The Monaco Grand Prix is the jewel in Formula One's crown so it is fitting that the 61st event, run the day after Prince Rainier III's 80th birthday, was an expression of grand prix racing at its finest. Juan Pablo Montoya emerged an emotional victor of a close encounter that could have gone the way of the pursuing Kimi Raikkonen or Michael Schumacher in the blink of an eye. By the chequered flag, after 78 laps of gruelling racing that left even the super-fit Schumacher looking drained, only 1.720sec separated the three of them.
"I've got to say, there have been a few races where I have had a chance to win," said the Colombian, whose only previous grand prix triumph had been at Monza in 2001 and who spun out of the lead of the Australian Grand Prix in March, "so today it was really a question of not making any mistakes. It was definitely worth waiting for. I'm so happy!"
His victory could not have come at a better time for the BMW-Williams alliance, as political bickering has delayed renewal of their contractual alliance beyond 2004. Two weeks ago in Austria they seemed set to win, only for a faulty water valve to lead to dramatic engine failure.
Montoya's triumph not only prevented Michael Schumacher from equalling the late Ayrton Senna's record of six victories in the principality, but made the Colombian the only man other than the late Graham Hill to have won the Monaco Grand Prix and the equally prestigious Indianapolis 500. Hill won Monaco five times and the 500 in 1966, Montoya won it in 2000.
In qualifying, Montoya had to play third fiddle as his team-mate Ralf Schumacher and rival Raikkonen took the first two positions on the grid. But at the start Montoya passed the Finn in the first corner. There was a brief interlude when the safety car was deployed between the second and fourth laps to scrape away the wreckage of Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Sauber-Petronas after the German crashed on the opening lap, and after that Schumacher Jnr pulled away.
"I knew that he had higher tyre pressures than me which let his tyres get back to temperature quicker than mine," Montoya revealed, "so I let him put in aggressive laps and knew that I just had to pace myself after the safety car went in." Behind them, Raikkonen held third but Schumacher Snr's race was badly compromised when Jarno Trulli accelerated his Renault into fourth place. The Ferrari team had opted for relatively high fuel loads, which made their cars slower off the startline.
"The fact is that if I wouldn't have been stuck behind Trulli I guess I could have kept closer to Kimi and probably would have managed to get him after the pit stops," Schumacher said, a trifle testily. "But having more fuel meant that I was behind Trulli. However you turn it, it's what we had, and third is reasonable."
Schumacher was also very unhappy with the performance of his Bridgestone tyres, which he did not believe were a match for the Michelins used by his two main rivals. He lost no time communicating that to the Japanese company's engineers after the race.
Schumacher Jnr led the first 21 laps, his first refuelling stop then handing the lead to Montoya, who stopped on lap 23. Raikkonen had two laps in front before his stop on lap 25.
Schumacher Snr did not make a stop until lap 31, but though he fell behind Montoya and Raikkonen, he rejoined in third. However, another heavy fuel load in his second stint prevented him making much headway on the two cars ahead.
Raikkonen went four laps longer than Montoya on the second stops - lap 53 against lap 49 - and again Schumacher's Ferrari did a long stint, running until 59. Thus the stage was set for a gripping confrontation in the closing laps as Raikkonen put Montoya under massive pressure and Schumacher played catch-up. As their individual strategies played out, it created the most genuinely fascinating race so far under the new regulations that were introduced for the 2003 season. Overtaking is impossible at Monaco, however, and though Montoya admitted that he made a few small errors in the closing laps, as Raikkonen brought the deficit down below a second, none was sufficient to jeopardise his success. When the chequered flag finally fell, he still had 0.6sec in hand over Raikkonen, who was 1.1sec ahead of Schumacher. "Everybody at BMW-Williams really needed this win so much," Montoya admitted.
Overshadowed by the fight ahead of him, Ralf Schumacher yet again faded and could only finish fourth, but at least he was clear of a fight between David Coulthard and the Renaults for fifth place. The Scot, like Michael Schumacher before him, was bottled up behind the unpassable Trulli, and stopping as late as possible allowed Fernando Alonso to vault ahead of both of them with 17 laps to run. Rubens Barrichello, in the second Ferrari, had a quiet race and was never quite able to challenge them.
Montoya's victory pushes him into equal fifth place in the championship chase as Raikkonen extended his lead over Schumacher to four points, and Williams' first Monaco victory since Keke Rosberg triumphed back in 1983 moved them up to third place in the constructors' list as McLaren moved back ahead of Ferrari. As he left the principality, Schumacher was forced to admit: "We weren't quite strong enough this weekend."
MONTE CARLO DETAILS
1 J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 1hr 42min 19.010sec
2 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +0.602sec
3 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari +1.720
4 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW +28.518
5 F Alonso (Sp) Renault +36.251
6 J Trulli (It) Renault +40.972
7 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +41.227; 8 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari +53.266; 9 C da Matta (Br) Toyota Racing +1 lap; 10 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Ford 1 lap; 11 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber 2 laps; 12 R Firman (GB) Jordan-Ford 2 laps; 13 O Panis (Fr) Toyota Racing 4 laps. Not Classified: J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda (63 laps completed). Did Not Finish: J Wilson (GB) Minardi (29 laps); J Verstappen (Neth) Minardi (28 laps); M Webber (Aus) Jaguar Racing (16 laps); A Pizzonia (Br) Jaguar Racing (10 laps); H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber (0 laps). Did Not Take Part: J Button (GB) BAR-Honda
Fastest lap: Raikkonen 1:14.545 (on lap 49)
Manufacturers' Championship: 1 McLaren-Mercedes 73pts; 2 Ferrari 71; 3 Williams-BMW 50; 4 Renault 42; 5= Jordan-Ford 11; 5= BAR-Honda 11; 7 Sauber 8; 8 Jaguar 4; 9 Toyota Racing 3.Reuse content