Take out, take out! Did Mercedes endanger Charles Leclerc’s Monaco victory? The analysis

The 2024 Monaco GP was not a highlight for the spectators because it was one of the worst slow-moving races imaginable in Formula 1. But that actually seemed to bring strategic tension to the race. Because despite the almost impossible overtaking here, Ferrari was already sweating with fear long before the halfway point of the race. Did McLaren really turn down an opportunity created by Mercedes?

An extremely slow George Russell was constantly in danger of falling so far behind the Ferrari-McLaren leading quartet that Lando Norris could have stopped at one point without losing a place. “That could also endanger Charles,” warned Carlos Sainz early in the race. The Ferrari engineers fought to slow down their drivers – and thus the McLarens behind them – and prevent free stops. “The team just told me to take it out, take it out, take it out,” recalls race winner Charles Leclerc.

Slow Mercedes makes Ferrari’s Monaco GP extra difficult

Driving as slowly as Russell was almost a feat. Mercedes carried out massive tyre management for two thirds of the Grand Prix. Because of the cancellation at the start, it had to complete 76 laps on medium tyres. The leading group had the luxury of switching to hard tyres. The extreme nature of its management astonished even the competition.

“I didn’t really understand the Mercedes race,” said Red Bull team boss Christian Horner. In the final laps, Russell was able to increase the pace significantly. For Horner, this was proof that he had unnecessarily slowed down beforehand: “It was simply a very defeatist race, just to defend fifth place.”

From lap 20, Russell began to drop massively from the top four – Charles Leclerc, Oscar Piastri, Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris. The Ferrari stress now really began. Russell would soon be more than 20 seconds behind Norris. Then the McLaren could switch to fresh mediums in the second half of the race without losing any position. And Ferrari’s possible reactions were limited. Sainz had damaged his only set of mediums in a collision with Piastri at the start and only had softs left in the garage.

The cautious Carlos Sainz soon warned of the danger on the radio. Leclerc was not so enthusiastic about the idea. While Norris took it easy behind Sainz, Piastri had put pressure on in the first 20 laps. “I thought I was too far off the pace,” explains Leclerc. “I didn’t want Oscar to push again.” Because in that case he would have to quickly accelerate again himself. It’s difficult after several leisurely laps: “Then you don’t know where the braking points are. That’s where the mistakes happen.”

Leclerc struggles with Ferrari strategy – and does not want to take out

With the hesitant Leclerc, things became even more tricky for Sainz. He had to hold off Lando Norris, but also not lose contact with Leclerc and Piastri. If they drove too far away, Piastri would also have a free stop if a safety car was deployed. “It was frustrating for them,” admits Ferrari team boss Fred Vasseur. “They asked us to push several times, but that was not in our interest at all.”

Russell, who was still incredibly slow, and the simultaneous management of lapped traffic made the task almost impossible. On lap 54, the pit stop window was open for Norris. Then Max Verstappen relieved the Ferraris. He had just stopped and was now putting pressure on Russell, who was woken up and increased his pace. The window closed after one, maximum two laps. McLaren justified the decision not to take this opportunity by saying there was too little room for maneuver: one mistake and they would have come out behind Russell. And would it have been worth the risk?

Did McLaren miss the big opportunity with Norris?

Lance Stroll showed at the end with two overtaking maneuvers that overtaking was possible with a 3.5 second pace advantage. But the number is not the key. It’s about where it is obtained. The top drivers agree. They could have been 3.5 seconds faster at the start of the race. So why couldn’t Piastri overtake Norris? Because the advantage has to be a grip advantage. You have to get through the casino or the porter better to be able to sit next to him.

Leclerc drove three to four seconds slower than Piastri could at the beginning. But that was not due to a lack of grip. Leclerc could have gone faster too. He took his time by letting off the gas early before safe corners and interspersed long rolling phases. He kept the pace higher in the critical sections. He did this even more after Piastri’s hinted attack on the doorman. So the critical question is: were the Ferrari tires so worn down by the sustained pressure from Piastri and Norris that they no longer offered enough grip advantage against a McLaren with medium tires?

Ferrari has gigantic reserves in Monaco

Fortunately, there is actually an answer to that. When the Russell situation eased in the last third, Sainz tested the situation several times – caught up with Piastri, dropped back, and then caught up again. This resulted in four fast laps. These were comparable to Max Verstappen’s times when driving freely after his tire change. “That means we had a huge reserve because we didn’t push the tires at all,” concludes Fred Vasseur.

Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) leads after the restart ahead of Oscar Piastri (McLaren), Carlos Sainz (Ferrari), Lando Norris (McLaren)
The picture of the Monaco GP, photo: LAT Images

It was clear to McLaren that it would have been hopeless to use the pit stop window that opened on lap 54. “There was no chance that we would have gotten past Carlos even with fresh mediums,” said McLaren team boss Andrea Stella. In practice, the scenario was reflected further back with Russell and Verstappen.

As soon as Verstappen got new hard tires on lap 53, Russell showed how much he had saved. He had been driving consistently at 1:18 for laps, but now he was suddenly driving 1:17, then 1:16, then 1:15. Even when the road was clear, Verstappen was only a good two seconds faster. He caught up with him, but couldn’t get past him. With new medium or hard tires, the grip advantage was simply not enough due to the previously slow pace.

“We were more afraid of a potential safety car and soft tires at the end,” revealed Fred Vasseur. Then Norris could have switched to soft tires himself with 15 laps to go. But the now stressed Russell was closing in on the top four anyway. That, plus the last few laps that passed quickly, reduced the danger further and further – until finally only Leclerc himself could have given up the win.

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