Max Verstappen claimed his fourth victory in six races at the Monaco Grand Prix to take full control of the 2023 Formula 1 title race.
The Red Bull driver overcame a mid-race downpour to see off Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, slightly disappointed to finish second having targeted the win in Monte Carlo, with Esteban Ocon completing the podium with a timely third place for Alpine.
Here are our conclusions from Monaco…
Max takes one of the all-time great Monaco victories
What it is about prodigiously talented people?
They have a way of describing what they do, and how they do it, that makes their incredible gifts and amazing feats sound like the most simple and natural things in the world.
Take Max Verstappen, whose reaction upon crossing the line at the end of both qualifying and the race in Monaco consisted of those two favourite words of his: “Very lovely.”
Understatement of the year? Anyone who witnessed his performance at the 2023 Monaco Grand Prix will recall it as way more impressive than that.
Despite Verstappen’s status as the first test-tube F1 driver, the son of two former racers, it is said that the differences between the best in sport are not found in the area of natural talent.
Instead, it is about mentality – essentially how an athlete’s technique, refined by years upon years of practice, holds up under the most extreme pressure.
It soon became evident during Verstappen’s earliest years – as long ago as when he took his first F1 win in Barcelona in 2016 while shadowed by two World Champions, and certainly in the key moments of his maiden title-winning season against Lewis Hamilton in 2021 – that he has a rare resistance to pressure that comes close to near-total immunity.
It is by far his biggest asset over his opposition and was at the root of everything good he did in Monte Carlo this weekend.
There was no better expression of a racing driver’s technique holding up under pressure than Verstappen’s final sector on his last Q3 lap, with complete faith in his ability to skim the walls to perfection and aim for the apex barriers at the Swimming Pool, Rascasse and Antony Noghes, trusting the momentum he was carrying to just guide him past them.
Even had his subsequent victory been a straightforward lights-to-flag affair and not the tense, rain-affected thriller it eventually developed into, it would still have been regarded as one of the great Monaco victories based on that pole lap and the circumstances behind it – overcoming a three-tenth deficit to Alonso in just a small selection of corners – alone.
If Ayrton Senna relied on his raw speed and team building was Michael Schumacher’s defining quality, Verstappen’s greatest strength is his stillness under pressure.
Alonso and Aston Martin’s moment will come
Was there a hint of disappointment at the end of the race at Aston Martin, Alonso this time not throwing himself into the arms of his team in the parc ferme celebrations as had become commonplace in early 2023?
Instead with his helmet already removed, he quietly made his way along the line of mechanics in the background of Verstappen’s victory interview, no doubt already reflecting on an opportunity missed.
Having seen the 10th anniversary of his last F1 victory pass in the time since the last race in Miami, Alonso had told anyone who would listen in the weeks leading up to Monaco that this was a key chance to win again.
The Aston Martin’s strong slow-corner performance, combined with the Monaco layout rendering Red Bull’s straight-line advantage meaningless, seemed to set the stage for him to take the fight to Verstappen.
All very well – but wasn’t everyone overlooking quite a crucial factor here?
Even at his peak, after all, Alonso was not exactly renowned for his blistering pace over a single lap.
And at a circuit where qualifying is pivotal, grid position so important, was there a danger that time would be left on the table, that he – without a pole position in the dry since 2010 – might actually cost Aston the starting place the car’s pace potentially merited?
In that context, and ahead of more opportunities to come later in the season, Alonso’s performance in qualifying was the most instructive measure of his weekend – proof beyond any doubt that there is plenty of raw lap time in the ol’ dog yet.
Much was made of his poor time in the third sector – Alonso’s 19.109s in Q3 was the joint-worst S3 time of the top 10 alongside that of George Russell – but this was the one part of the lap in which the Aston struggled all weekend.
And Verstappen being forced to dig deeper than he possibly ever before by a competitor at the climax of qualifying – even more so, maybe, than at Jeddah in 2021 – was a tribute to just how hard he had been pushed by Alonso.
Starting on the hards as Verstappen elected for mediums, Alonso and Aston Martin were committed to going aggressive yet it was a shame that stance deserted them at the point they needed it most.
The arrival of rain, creating a choice between slicks and intermediates, felt like the kind of fork-in-the-road moment Alonso and Aston had been waiting for all day – an opportunity to say yea as Red Bull said nay and apply serious pressure.
Instead, they let them off the hook.
It may not have cost them the win ultimately, but the move to pit for mediums before returning for inters a lap later hinted at the road Aston Martin, for all the progress they have made in a remarkably short space of time, still have to travel as a team.
