What was behind F1’s “slower than F2” Monaco GP tactical pace

With overtaking near-impossible in Sunday’s race, and all cars getting their required tyre change in under the opening lap red flag, the only hope for some drivers to put real pressure on the car in front was to hope the required 19-second pitstop gap would open up behind them.

That would allow them to stop again for fresh tyres and either quickly close the gap themselves or hope for a safety car to do the job for them.

The first possibility opened up because Mercedes’ George Russell was very conservative trying to complete the race on medium tyres, leaving a growing gap to the fourth-placed McLaren of Lando Norris.

But Ferrari understood the danger, so it instructed Charles Leclerc to use his unassailable track position on the narrow streets to employ a conservative pace.

That made Leclerc back up Oscar Piastri and Carlos Sainz into Norris, with the gap between Norris and Russell largely kept under that 19-second barrier. In the end, Norris had only one risky opportunity to pit, which McLaren opted not to take.

That tactic actually complicated matters for Leclerc, too, in his bid to grasp that previously elusive first home win.

By being so far off his ultimate pace, and into F2 territory, it was tough for him to find his groove and know where the limits were. It was a pretty big distraction on a circuit where concentration is everything.

“We had a target gap with Russell that we didn’t want to open too much,” Leclerc explained. “I was going so slow in the middle of the race that if you start to push, then you don’t really know where to brake and that’s where mistakes can happen.

“So, I just wanted to get into the rhythm and start to push a bit more. But obviously, the team was telling me: slow down, slow down, slow down.”

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24, Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL38, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24, Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL38, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Second-placed Piastri was clearly frustrated by the slow lap times, all the way into the 1m20s when in qualifying drivers reached the low 1m10s, that he described as “slower than Formula 2”.

While only the first couple of laps from Leclerc, on high fuel, were actually on F2 pace, it described just how far off the limit the leaders really were. Piastri’s estimated 0.250s worth of damage from contact with Carlos Sainz at the start proved irrelevant.

The tactic was also repeated elsewhere, with RB’s Yuki Tsunoda going extremely slowly to protect against an undercut from 10th-placed Pierre Gasly. Like Leclerc, Tsunoda wasn’t exactly a fan of having to drive well below his normal pace, but followed his team’s instructions.

“I have to always respect the strategy that we planned,” Tsunoda explained. “I had to sometimes slow down to make sure that the cars behind don’t do any pitstop or make sure they couldn’t undercut us.

“That was frustrating as a driver, especially when you know there’s a lot of pace to come. But we have to stick to what the team says. It’s not nice feeling, but we discussed it before the race and I am actually happy with what I’ve done and not be too greedy with the tyres.”

Albon explained just how annoyingly slow Tsunoda’s pace was, with the Japanese driving shipping over 45 seconds to Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton in front, who used the gap to try an unsuccessful undercut on Max Verstappen.

The Williams driver said he could have traded his car for a Vespa and still keep up with him.

Yuki Tsunoda, RB F1 Team VCARB 01, Alex Albon, Williams FW46

Yuki Tsunoda, RB F1 Team VCARB 01, Alex Albon, Williams FW46

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“It’s annoying because he had so much pace… I’m happy to manage [the pace] but we don’t need to manage this much,” Albon shook his head with a wry smile. “He was managing so much, I was like, I could get out and drive my Vespa around here. It was so slow. It’s so painful.

“It’s actually hard to stay focused when you’re going that slowly because you’re just not even near anything. You’re not near any limits.”

The smoking gun was RB’s approval for Tsunoda to run his own pace in the final few laps, which the Japanese driver eagerly made use of after a race of boredom.

From lap times between 1m18s and 1m20s, Tsunoda suddenly floored it and lowered his lap times to 1m15.4s, 1m14.9s, 1m15.2s and 1m14.7s.

“He absolutely cleared off at the end of the race,” Albon chuckled. “I was like, we could have done this the whole time! But he decided not to do it….”

As much as Saturday provided a thrilling spectacle in qualifying and Sunday finally completed Leclerc’s Monaco redemption arc, quite how Leclerc got there is a lot more forgettable.

But after two poles that turned into heartbreak, it will be the least of the home hero’s concerns.

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