As if the Monaco round didn't stand out enough from the rest of the season, this year's saw things begin to take shape far earlier than the other rounds.
What do we mean? Well, let's put it this way: If there's one race a casual observer might watch in a year, it's likely Monaco. More committed fans will likely watch – or otherwise follow, say on their favorite automotive news site – the entire season. Die-hards might tune in for qualifying the day before to see how Sunday's race will start. But the truly obsessive will watch every practice session from the start of every grand prix weekend. Thing is, interesting though they may be, the practice sessions seldom actually indicate how qualifying, much less the actual race, will unfold.
Well the practice sessions in Monaco definitely did. The first two sessions saw Fernando Alonso dominating the time sheets both times around. But in the third and final session, the two-time world champion crashed his Ferrari beyond repair. The result meant that he'd have to miss out on qualifying altogether, relegating him to the back of the field in a new car on a track with few opportunities for passing.
With Alonso sidelined, it should come as no surprise that Red Bull took pole position yet again. After all, the team has qualified on top at every race so far this season, casting an indomitable shadow on the rest of the field. For the second time in a row and the third time this season, Mark Webber beat out his wingman Sebastian Vettel for pole. So did Renault's Robert Kubica, taking second place on the starting grid and relegating Vettel to third. Felipe Massa in the second Ferrari qualified fourth, ahead of McLaren's Lewis Hamilton in fifth, Mercedes GP's Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher in sixth and seventh (both back on the shorter-wheelbase car for the twistier track), McLaren's Jenson Button eighth, Williams' Rubens Barrichello ninth and Force India's Vitantonio Liuzzi tenth.
Following the pro-forma formation lap, the drivers took their positions without incident and the race got under way. It was largely a clean start as Vettel squeezed past Kubica on the inside to slip in behind his team-mate for second position. But the relative tranquility of the opening-lap procession didn't last long. Coming through the tunnel, Nico Hulkenberg drove his Williams-Cosworth wide off the racing line and crashed into the wall, ending his race and sending the safety car out for the first time as the marshals rushed to clear the debris.
Meanwhile in pit lane, Alonso swapped his soft-compound tires for longer-lasting intermediates before even leaving the pit lane. After all, he was starting in last place and would soon catch up to the back of the field in short order. It would prove an aggressive approach, registering as a single pit stop but effectively a zero-stop strategy for the former champion.
Still under the safety car and a yellow flag, Jenson Button apparently blew out his engine and retired trackside on lap three, ending the weekend for the driver who had lead the standings heading into Monaco. It was the second of what would amount to many retirements over the course of the race distance that lay ahead.
On lap six the safety car was finally pulled back in and the race got back underway. Over the course of those opening laps, Barrichello – who has landed on the Monaco podium no less than five times in his career so far – mounted an impressive opening campaign to skip from ninth on the starting grid to sixth place by lap 10. All the while Alonso was picking his way through the backmarkers one at a time, lap after lap. On lap 10 he passed Virgin's Lucas di Grassi, then Lotus' Jarno Trulli at the same corner – the first chicane coming out of the tunnel – the following lap. On lap 15 he moved past Virgin's Timo Glock, and on lap 17 Lotus' Heikki Kovalainen. Before the race was even a third finished, he would already be in easy position to finish inside the points.
Up front, meanwhile, Webber was mounting fast laps one after another, pulling away from his team-mate who in turn was getting away from Kubica while Massa and Hamilton closed in behind. Further adrift by the tenth lap came Barrichello (6), Schumacher (7), Rosberg (8), Liuzzi (9), Sutil (10), STR's Buemi (11), Renault's Petrov (12), Sauber's De La Rosa (13) and Kobayashi (14), STR's Alguersuari (15), Lotus' Kovalainen (16), Virgin's Glock (17), Lotus' Trulli (18), Virgin's di Grasi (19), Alonso (20) and HRT's Chandhok (21) and Senna (22).