Lawrence Stroll may have spent a lot of money on signing Red Bull employees and all their Red Bull ideas to build a car capable of challenging Red Bull in the right circumstances, but that sixth sense common among F1’s greatest teams in the pivotal high-pressure moments?
That ability to put a finger in the air, feel the way the wind is blowing and know instinctively which decision is the right one to take when a race is on the line? That’s priceless.
With Alonso’s guidance, it will come to this team in time.
Ocon podium should keep Alpine’s interfering boss quiet for a while
There are few things worse in sport than an interfering boss.
Their public pronouncements are often as unhelpful as they are unwanted, discourage free and creative thinking and give rise to a culture of self-preservation.
It never ends well, but there are times when those in the boardroom just cannot help themselves.
So it was, perhaps, for Alpine chief executive Laurent Rossi who – having witnessed his drivers crash and lose a strong result in Australia and experience several other calamities from Bahrain to Baku – decided to let the team have it ahead of the last race in Miami.
He spoke of a “flawed performance and flawed delivery” with Alpine “amateurish” at times and openly cast doubt over the future of team principal Otmar Szafnauer, a man he’d only quite recently described as one of his greatest-ever hires.
How, Rossi must have wondered, had Aston Martin – three places and 118 points behind Alpine in the 2022 standings – made such a leap up the field while his own team remain mired in the midfield?
Presumably, with Alonso now long gone, nobody had the heart to point out to him that Aston have shown more ambition in the last six months alone than Alpine have in the seven years since Renault retook control of the Enstone team…
It is through the prism of Rossi’s recent criticism that Esteban Ocon’s third-place finish in Monaco – achieved after he emerged as an unexpected contender for pole position on Saturday – must be viewed.
In the space of one weekend, the team went from clowns to kings, the added six points for Pierre Gasly’s P7 finish opening a healthy 18-point gap to McLaren in the fight for fifth.
And, just like that, Alpine’s season doesn’t seem quite so bad after all. A reminder to Mr Rossi, maybe, to keep calm and trust the process…
Mercedes need a lot more than this
Yes, we know Monaco is not a great place to bring upgrades and an even worse place to judge them, but the first impressions delivered by some trained technical eyes on the new-look Mercedes in Monaco were revealing.
‘Half-hearted’ and ‘hardly game-changing’ were among the initial verdicts as some doubted just how sincerely the team – having committed to making sweeping changes to the W14 straight after the opening qualifying session of the season in Bahrain – believe their new direction to be the right one.
And certainly, when Lewis Hamilton and George Russell qualified sixth and eighth on Saturday, five and seven tenths off pole position respectively, the thought occurred that the result wouldn’t have been much different with the zero-pod car.
Yet, of course, this heavily revised chassis – using the original tub designed around the former concept – retains traces of zero-pod DNA.
Any attempt to pursue a new development direction during the existing season was always going to be constrained by that limitation, which makes it all the more incredible that Mercedes – restricted to just a single win in 2022 – chose to ignore all the signs pointing towards a fresh start last winter.
That, surely, was the time to enforce serious change.
The new package will be optimised over the coming weeks, no doubt, but what we see now amounts to no more than papering over the cracks.
Sergio Perez: From the sublime to the ridiculous
Who’s to know which Sergio Perez will turn up at any given race in 2023?
The gritty, inspired potential World Champion who can go head to head, eye to eye, toe to toe with Verstappen and win? Or the impatient, error-prone number two reminiscent of Mercedes-era Valtteri Bottas on a bad day?
There is not much in between.
Both of his victories so far this season were noted for their similarities, Perez benefiting from a slice of luck – a driveshaft failure for Verstappen in Saudi Arabia and a well-timed Safety Car in Azerbaijan – and then maximising it by defeating his team-mate in a straight fight of tyre management.
Yet for every Jeddah or Baku, there is a Melbourne or Monaco – each of Perez’s off-weekends following a remarkably similar pattern too.
In one of the most dominant cars F1 has seen, one still on course to win every grand prix this season, failing to make it past the first stage of qualifying should be considered an achievement of sorts yet Perez has now done it twice at the first six races.
He was fortunate to come away with fifth in Australia, a beneficiary of the highly controversial and chaotic restarts, but was not so lucky here after a crazy misjudgement in the early minutes of qualifying saw him bounce off the wall at Ste Devote.
That mistake condemned him to a miserable race in which he was lapped twice by Verstappen, whom he now trails by 39 points having been six behind after Baku.
Title race over?
How bold of you to have assumed one even existed in 2023.