IN TARGET shooting, a near miss is better than a near hit.
Racing through the streets of Monaco, however, requires an inverted equation. You’d rather have a near hit than a near miss.
Under discussion are the track’s Armco barrier guard rails. With the faintest of touches, Lady Luck might merely smile and let you move on. But if you whack those barriers, catastrophe awaits.
Ask Sergio Pérez. During Monaco qualifying a week ago, the 33-year-old Mexican carried cheetah speed into the Sainte Dévote corner, only to cheat himself.
The Red Bull’s rear let go and wham it went, clouting the barrier so hard that protective TecPro guard rail foam sprayed like confetti all over the place. The car’s rear end bounced back onto the track forcefully enough to counterspin the nose into the barrier as well.
Once the dust — or confetti — had settled, we were left with a severely wounded Red Bull motionless in the middle of the track, the left hind leg ripped off its body and the left front hoof hovering around with a headache of its own.
Pérez had managed to sink his chances of winning the race at the same rate as a Mafia victim accompanying a block of concrete into deep waters. At least Pérez didn’t end up in Monaco’s harbour like Alberto Ascari in 1955 and Paul Hawkins a decade later.
Sergio’s problem, though, was relegation to dead last on the grid, while his teammate and title foe — a precocious youngster called Max Emilian Verstappen — would start from pole.
Max of Orange
Maximum Max is the reigning F1 world champion, having won the title in 2021 as well. He was born in Belgium but races under the Dutch flag. In popular culture, Max of Orange has thus replaced William of Orange as Holland’s hero.
Verstappen’s dad is ex-F1 racer Jos the Boss. His mom is Sophie Kumpen, who won Belgium’s national go-kart championship twice. His girlfriend is Kelly Piquet, daughter of triple F1 champion Nelson.
Max started racing go-karts at the age of four and became world champion at 15. Three days after he turned 17, he became the youngest yet to compete in an F1 Grand Prix, and at 18 and a bit the youngest yet to win a GP.
He is as comfortable in a race car as a feathered one in a flock. At a guess, his favourite drink is probably champagne, judging by the number of times he has enjoyed it on the top step of the podium, as he did again in Monaco after his 39th F1 victory.
Easy it was not. Qualifying was a tense affair and the race itself was complicated by rain. Verstappen nearly missed the barriers on a couple of occasions, when the aim is always just to shave them, as Ayrton Senna used to manage so masterfully.
King of Monaco
In the course of his brilliant career, the great Brazilian bagged a record six victories in Monaco. It should have been seven, but in 1988 Senna lost concentration a couple of laps from the end, having led Alain Prost, also in a McLaren, by nearly a minute. At the Portier corner, the greatest driver yet clouted the Armco.
A trailer for the Senna documentary.
I guess one can view it as the exception proving the rule. Senna was the king of Monaco and highlights abound. Right at the top is probably his stupendous qualifying lap in 1988 when he was 1.4 seconds quicker than teammate Prost, a four-time world champion.
Or watch the video above to see for yourself what it was like to race a bucking, shaking, bouncing bronco flat out down a tunnel of tightly barriered streets with your left hand on the steering wheel, the right hand changing gears and an engine howling mercilessly behind your back.
Or stop any number of Senna videos as the Brazilian enters and exits Monaco’s swimming pool complex. The margin he leaves for a near hit is negligible.
Last week, Verstappen went one better in qualifying, effecting a near miss by ripping a piece of rubber out of his right front as he exited the pool complex.
At the end of sector two, see, Maximum Max lagged Fernando Alonso’s time by two-tenths of a second.
To clinch pole, he had to nix the deficit in sector three. The Flying Dutchman went hell for leather, throwing caution to the wind. Polishing the pool barrier with his right front probably effected the crucial gain in pilfering pole from a hapless Spaniard. The margin was 0.084 seconds.
From there, Max needed a good getaway, relentless concentration and clear tactical thinking to clinch victory.
The possibility of rain later in the race compelled him to extend his opening stint on medium rubber to beyond the optimal wear and tear possibilities of the Pirelli tyre, leading to two glancing brushes with the ever-present Armco.
Driving so quickly on well-worn tyres was a tour de force from Verstappen, and it saved him from a crippling second stop for rain boots once the heavens opened.
Alonso was less lucky and had to pit twice in short succession, effectively handing victory to his Dutch rival.
The Old Bull
Fernando nevertheless finished second in his Aston Martin, and it is simply lovely to see the enthusiasm with which the old Spanish bull, soon to turn 42, approaches his racing nowadays.
Esteban Ocon also had a surprisingly strong outing in the Alpine, fending off Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes for third. Using appearance as a metric, one would not describe the tall, lean Frenchman as a bull. But mentally, he is as tough as nails and as resilient as an ox, forever prepared to defend robustly.
Hamilton thus wisely settled for fourth, followed home by teammate George Russell, both upgraded Mercs having been strong enough to handle the Ferraris at Monaco.
The real test, however, will start from today when the Spanish Grand Prix weekend begins at Montmeló’s Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Rest assured that 130,000 bullish fans will pack the circuit on Sunday, rooting for a near miss by their beloved old matador, which, translated, means Alonso will just manage to edge out the Red Bulls.
Even a near hit, though, will bless his fanatical compatriots with a healthy dose of delirium.
♦ VWB ♦
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