Ricciardo vs Hamilton and the fine margins of motorsport

In Spain, Mercedes’ mistake afforded Red Bull the opportunity to snatch victory. Just two weeks later it was Red Bull who, having dominated the weekend, made a costly error to allow Lewis Hamilton the opportunity to take his 44th race win.

Such is the speed at which fortunes can change in motorsport, pole sitter Daniel Ricciardo saw his maiden win at the Principality slip away, when a miscommunication between pit wall and garage saw him arrive in his pit-box, while his mechanics were still fumbling over which compound of slick tyres to fit.

Elation on Saturday became heartbreak on Sunday for the Aussie.

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Image Credit: Rachel Clarke (via Flickr) [CC-BY-NC-2.0]

Ricciardo’s disgruntlement with the team was both understandable and evident after the conclusion of the race. His pace in the opening laps while running on the extreme wet tyres was phenomenal. While his 13 second lead was exaggerated by Nico Rosberg’s struggles in second, (which were poignantly evidenced when Hamilton was released and subsequently matched the leader,) Ricciardo clearly had the race pace to back up his excellent qualifying form.

However, having the speed is one thing, but as Hamilton would testify following last year’s race, track position at Monaco is king. The golden rule is that once you have it, hold it. Ricciardo’s race had already taken a slightly odd twist when he entered the pits to switch to the intermediate tyre, while Hamilton stayed out on wets. Given that by this point, Hamilton was realistically his only threat for victory, mirroring his strategy and maintaining track position surely made more sense.

Making strategic calls in mixed conditions is notoriously difficult though. Just ask Jenson Button, whose race hinged on two pit-stops which were both made one lap prematurely. As such, critisising Red Bull for their intermediate call does boarder on harsh. It was the botched pit-stop as Ricciardo switched to the slick tyres which ultimately cost him the race.

It meant that he ceded track position to Hamilton once again. The Briton was solid in his defense against the Red Bull, consistently covering the inside line into the Nouvelle Chicane. This was crucial as Ricciardo is one of few racers who you would expect to both commit to an overtake at Monaco and, given his track record, would most likely make a move stick.

As such, the only element of jeopardy for Hamilton was now making his set of ultrasoft tyres last the 47 laps required. Numerous Virtual Safety Car stints failed to make his job any easier as while it allowed him to preserve his rubber, the softest compound was difficult to switch on when the race resumed, particularly for Mercedes.

It was precisely why the likes of Sergio Perez and Sebastian Vettel set fastest laps just after the restarts, as their harder tyres were back in the optimal window much sooner. Ricciardo acknowledged that restarts were his best chance to steal back the win, but Hamilton was just too strong in defense.

Ricciardo was the faster of the two on the day and had he maintained track position, would have won at a canter. This weekend has served to highlight that he has now elevated himself to elite driver status in the sport. But for the 13 seconds lost in the pits, Ricciardo would be a Monaco Grand Prix winner.

Take nothing away from Hamilton though. The Englishman faced extreme pressure throughout the race, juggling the challenges of stretching the tyre life into uncharted territory while defending against one of F1’s hardest chargers. All while knowing that this race presented him with an opportunity to reduce Rosberg’s title advantage, with his teammate mired in traffic. One of his best victories and one that champions are made of.

This was a brilliant duel between two of F1’s most exciting drivers. The sport was the real winner as 2016 continues to deliver some thrilling action, hopefully set to erode the negativity which has been developing of late.

 

 

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