By sportswriter Michael Butterworth
BEIJING, May 26 — Lewis Hamilton withstood intense pressure from Max Verstappen to take a superb victory in Sunday’s Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix, despite suffering for many laps with badly worn tyres.
A safety car period early in the race prompted many drivers to stop for tyres, with Hamilton fitting softer compound rubber than the Dutchman and other leading runners.
However, despite repeatedly complaining to his team that his tyres were not going to last the full race distance, a combination of careful management and defensive driving ensured that the Briton ultimately secured the win on a track where overtaking is notoriously difficult.
At the start, Hamilton’s Mercedes led the field away from pole position, with teammate Valtteri Bottas slotting into second, ahead of Verstappen’s Red Bull and the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel.
The opening laps passed without much in the way of incident, but the race sprung into life on lap 10 when Vettel’s teammate Charles Leclerc damaged his car trying to overtake the Renault of Nico Hulkenberg.
Having started a lowly 15th after a strategic error by Ferrari in qualifying, the Monegasque was eager to make up places at his home race, but ended up tagging the inside wall at Rascasse and puncturing his right-rear tyre.
Unable to make his way back to the pits without leaving debris strewn across the track, the safety car was deployed, prompting the leading runners to make their mandatory pitstops on lap 12, sooner than they might have wanted.
A quick stop from the Red Bull pit crew resulted in Verstappen squeezing ahead of Bottas into second position, but the two cars touched as he did so, and the stewards slapped the Dutchman with a five second penalty for an unsafe release.
While Hamilton fitted medium tyres, Verstappen, Vettel and Bottas all opted for the more durable hard compound, and the Briton soon radioed his team expressing his doubts over whether his new rubber would last the race.
It did appear that Hamilton was on the wrong tyre, as Verstappen quickly closed on the Briton and spent the rest of the race looking for a way past, but Hamilton drew on all his experience to both prolong the lifespan of his increasingly worn tyres and prevent the Red Bull from finding a way past.
The tight confines of the Monaco street circuit make overtaking a more difficult proposition than at any other track on the F1 calendar, though Verstappen attempted an audacious lunge down the inside of Hamilton at the chicane on the penultimate lap.
The Red Bull’s front wing touched Hamilton’s left-rear tyre, but the Dutchman was slightly too far behind to make the move stick, and the Briton held his nerve and stayed ahead to take his fourth win in six races so far this season.
Despite finishing second on the road, Verstappen’s penalty saw him drop to fourth in the final classification, with Vettel moving up to second and Bottas taking third. Verstappen’s teammate Pierre Gasly set fastest lap on his way to fifth, with Carlos Sainz picking up some useful points for McLaren in sixth.
The Toro Rosso pair of Dany Kvyat and Alexander Albon finished seventh and eighth respectively, while the points positions were rounded out by the Renault of Daniel Ricciardo in ninth and Romain Grosjean’s Haas in tenth, with the unfortunate Leclerc the race’s only retirement.
“That was definitely the hardest race I’ve had,” said Hamilton afterwards. “I’ve not driven on such empty tyres since 2007, [but] I wasn’t going to come in [for a new set]. Ultimately it was the wrong tyre, but the team has done an incredible job and I’m so proud to be a part of it and I hope I can continue to do well.”
Hamilton also paid tribute to the late Niki Lauda, after the three-time F1 champion passed away earlier this week. “I was fighting with the spirit of Niki – he’s been such an influence in our team and I know he will be looking down and taking his hat off. I was trying to stay focused and make him proud. That’s been the goal all week and we truly miss him.”
The Briton’s win sees him extend his lead at the top of the 2019 F1 drivers’ championship to 137 points, with teammate Bottas second on 120, and Vettel leapfrogging Verstappen to sit third with 82 points. In the constructors’ championship, Mercedes are out in front on 257 points, some way ahead of Ferrari on 139, and Red Bull, who have 110.
The seventh round of the 2019 Formula 1 season is in Montreal, Canada, on June 9. – XINHUA