Monaco GP data: Mercedes ‘survival’ strategy conditioned by Alonso’s traffic denies fight for the win

Pablo Hidalgo
Cars follow the Mercedes of George Russell at the 2024 Monaco Grand Prix.

Cars follow the Mercedes of George Russell.

The Monaco GP race has left us with few headlines beyond those we had in qualifying. Almost all predictions came true and an early red flag prevented us from seeing the pit stop game that could have added spice to the battle for victory.

The red flag at the start of the GP, caused by Kevin Magnussen’s accident with Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg, meant that all drivers were able to change tyres ‘for free’ in the pitlane before the restart to save them from doing their compulsory pitstop while in action.

Fernando Alonso costs George Russell at critical moment

At a track like Monaco where degradation is very low coupled with an extremely slow race pace to manage the tyres, the teams knew that the main target was to reach the end of the race with the same tyres after 77 laps and stopping was not an option.

In this scenario, Charles Leclerc, Oscar Piastri, Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris were on the hard tyre after the red flag. Behind them, George Russell, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were on the medium tyre. Immediately behind, Yuki Tsunoda and Alex Albon on the hard tyre and closing the top 10, Pierre Gasly on the medium tyre.

This forced the drivers on the medium tyre and Tsunoda on the hard, but in a very valuable P8 for his team, to run at an incredibly low pace to secure track position and keep the tyres alive for the long 78 laps of the race. The pace at the front of the field was also very low, as Leclerc leading the pack was also benefiting from tyre management.

However, Russell’s pace was incredibly slower than the race leader’s and after just 20 laps the gap to Norris in P4 was already 12 seconds. And Tsunoda almost nine seconds behind Lewis Hamilton, looking to secure P8 rather than attack Mercedes.

This race situation opened up two scenarios. The first: the possibility of a free stop for the top four thanks to an obvious but insufficient margin between Russell and Norris. And the second: the possibility of a free stop for the chasing group formed by Russell, Verstappen and Hamilton thanks to the gap with Tsunoda.

The first of these scenarios was avoided by Ferrari. Leclerc at the front controlled the pace of the top four to his liking and prevented the pace from being much higher than that of the chasing group. The Italian team was not interested in pushing for two reasons: to keep the tyres alive for the whole race and to not give away a free pit stop to McLaren that could have put them in trouble.

The second was out of Ferrari’s control and it materialised. By lap 35, the gap between Hamilton and Tsunoda was already over 23 seconds and the Mercedes driver had a free pit stop. But Hamilton was still a little too far behind Verstappen to try to attack with the undercut and there were still many laps to go before he could comfortably hold on with a new set of tyres.

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But Hamilton was still a little too far behind Verstappen to try to attack with the undercut and there were still many laps to go to fit a new set of tyres for the remainder of the race.

On lap 52, with more than 45 seconds over Tsunoda and just +1.5s behind Verstappen, Mercedes launched an attack on Red Bull


However, the undercut was unsatisfactory as Red Bull stopped Verstappen on the next lap to protect the position and Hamilton’s outlap was not good enough to cut that second and a half off the Dutchman.

Hamilton radioed the team: “Why didn’t you tell me outlap was critical?” A message that leaves a lot to be desired from a seven-time World Champion who himself should have had the guile to push after the stop and, even more so, the ability to interpret the race situation.

Verstappen’s defence against Hamilton’s attack involved a chain reaction in which Russell was now threatened by Red Bull’s undercut. Mercedes could not protect Russell’s position by stopping him as George’s ‘theoretical’ inlap was extremely bad. But this was not Russell’s fault.

The Mercedes driver was very unlucky and was held up in traffic by Fernando Alonso for the whole of Sector 1 and most part of Sector 2. The Spaniard, who was defending also from Daniel Ricciardo on track, let Russell through at the Nouvelle Chicane at the exit of the tunnel on Lap 54.

This situation cost him more than two seconds with respect to his previous lap: from a 1:18.602 to a 1:20.891 at a very critical moment. It was too late for Mercedes to protect from Verstappen’s attack.

Therefore, Mercedes decided to keep him on track on 53 laps older tyres to try and make it to the end with Verstappen in the hunt. No doubt, a totally necessary move to prevent Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton from gaining track positions to Russell in what has been a ‘survival’ strategy.

It is true that Mercedes had managed the mediums very well during the first 40 laps and it is clear that Russell’s final pace was very surprising, even dropping from 17s to 4.7s gap to Norris in P4. This was also helped by the drastic drop in Oscar Piastri’s pace, who ended up suffering with Carlos Sainz and Norris himself tasting P2.

This ‘survival’ strategy, conditioned by the traffic, worked in the end to secure P5 and P7. But, without Alonso’s traffic and a good -not necessarily perfect- inlap, Mercedes would have stopped Russell – and without making mistakes at the pitstop – they could have also secured his P5 even more safely, due to the equal tyre life conditions with Verstappen for the remainder of the race.

What’s more, Russell’s stop would have meant that Lando Norris would have had a free stop to attempt an attack on Carlos Sainz for P3. This would have kept the chain reaction going and we could have seen a nice set of stops and threats for the fight for the win with the Top 4 compacted into a mere 3.5s gap.

With a bit more fortune for Russell and Mercedes, Charles Leclerc’s victory would not have been as comfortable and Norris would certainly have been in a great position to snatch the podium from Carlos Sainz because he was barely a second behind just when Russell should have stopped to protect himself.

Also, stopping Russell would have opened up more opportunities for Mercedes to try and fight for the podium: McLaren and Ferrari making contact as in Lap 1, any driver error under pressure or with cold tyres after their pitstop…. The Silver Arrows had no chance of any of these events happening.

‘Survival’ strategy worked for Mercedes, and even this traffic eventuality could have opened another door for them: it was so obvious that they had to stop to cover from Verstappen’s undercut that McLaren could have forgotten about Russell’s on-track situation to make a surprise attack with Norris on Sainz on the same lap that the Mercedes driver was due to stop.

If McLaren had played these cards without being aware of Russell’s track position, they could have put P4 at risk, as although Russell had lost time behind Alonso, it had not been enough to open up the free stop gap for Norris.

But, in the papaya wall they were alert enough to avoid any undesired scenarios and had to be content with not attacking Ferrari from the wall, although they would have liked to have had the opportunity to at least try.

As a final conclusion: the Monaco race would have given us a vibrant fight for the win and the order of the Top 4 could have been altered if Mercedes could have made their stop with Russell comfortably. And furthermore, the Silver Arrows could have ensured a level playing field with Verstappen to avoid the Dutch driver’s offensive stint.

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