Sebastian Vettel was in exactly the right place at the right time when a dramatic accident which befell Mexican rookie Sergio Perez brought the final session of qualifying in Monaco to an abrupt halt. Lewis Hamilton was in exactly the opposite situation.
When Perez’s Sauber slid broadside into the end of the protective wall that separates the escape road from the racetrack at the seafront chicane, in an incident horribly reminiscent of the one that befell Sauber’s Austrian driver Karl Wendlinger in 1994, Vettel had done enough to claim his fifth pole position of the season with a lap of 1m 13.556s.
Hamilton, however, having set the fastest times in the Q1 and Q2 sessions, was out on the track doing his first fast run, having deliberately opted to delay going out in the hope of finding a clear lap after others had made their first sorties. His lap had to be aborted, and his subsequent effort when things resumed briefly after a 40-minute delay, moved him only to seventh place as his Pirelli tyres had lost vital temperature. He was then penalised for missing the chicane and dropped to ninth.
Hamilton was understandably chagrined, but the main concern was naturally Perez’s health. There had already been two accidents at that part of the track, where drivers exit the tunnel back into daylight, negotiate a brow at 175mph in sixth gear and then have to brake heavily for the left/right chicane. Tonio Liuzzi crashed his HRT there on Thursday morning, and Nico Rosberg did the same, at very high speed, yesterday morning. The German was lucky that his Mercedes did not hit the chicane wall; Perez was not so fortunate.
Wendlinger’s crash there left him comatose for a fortnight and led to development of the high cockpit sides that now saved Perez from serious injury. He was taken to the Princess Grace Hospital, having spoken with Sauber boss Monisha Kaltenborn while he was being extracted from the car, but is not expected to race today.
Jenson Button, who qualified his McLaren second behind Vettel, crashed at the same spot in 2003, and said: “The problem there is that when you first hit the brakes the rear goes very light and for some reason it’s more of an issue this year, which surprises me. You just become a passenger if you get oversteer and hit the barrier, and you lose braking ability if you the right-hand wheels come off. You are just in a sled sitting on the ground. I’m very happy that race director Charlie Whiting took the speed bumps out of the run-off area there after Nico’s accident this morning. That was a good decision because without that Sergio’s could have been much worse.
“Monaco is what it is, a street circuit, so it’s difficult on safety, but we need to look at this more for the future. The cars have improved dramatically in terms of safety since Karl’s accident and the barrier has been moved back, so there have been improvements. We all love racing here, but this is an area where we need to find a solution.”
As Button plans on beating Vettel off the startline, Hamilton has a mountain to climb from the fourth row.
“After the restart I had no temperature in my tyres or my brakes,” he said, “so I didn’t manage to pull a great lap together. With hindsight, we probably should have put a banker in.
“I felt I’d been driving well all weekend and I had the pace to be on pole – I’m certain of that. I’ll do my best from my grid slot – and, while it’ll be tough to win from there, I won’t give up. I’ll keep pushing.”