Mythical Monaco Masters

Lewis Hamilton, Monaco GP 2011 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Lewis Hamilton, Monaco GP 2011 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Monaco is special. It’s different. There is no other circuit or race like it in the world. Over time it has gained legendary status and winning there, although worth the same amount of points as every other grand prix, means something more.

Maybe that is because of proximity. Proximity to the glamour that follows F1 around the world, proximity to the history of this sport, proximity to the barriers. Between those barriers, it is said, talent becomes more tangible. That is why there is such great reverence for Monaco Masters. They are the drivers who we regard as kings of the principality and by definition, virtuoso in the art of driving.

Past crown bearers include a triumvirate of multiple world champions and motorsport greats: Graham Hill, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher. These three men proved capable of achieving the most difficult of feats – putting a brilliant weekend together on this the most challenging and mistake inducing of tracks – again and again and again. All are serial winners and all outqualified and outraced their teammates here at least 70% of the time. That is the criteria for being crowned a Monaco Master.

It’s a label that we use too liberally now. Its mythical status means that fans and media use it flippantly, judging more on Monaco Mastersopinion than fact. I decided to see how the records of the present day Monaco GP winners compared with those of the recognised Monaco Masters to determine where the crown truly belongs.

There was a time when every May Autosport would feverishly build up Hamilton and his impressive junior record at the track. Every year he would be expected to win because of the misconception that overt talent makes for the fastest driver around Monaco. It’s not black and white, but there is a certain style of driving which is rewarded more on the tight and twisty streets, although whether it is indicative of greater talent is up for debate. Being good at Monaco is more about bravery and confidence. It’s about being the kind of driver who, when the streets bite, bites back. Nevertheless it’s an idea that stuck, and Hamilton is considered a Monaco Master amongst F1 fans and media despite never backing it up.

His record at Monaco is underwhelming to say the least. He has only outqualified and outraced his teammates there 37.5% of the time – that’s completely inconsistent with his overall career averages of 64.86% (qualifying) and 59.43% (race) – and each of his four teammates did the double (outqualified and outraced) on him at least once there. His teammates have also won the race three times to his one (bizarrely lucky) win in 2008. Losing out to a teammate at Monaco does not automatically exclude a driver from the debate – both Hill and Senna lost a victory to a teammate there – but the fact that Hamilton theoretically had a winning car in Monaco four times and only delivered once probably does.

His record destroys the notion that talent is the only necessity for Monaco success. On the surface Hamilton has all the necessary attributes – talent, bravery, confidence – but perhaps it is not a coincidence that both teammates that beat him to victory here, Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg are regarded as more “cerebral” drivers. It’s notable that the basis of Alonso’s 2007 win – where he struggled under braking all weekend – was his acceptance that he would not beat Hamilton on pace and the strategy that he built around that. Hamilton’s swashbuckling style probably leaves less energy for mental performance than normal in Monaco, which may hinder the huge challenge of driving 78 laps with the intense concentration needed for inch perfect precision.

Monaco Records 2014Hamilton is not the only driver ruled out of contention by his record though. Jenson Button has the worst qualifying record of all the contenders, with 30.76%, and has beaten his teammate in less than 50% of the races. Sebastian Vettel, like Hamilton has seen his teammate win the race more times than he and has records that are completely anomalous in comparison with his overall averages. He has outqualified and outraced his teammates only 42.85% of the time, compared with 70.5% and 63.44% everywhere else. Raikkonen has failed to dominate his teammates here too with only narrow margins over them in both qualifying and the races (58.33% and 66.6% respectively). That leaves only Rosberg and Alonso, joint leaders on the current grid in terms of Monaco wins, in the running.

Alonso, who is underrated on the streets of the principality, has the best record of all the drivers. He has been outqualified only twice there, both times by Monaco specialist Jarno Trulli, and has also been beaten only twice in the race, once by Trulli, who won it in 2004 and by Massa, who he finished right behind, despite starting the race from the pitlane in 2010. That means his percentage record against his teammates is amazing – he is third behind Schumacher and Senna in qualifying with 83.3% and is the leading driver in the races with 84.61%.

The statistics are backed up by some mighty performances there in recent years. It is said that Monaco is a track where a driver’s skill and bravery can make up for the inadequacies of his car, and that would explain why he came so close to winning it in some pretty poor Ferraris. He was unfortunate not to win in 2011, and had the speed and durability on the super soft tyre to leap frog Rosberg and Mark Webber in 2012, but the approaching rain and Ferrari’s conservatism cost him the chance to go for it.

Most disappointing was 2010 where he looked inspired during FP1 and 2 and seemed to have carried that form into Saturday, until he crunched the Armco at Massenet during FP3. He was unlucky that what looked like a fairly innocuous crash irreparably damaged his Ferrari F10’s tub and caused him to miss qualifying while a new car was built up. This was truly the one that got away – his Senna 1988 moment – where the speed was coming so naturally that he relaxed and hit the wall. Had he taken part in qualifying few would have betted against and an Alonso pole and win.

That said, Alonso has been guilty of some pretty ordinary drives there too, most recently in 2013 where he was slow and too easy a victim for Adrian Sutil and Jenson Button at the Hotel Hairpin. He was completely overshadowed by Trulli in 2004 where he crashed out of the race and made multiple mistakes in 2008 which cost him the strong result his pace in the wet promised. Can a Monaco Master really have so many blots on his copybook?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

His coronation awaits. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Rosberg, who like Alonso has won the race twice, has made less mistakes than Alonso there which perhaps makes up for his slightly underwhelming qualifying record of 60%. His race record is much stronger – he is second to Alonso at 83.3% – and since finding himself in a moderately competitive car for the first time in 2012, has always been a race day protagonist. While his second win was controversial, beating a driver of Hamilton’s calibre two years in a row – a feat that Button could not match – is a worthy achievement.

If not a Monaco Master, he is definitely a track specialist who has the potential to become a master. To properly fit the criteria for coronation as Monaco Master, I think a driver needs to ascend the level of double Monaco winner and become a multiple winner. Winning again this season would put Rosberg into that category and beating Hamilton for a third year in a row would be another impressive item for his CV. The throne is currently unoccupied so if Rosberg is the first man across the line this Sunday then we can officially crown him F1’s modern day Monaco Master.

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