85
3. Webber 79
4. Button 76
5. Alonso 69
6. Heidfeld 29
1. Red Bull Racing 222 points
2. McLaren-Mercedes 161
3. Ferrari 93