Max Verstappen’s win at the Monaco Grand Prix is unlikely to have stirred the soul of Formula One fans. Yet from a broader perspective the Dutchman’s victory from the front to the flag is the absolute tonic the title fight required.
Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton, for once foundering, let slip what for so long has been an impregnable grip on both world championships.
Verstappen revelled in his victory, the 23-year-old’s first in Monaco, while Carlos Sainz was second for Ferrari and McLaren’s Lando Norris a superb third, his first podium finish in the principality.
Verstappen drove flawlessly, threading the needle on the streets of Monte Carlo for 78 laps with no hint of an error, while his Red Bull team were equally professional operationally.
A win here is one that drivers covet over most others but in the context of this season it has even greater significance.
Hamilton had gone into the race with a 14-point lead over Verstappen, every one hard fought after a bruising four meetings battling with the Dutchman.
Now he must cope with an abrupt volte-face in the course of one afternoon in Monte Carlo. After suffering from a lack of grip and qualifying in seventh he could not improve in the race and was disappointed and frustrated with the Mercedes strategy whereby he finished in seventh, too.
He did take the point for fastest lap but Verstappen has taken the lead by four points in the drivers’ championship, the first time he has led the title race in his seven years in F1.
Worse still, with Mercedes having to retire Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas during a pitstop after a mechanical failure of the wheel nut meant they could not remove his right front wheel, they have also surrendered the lead in the constructors’ championship by a single point to Red Bull. It is the first time since 2013 Red Bull have led both championships.
Verstappen, increasingly a wise head on still very young shoulders, celebrated his win but tellingly so in the context that he, too, knows there is a bigger job still to be done.
“You always want to win this grand prix. I remember when I was very little, you always want to win this one,” he said. “So, of course, I’m very proud but I’m also thinking ahead. It is a very long season.”
He also believed he had answered Hamilton’s pre-race barb that the Dutchman charged hard because he something to prove.
“Actions always speak louder than words. That is a good lesson after this weekend,” he said. “You have to talk on the track. That’s what I like.”
Verstappen looks increasingly like the finished article now. Weaknesses early in his career, unforced errors and a tendency to overreach have been largely replaced by a control and maturity beyond his years.
He knows if he is to challenge Hamilton he must perform at the same almost flawless capacity as the world champion and at Monaco he did exactly that.Hamilton endured a trying afternoon and had little to show for it. Mercedes pitted him early in an attempt to gain a place but it did not work out. Indeed he lost two, jumped by Sebastian Vettel and Sergio Pérez, who both stayed out longer through the stops. He questioned the team’s decision to stop early and could do nothing to move again through the field, with passing all but impossible. His frustration was palpable.
“It’s not good enough from all of us,” he said. “We win and lose as a team and it is collectively not a good job from all of us across the board and we don’t take it lightly. But there is no point getting all depressed. We have to figure out why we are in this position. We definitely cannot afford another weekend like this.”
On Verstappen’s comments, Hamilton added: “There are 17 races to go. I’m not going to say more. It’s childish when you start getting into a war of words.”
Largely a procession as so often at Monaco, the race’s biggest drama played out before it was even underway. For the pole sitter, Charles Leclerc, at his home race there was heartbreak before he took to the grid.
After he crashed in qualifying there was concern that his gearbox would have to be replaced. Ferrari had checked it and pronounced it OK on the morning of the race but on the way to the grid Leclerc reported he had a problem.
The team worked further on the car and identified an issue with the driveshaft that they could not rectify, leaving Leclerc unable to join the grid and with hopes shattered.
Clearly deeply upset, he was consoled by the Ferrari president, John Elkann, and then by Prince Albert of Monaco. Leclerc showed great maturity and sportsmanship in staying to the finish to congratulate his teammate Sainz.
Leclerc’s failure meant Verstappen had the front row to himself but Bottas had a clear run up the inside line to turn one.
The Finn started well but Verstappen gave him no chance, cutting him off to hold the lead through Sainte Devote. It was crucial. Holding the course by the scuff of the neck, Verstappen held a lead he would not give up. When Mercedes’ pit gamble failed their chance of improvement had gone and were left to lick their wounds.
The venue may be celebrated but the racing was pedestrian, yet Verstappen overwhelmingly deserved his laurels. He knows greater challenges await him this season but for now he can rightly enjoy a victory that feels like no other.
Red Bull’s Pérez was in fourth and Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel in fifth. Gasly was in sixth for AlphaTauri, with Lance Stroll in eighth for Aston Martin. Esteban Ocon was in ninth for Alpine with Antonio Giovinazzi in 10th for Alfa Romeo.