The suspicion on Sunday evening was that Sebastian Vettel's victory at the Monaco Grand Prix was as much engineered by the Ferrari pit wall as it was earned on track. There was no doubt the four-time champion had delivered a consummate performance, but was teammate Kimi Raikkonen's race compromised for his benefit?
Such hunches always warrant further investigation and can often be disregarded with a careful examination of the lap times. But at Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix it was hard to decipher the logic behind Raikkonen's strategy. Analysis of the lap times and positioning of the cars on track shows that Ferrari's strategists quite clearly disadvantaged Raikkonen compared to Vettel. The question is whether it was by mistake or by design.
With a tight championship battle brewing and team orders entirely legal under Formula One's sporting regulations, there is no reason why Ferrari shouldn't pursue a strategy to benefit Vettel. But in the aftermath of the race, the team denied that was its intention. Vettel said there had been no pre-race plan to switch the two drivers while team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said the backmarker traffic that ruined Raikkonen's afternoon had been nothing more than "unfortunate".
The golden rule of race strategy at Monte-Carlo is to remain flexible and avoid traffic. For all the performance advantage of a fresh set of tyres, it will all be lost if a driver has to spend a sector or two stuck behind a slower car.
The most remarkable thing about Raikkonen's pit stop on lap 34 was that it dropped him directly behind backmarkers Jenson Button and Pascal Wehrlein. Just seven laps earlier Raikkonen had struggled to lap the McLaren and Sauber with the help of blue flags, so why did Ferrari pit him in the knowledge he would be shuffled behind them once more?
Max Verstappen had pitted from fourth place on lap 32 in an attempt to use fresh tyres to undercut Valtteri Bottas in third. In response, Bottas entered the pits on lap 33 for a set of fresh tyres of his own and successfully returned to the track ahead of the Red Bull. With those two cars on new tyres there was a danger that if they started lighting up the timing screens then Ferrari's one-two victory could come under threat. If Bottas and Verstappen were able to lap quicker on their new tyres than Raikkonen and Vettel could manage at the front, Ferrari might find at least one of its cars, possibly two, behind Bottas when they returned to the track from their pit stops.
Covering a non-existent threat
But this is where Ferrari's strategy call becomes murky. Neither Verstappen nor Bottas showed particularly impressive pace on their new tyres and it would only be a couple of laps before they got bottled up behind Carlos Sainz, who had yet to pit in his Toro Rosso. Ferrari could argue that it wasn't worth the risk and that's why Raikkonen was told to come into the pits one lap after Bottas, but in his post-race quotes Arrivabene made no mention of the threat from Bottas and instead said Raikkonen pitted on a pre-planned lap.
Vettel did mention Bottas in the post-race press conference, claiming he was told that the Mercedes was lapping in the 1:16.1s. If that had been the case then Raikkonen's pit call would have been understandable, but the reality was that the Mercedes first four laps out of the pits were a 1:19.431, a 1:17.783, a 1:17.164 and a 1:18.914. At no point in the race -- even in the closing stages on low fuel -- did Bottas' lap times dip below a 1:16.5.
In the meantime, Raikkonen had been consistently in the low 1:17s ahead of his pit stop, with one scrappy lap on lap 32 where his time dropped to a 1:17.663. Perhaps it was that lap that convinced Ferrari to pit him from the lead, but on lap 33 he was back down to a 1:17.034 -- the sort of pace that could easily cover the threat from Bottas and Verstappen.
More significant for the lead battle was his pace in comparison to Button and Wehrlein. Since lapping Wehrlein seven laps earlier, Raikkonen had pulled a 17-second gap over the backmarker and with another three laps at that pace he would have easily had a 21-second gap over the backmarker. That number is significant because a pit stop costs roughly 21 seconds at Monaco and those three laps would have been enough to allow him to exit ahead of the Wehrlein/Button battle, comfortably ahead of Bottas and with free track ahead of him all the way to Daniel Ricciardo and Vettel. According to Pirelli, tyre degradation was not a major issue and Vettel later proved the ultra-soft compound could do 39 race laps without any problems.
It's incomprehensible that with all the GPS data at Ferrari's finger tips, the pit wall was unaware of Raikkonen's position relative to the backmarkers. Yet in bringing him in on lap 34 they not only dropped him behind Wehrlein but behind Button as well. It took Raikkonen his entire outlap to get back past and he recorded a 1:19.518 before dropping to a 1:16.114 when he had clear air on lap 36. Part of the reason lap 35 was slow was because the first sector included exiting the pits, but Verstappen -- driving a slower car -- had proved two laps earlier that an outlap in clear air could register in the 1:18.3s. Over the next two laps Raikkonen dipped into the 1:15s, suggesting his strategy of switching to the super-softs a few laps earlier would not have been so flawed without the lost time on his outlap.
Lap 34 to 39: where the race was won
If Ferrari had really been worried about the threat from Bottas they would have pitted Vettel the lap after Raikkonen, ensuring the German came out of the pits ahead of the Mercedes and in a safe second place. But now another potential threat was emerging from Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo, who had started setting low 1:16s in clear air. It was at this point that Vettel claims he got the message that Bottas was also in the 1:16s and so he started to push and set a series of increasingly quick laps, finally ending up in the low 1:15s.
Raikkonen wasn't hanging around either, but the disadvantage of the traffic on his outlap meant that at the end of lap 39 Vettel had the magic 21s gap over his teammate and pitted accordingly. Vettel had a stationary time 0.3s shorter than Raikkonen five laps earlier and exited the pits 1.115s ahead of his teammate at the first timing loop following Sainte Devote.
There's no doubting that Vettel's raw pace between Raikkonen's pit stop and his own had been impressive. On ultra-soft tyres with over 40 laps of use (including qualifying), he was able to set the times he needed to win. But to the watching world, Raikkonen had been fighting Vettel's attack with one hand tied behind his back. The timing of both pit stops smacked of favouritism.
Had Vettel been driving for a rival team, Raikkonen surely would have been allowed to stay out longer to build up the margin he needed over Wehrlein, and in the process he would have been able to control the pace of Vettel at a crucial point of the race. Looking at it that way, it's hard to say Raikkonen lost the Monaco Grand Prix on anything other than strategy. His pace in clear air was not a match for Vettel, but it wasn't bad either. The difference was track position and Raikkonen's was clearly sacrificed when he pitted from the lead.
Perhaps one of the biggest shocks after the race was that Raikkonen was not aware of the plan. There is a theory in the paddock that he has resigned himself to being Vettel's No.2, yet on the podium he looked every bit as angry as a driver should after having his first victory in four years whipped from underneath him. But Raikkonen is not the type to hold a grudge and if Vettel wins the drivers' championship by six points or less, one uncomfortable podium ceremony will be a very cheap price for Ferrari to pay. If there was any doubt before, Monaco confirmed that Vettel is the de facto No.1 driver in Maranello.