"Monaco can be a big casino," Sebastian Vettel said shortly after taking pole position on Saturday. And yesterday the roulette wheel spun again in his favour as arch-rival Lewis Hamilton found himself in further trouble for some acerbic comments about the race stewards.
With 10 laps of the Monaco Grand Prix remaining, Vettel was under the most intense pressure from Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button. Vettel had driven brilliantly on the same set of harder-compound Pirelli tyres since the 16th lap, but now the chips were down and the Ferrari and McLaren drivers, on much fresher rubber, were after his blood. On the 66th lap Alonso crossed the start/finish line a tenth of a second behind him, with Button only five-tenths further back.
Then the wheel turned again. They were coming up to lap heavy midfield traffic, comprising Kamui Kobayashi, Mark Webber, Adrian Sutil, Vitaly Petrov, Pastor Maldonado and Lewis Hamilton, and just to complicate that further, twice-lapped Jamie Alguersuari was also somewhere in that mix.
When Maldonado got the jump on Sutil in the Tabac corner, and the German then tagged the outside wall with his Force India's right rear wheel, mayhem was triggered. At the same time as a hungry Hamilton dived past Maldonado, Sutil ran wide because of his damaged rear suspension. Alguersuari got off line, went into the run-off area in the Swimming Pool section, was launched over the speed bumps there, and having smashed into the rear of Hamilton's McLaren then inadvertently forced an innocent Vitaly Petrov to crash hard into the wall on the exit to the corner.
Out came the safety car, for the second time in the race, and Vettel got some respite. Then the race was suspended under the red flag as it became apparent that the Russian had momentarily lost consciousness. It took a while to extract him from his shattered Renault, and he was taken to the Princess Grace Hospital where it was later confirmed that he had not sustained any broken bones but was undergoing a precautionary body scan.
Under the rules, teams were able to work on their cars after they stopped on the pit straight pending resumption of the race for a final six-lap sprint. This was good news for Hamilton, whose rear wing was rebuilt, but much better still for Vettel, who got a fresh set of tyres.
When the race restarted behind the safety car at 16.04, he cleared off and neither Alonso nor Button, likewise equipped, saw which way he went. As frustration goes, it was a terrible way to end what had been a nail-biting contest, unless you were Vettel, of course. Win number five out of six was in the bag, another 25 points added to the 118 he already had on an afternoon when main rival Hamilton struggled.
Things had started well, with Vettel leading confidently from Button and Alonso. Then Button pitted on lap 15, Vettel on 16 and Alonso on 17. All three were able to resume long before Felipe Massa led the pursuit in the second Ferrari, as the Brazilian had for a long time been held up by Nico Rosberg's fast-starting but slow Mercedes.
Now Button was the leader -- adding McLaren's 10,000th F1 race leadership lap to the team's tally -- as a problem in the Red Bull pits had arisen when Vettel's front right tyre wasn't ready. "The pit stop seemed to be okay," he said, "but when I looked at the right front wheel it wasn't there until a mechanic rushed out with it. Surely that cost us the lead."
Vettel was now losing ground on the harder tyre as Button, still on a set of softer-compound tyres, opened a commanding lead that at times was as much as 14 seconds. But then the flow of the race was interrupted for the first time when Massa, having just been passed by Hamilton for 10th place, crashed in the tunnel after getting off line.
At the same time Michael Schumacher's Mercedes had ground to a halt at Rascasse. The safety car was deployed for the first time as the debris was cleared up. Button still led Vettel and Alonso when racing resumed on lap 39, but even on softer rubber the McLaren driver could not pass the Red Bull and on lap 48 he dived in for a third stop to switch to the same tyres at Vettel and Alonso.
Now it was Vettel leading again, chased by Alonso, and the question was whether they could go to the finish on them. At least until events turned again in Vettel's favour.
"It was pretty entertaining from inside of the car," said a relieved Vettel. "After our first stop problem, we said let's try to go for one stop, our only chance to win is to try and stay out. I had 20 laps under pressure; it's difficult to pass here but they were getting closer and closer. But the roulette wheel kept spinning all through, and I'm extremely honoured to have my name on the trophy."
As Vettel celebrated, Hamilton received an additional 20-second penalty for colliding with Maldonado at the restart, but it didn't affect the sixth place that left him so frustrated that he launched an attack on the race stewards that may yet land him in hot water. (© Independent News Service)