The first, last and only round of pit stops started on lap 18 when Hamilton went in for fresh tires. Webber pitted on lap 24 and re-emerged still in the lead. Pedro de la Rosa never came out of the pits, while Glock was sidelined with an uncontrollable Virgin-Cosworth.
On lap 28 Trulli brought his Lotus in for new rubber but the gun jammed, prolonging his pit stop. Two laps later his team-mate suffered the same problem before the Lotus engineers could ascertain the problem far too late. Meanwhile di Grassi ended his race in the second Virgin and a dismal day for the team.
Lap 29 saw Rosberg, who had caught up to Webber after that first pit, head in for fresh rubber himself, only to re-emerge behind his famous team-mate Schumacher in eighth place. After nearly everyone had pitted, Webber remained in the lead, followed by Vettel, Kubica, Massa, Hamilton, Alonso, Schumacher, Rosberg, Sutil, Barrichello, Liuzzi, Buemi, Petrov, Alguersuari, Kovalainen, Senna, Chandhok, Trulli and Kobayashi.
In an apparent left-rear suspension failure, Barrichello lost control of his car on lap 32, spinning into the barrier, ending his race and sending the safety car out for the second time. By the time the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG with the flashing lights
went back into pit lane two laps later, the gaps between the race leaders were closed up once again, forcing Webber to pull off another round of fast laps to stay ahead of Vettel.
The smooth sailing lasted only another ten laps before the safety car was deployed once again, this time due to a loose manhole cover at turn 3. The following lap the safety car was back in, effectively restarting the race for the third time.
The following laps saw little action until both Bruno Senna (HRT) and Kovalainen (Lotus) retired from the race into their respective garages on lap 62. After a dozen largely uneventful laps, Karun Chandhok and Jarno Trulli collided as the Lotus skipped over the right side of the HRT in a dramatic pile-up that nearly blocked the corner in which they crashed, not to mentioned quite nearly decapitating the young Indian driver. The safety car was deployed once again on lap 75 (out of 78) as the marshals tried to clear both cars off the track. Meanwhile Renault's Vitaly Petrov, already lapped by his front-running team-mate, joined the long list of retirees on lap 76.
The HRT and Lotus wouldn't finally be cleared until the last lap, the safety car withdrawn just in time to see Webber claim the checkered flag unimpeded by a yellow one. Just as the gullwing he helped develop (or at least promote)
cleared the way, Schumacher pulled a sneaky passing maneuver on Alonso for sixth place, a move which, as we went to press, was yet to be challenged by the race stewards, but could very well be subject to post-race scrutiny.
After a tumultuous 78 laps of racing past casinos and megayachts, Mark Webber hoisted the winning trophy from atop the podium (though Monaco doesn't really have a podium per se so much as a level stage) for the second time in a row this season. Vettel took second place, and Kubica an remarkable third place to make for an all-Renault-powered "podium" in the French-speaking principality. Massa came in a solid fourth place, followed by Hamilton, Schumacher, Alonso and Rosberg. The final points went to Force India drivers Adrian Sutil and Vitantonio Liuzzi, proving themselves and their team midfielders to contend with instead of the backmarkers they once were.
The victory propels Mark Webber into the lead for the drivers' championship. Tied with 78 points but bumped from the lead on account of race wins, Sebastian Vettel holds second place. Alonso is just behind in third in 73, closely followed by Button's 70 points. Massa follows in fifth place with 61 points, Kubica and Hamilton in sixth and seventh with 59 apiece. Rosberg is eighth with 54, Schumacher ninth with 30 and Sutil tenth with 18 points. With both its drivers topping the standings, Red Bull Racing leads the constructors' championship with 156 points, ahead of Ferrari's 134, McLaren's 129 and Mercedes' 84.
The season picks up in two weeks' time for the Turkish Grand Prix on May 30 from Istanbul, one of the newest tracks on the calendar following one of the oldest.