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2021 Monaco Grand Prix Sets Hearts Racing

It was not just the winding street circuit that provided some astonishing turns at the Monaco Grand Prix this weekend, but the action too.

Carlos Sainz, Max Verstappen and Lando Norris on the podium at the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix © F1 Facebook

Monaco might not be renowned for its race day excitement, but the 78th Grand Prix in the Principality delivered a thrilling spectacle this weekend. Beginning with the last-minute heartbreak of Monegasque home competitor Charles Leclerc who, after securing pole position on Saturday, could not start due to a mechanical fault, Sunday produced a series of surprising scenes. In the end, a tricolour podium elevated Red Bull’s Max Verstappen (1st), Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz (2nd) and McLaren’s Lando Norris (3rd) high above the Monegasque street circuit, while the black overalls of Mercedes were, unexpectedly, nowhere to be seen.

Lewis Hamilton shot into this weekend leading the drivers’ championship but came out in the dust. Originally a bookie’s favourite, with odds of 1/1 in some places, Hamilton suffered an uncharacteristically shocking Saturday afternoon qualifying session, taking 7th position and failing to improve on this in the race. It is only the second time since the start of the 2020 season that Hamilton has finished outside of the top 6. In an F1 interview after the race, Hamilton said, “I’m very upset about it. There will be some tough discussions I’ll have with my engineers, maybe after the weekend, as there are things that should have been done which haven’t been done. We’ll learn from it and come together stronger in the next race.”

Tipped to challenge Hamilton for the victory going into Monaco was ultimate winner Max Verstappen, racing in the sleek navy Red Bull. Verstappen had never stood on the Monegasque podium until this weekend, setting a new record for the fastest average speed in Monaco Grand Prix history at 157.833km/h. Speaking at the post-race press conference, Verstappen said, “It’s so special around here to win. Also, for me, the first time on the podium here. An amazing race. It’s a lot of laps around here and you really have to keep your focus but yeah, it’s really cool.” Given Hamilton’s poor performance, the Dutchman’s win has propelled him to the top of the drivers’ championship for the first time in his career. Combined with a superb race from his Mexican teammate Sergio Perez (4th), Red Bull have now overtaken Mercedes to lead the constructors’ championship by a single point.

Max Verstappen tops the F1 drivers' rankings for the first time © F1 Facebook

Mercedes’ leaden weekend didn’t just leave Hamilton grey-faced, either. Valtteri Bottas, who qualified 3rd on Saturday afternoon, was let down in the race by an egregious pit stop. While mechanics struggled to remove the front right wheel, then 2nd-place Bottas could do nothing but watch as the remaining sixteen cars zipped past, forcing the Finnish driver to retire for the second time this season. Team Principal Toto Wolff said, “We had a pretty terrible race day on Sunday, we had a lot of degradation with Valtteri, while still being in the hunt for the podium. Then we machined a wheel nut at the stop, which has never happened to that extent before, and he was forced to retire. With Lewis, we just didn’t have the pace in the car – it’s as simple as that. You have to take a weekend like this on the chin – today we lost a few points but this is a long championship, it is going to swing back and forth and in the end we will see in Abu Dhabi who has their nose ahead. We will regroup and look back, as much as it hurts, to learn the lessons and come back stronger.”

With Mercedes absent from the top spots, it was left to Carlos Sainz (Scuderia Ferrari) and Lando Norris (McLaren) to pick up the trophies for 2nd and 3rd respectively, dressing the podium in exactly the same colours as the Monaco Grand Prix ten years ago. It’s also the second-youngest podium in F1 history, with a 23-, 26- and 21-year-old on the three steps. Having famously developed a ‘bromance’ at McLaren before Sainz moved to Ferrari for the 2021 season, the Spaniard and the Briton delighted fans around the world in their champagne-spraying tomfoolery atop the Monaco podium – the first they have shared in their racing careers.

'Heartbreaking': Leclerc after being unable to start © Charles Leclerc Instagram

However, it was a bittersweet celebration for Ferrari as Sainz’s teammate Charles Leclerc was forced to watch the race from the pits after having initially qualified in pole position. Leclerc had his first taste of technical issues on Thursday morning, dropping out of the first practice after just a few laps with a gearbox problem. He redeemed himself later that day, though, finishing the second practice with the quickest time. But it was a crash into the barrier at the swimming pool exit right at the end of Saturday’s Q3 lap that scuppered the Monegasque’s chances of taking home his local trophy. A disheartened Leclerc told Sky Sports F1, “It’s a track that means something very special for me, I mean that’s for every driver whose race is at home, they want to do well, and I’ve never finished a race in Monaco. This year I start from pole and I don’t even start it so it’s a difficult one to take but it’s like this. I will have to go over it and push for better in the future.”

Moreover, Leclerc’s disappointing result just adds to a poor track record in his home country – he readily admits that he hasn’t had the best of luck in Monaco historically. “In the garage it was very, very difficult to feel okay,” he said. “But I guess now I’m getting used to this feeling here lately. I’ve never finished a race here and this year I don’t even start it from pole. It’s a difficult one to take but I also feel for the team, the mechanics have done such a hard job yesterday to check everything. It was a bit happier this morning to see everything seeming to be okay and the parts were fine, and then this happened. So it’s a shame for everyone.”

The good news is that there will be plenty more opportunities for the modest 23-year-old to succeed in his home race. The promise of Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and Max Verstappen suggests that Formula 1 is entering a new era where young drivers are rapidly gaining ground on, if not already overtaking, their more experienced colleagues. The Monaco Grand Prix in 2021 has shown us that motorsport’s biggest names – especially Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes – can never be too assured of their status as the ones to beat. We look forward to seeing whether the drivers and teams who suffered at Monaco can step it up a gear for the next race in Baku, Azerbaijan, in two weekends’ time.

- Georgina Findlay

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