Monaco isn't often an event that provides a vast amount of excitement as far as the racing goes. The streets of Monte Carlo might be awash with glamour and glitz but for the most part the F1 cars end up trailing around nose-to-tail in a less than spectacular procession. Sure, there's bound to be someone who stuffs it in the barrier but generally speaking it's not a thrill a minute. Isn't it amazing how much a bit of rain can liven things up?
For some, fortune and misfortune were interchangeable at Monaco last weekend. Normally clouting the barrier would signal a driver spending the rest of the afternoon trailing round at the back of the pack, if not ending his race entirely. Yet for McLaren's Lewis Hamilton it ultimately played into his hands and gave him the victory. Monaco is often described as a McLaren track but the Silver Arrows were initially on the back foot.
Felipe Massa's pole position was obviously as much a surprise to the Ferrari man as it was to everyone else -- and judging by the dour expressions of Hamilton and Massa's teammate Kimi Raikkonen in the post-qualifying press conference it was an unpleasant one at that. But Massa's genuine delight was hard for most people to begrudge; the Brazilian's enthusiastic style is not suited to Monaco's tight confines and he readily admits it's not one of his favourite places.
In dry conditions it should have been Massa's race, but while the Principality deigned to grant him pole it wasn't about make it easy. Rain on race day was a novelty the beautiful people didn't welcome and the drivers weren't too thrilled either. Lack of traction control promised to make negotiating the streets a tricky job even for the experienced campaigners, so the addition of rain made it all the more unpredictable.
Massa had no problems off the line and while Hamilton took advantage of the slow-starting Raikkonen he bided his time rather than challenge the leader too soon. There were a few errant front wings in the opening laps and Hamilton was the first of the front runners to get too cosy with the barriers, earning himself a puncture and a trip to the pits. But it was far from over; due to the conditions the pace was very slow and the McLaren only lost a couple of places.
Renault's Fernando Alonso had a similar mishap and took the opportunity to switch to full wet tyres, which was a good and bad move. Good because it gave him loads more grip than everyone on inters but bad because it ultimately made him impatient with slower cars in front. You could see the Spaniard's frustrated, doomed attempt up the inside of Nick Heidfeld's BMW Sauber at the hairpin coming a mile away.
They both escaped but it was effectively game over for them, ultimately relegated to scrapping outside the points. Meanwhile, David Coulthard and Sebastian Bourdais had crashed in tandem and Raikkonen had been given a drive through penalty for Ferrari fiddling about with his tyres too long on the grid. The reds' misfortune continued as Massa skidded off at the first corner, allowing BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica to take the lead.
Massa was one of the few either skilled enough or lucky enough -- take your pick -- to avoid hitting anything and scrambled back into the action behind Kubica, with Hamilton then up to third. The rain eased and a dry line started appearing: the lap times came down and soon it would be time to decide which tyres were going to be the right choice. Elsewhere, almost unnoticed, Force India's Adrian Sutil was climbing the field.
Things quietened down a little, interrupted only by Timo Glock spreading Toyota debris at Mirabeau when he bopped the wall. Massa and Kubica pitted to leave Hamilton in the lead and Alonso took an early chance on dry tyres -- with further rain predicted. Renault teammate Nelson A. Piquet followed suit and was almost immediately off-track. Piquet's inexperience or a bad call by Renault to put a rookie on dry tyres on a damp track at Monaco? Hmm….
Nico Rosberg disturbed the comparative calm when he hurled his Williams into the wall at the swimming pool and bought out the safety car. Thankfully Rosberg was unharmed but it meant that the advantage leader Hamilton had built up was negated going into the closing stages. Would it matter? After all, Kubica, who had nabbed second from Massa in the pit stops, wouldn't have had an easy job getting past a McLaren anyway, never mind on the Monte Carlo streets.
This time around Monaco produced more sharp intakes of breath and nail biting moments than usual but perhaps the biggest tragedy of all happened with just a handful of laps to go -- or in this case about 12 minutes as by then, due to the delays, it was a time countdown not a lap countdown. Sutil, remarkably and commendably, had kept his head, kept out of the barriers and was running fourth, in line for a bundle of points for Force India.
At the final restart he had Raikkonen behind him, surely not a situation any driver would particularly want to be in, even with Monaco's almost complete lack of overtaking opportunities. But Sutil could have held the place; he'd previously notched up a fastest lap of the race and had already done a much better job of keeping it together than some of his allegedly superior competitors. But we never got to find out.
Coming out of the tunnel, Raikkonen's Ferrari turned into a random missile, snapping first one way and then the other as he lost control under braking. The Finn fought to hold it -- and it has to be said that he did a bloody good job of not ending up spectacularly squashed against the wall -- but by the time he had just about reigned it in he was going too fast to avoid Sutil and rear-ended the Force India at the chicane.
Sutil was out of the race and in tears of disbelief and disappointment, which was not surprising. To finish fourth anywhere would have been outstanding for Sutil and Force India and to do it at Monaco would have been a dream. Raikkonen, who went on to at least finish, albeit outside the points, apologised afterwards but said there was simply nothing he could do to avoid Sutil. It took just a second or two to shatter the dream.
Hamilton, meanwhile, winged his way to his first Monaco victory with a slightly surprised Kubica second and a rather disappointed Massa third. Yet despite the result it's arguable that it could be called a definitive McLaren triumph, all things considered. The rain, safety cars and luck had major parts to play as much as good driving and strategy and with all that going on it's not easy to see a clear picture of who is the dominant force.
Ferrari had the upper hand in qualifying and without Massa's off and Raikkonen's penalty who knows what might have happened. Equally we could say it might have been a different picture if Heikki Kovalainen's McLaren, which lined up fourth at the start, hadn't stalled on the grid. With any race there are usually ifs and buts to look at with hindsight but ultimately it doesn't matter -- this time Hamilton made it work while Ferrari stumbled.
It will give Hamilton a lot of confidence heading to Canada, where he took his maiden F1 win last season, but one can't help but think that Ferrari may still have the edge. After all, the Scuderia has won four of six races so far, which is a more consistent effort than McLaren. Hamilton shone at Monaco but since his win in the season-opener at Melbourne had been falling short of his dazzling performances of 2007.
While those three drivers, with two wins each apiece, make up the top of the standings, Kubica, without a victory to his name, is only two points behind Massa and six behind leader Hamilton. Heidfeld might have had the weekend from hell in Monaco but overall BMW is not giving Ferrari and McLaren any leeway, so a scarlet or silver car winning in Canada is not a foregone conclusion.
Of course, nothing in F1 is a foregone conclusion -- Monaco reminded us just how quickly things can change and even how bad luck might not turn out be so bad after all. Hamilton apologised on the radio to his team for hitting the wall but if not for that incident he might never have won. But any driver who bounced back from the Monaco barriers was lucky to get away with it; Circuit Gilles Villeneuve's Wall of Champions might not be so forgiving.