RBR and Verstappen arrived in Monte Carlo as favourites to win the Monaco Grand Prix, but not even they could have envisaged the damage they’d deal to Mercedes.
While Verstappen cruised to an easy victory last Sunday (May 23) after leading every lap, Lewis Hamilton struggled to seventh. The result was a dramatic swing in the championships standings, with Verstappen now leading Hamilton by four points and Red Bull Racing leading Mercedes by just one.
Strange though it may seem to say given the closeness of the tallies and the earliness of the season, this was a must-win race for Verstappen. The Dutchman has had a faster car for much of the year but has seen chances slip through his fingers through some on-track mistakes and poor strategy, while Mercedes has maximised its opportunities as it has learnt to unlock the latent pace of its capricious car.
The previous round, a dominant Hamilton win at the Spanish Grand Prix, suggested Mercedes was poised to stretch its championship advantage.
“I think they still have performance on us,” he opined to British TV at the previous race in Barcelona. “They’re just making a lot of mistakes.”
It was perhaps the first minor missive in a campaign sure to be fought as hard off the track as it is on it, and Hamilton fired another volley when F1 landed in Monaco in an attempt to dominate the psychological front and ratchet up the pressure.
“Perhaps, as you know, he feels that he has a lot to prove,” he said of Verstappen’s on-track aggression this season.
“But I am not necessarily in the same boat there, and I am more long term. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, sort of mentality, which is ultimately why I have the stats that I have.”
But stones are best not thrown in glass houses, and Hamilton’s weekend-long difficulties ensured his words rung hollow by Sunday evening.
Not only did the reigning champion struggle with his car’s propensity to underwork its tyres around the low-energy city streets, but his team seemingly ignored his suggestions to ameliorate his problems through set-up changes, leaving him seventh on the grid at a circuit around which overtaking is almost impossible.
His strategy was commensurately woeful, losing him two places he got back only due to the retirements of other drivers – one of which was teammate Valtteri Bottas, for whom the misapplication of a wheel gun blunted one of his wheel nuts, leaving his tyres unable to be changed in a bizarre turn of event.
The collapse was as spectacular as it was ironic, and after a serene cruise to victory, Verstappen’s post-race summation was blunt.
“Actions always speak louder than words,” he said. “I think that’s a good lesson after this weekend – you have to talk on the track.
“Yes, we as a team so far have made the smallest mistakes, and that’s why we are ahead. So I hope we can keep that going for the rest of the season.”
The Monaco Grand Prix is unlikely to prove a turning point in the title campaign. The circuit is the sport’s greatest outlier in terms of demands on the car, and Mercedes always bounces back strongly from these howler weekends it has an odd propensity to commit once or twice a year.
But it was a reminder that this championship is liable to be defined by a team and driver’s worst weekends as much as it is by moments of brilliance. Hamilton still has more wins, but Verstappen has yet to finish lower than second in 2021, and his mastery of his off days has won him a four-point advantage.
There’s still so long to go in this season of record-breaking length, but words will count for nothing at the end of it.