When Lewis Hamilton walloped the wall in the Swimming Pool complex on the sixth lap of the Monaco Grand Prix yesterday, his chances of becoming the first Englishman to win the race since Graham Hill in 1969 appeared to have evaporated in a moment of excruciating embarrassment. Instead, it was merely the prelude to a stunning afternoon of motor racing which ended with the 23-year-old regaining his lead in the World Championship and declaring a superb success the highlight of his burgeoning career.
When Ferrari annexed the front row of the grid in qualifying, Hamilton's only real hope of victory seemed to lie with the weather gods. As expected, it was wet at the start, and soon there was a downpour. But it was in these tricky conditions, as he let pole-sitter Felipe Massa open up a lead and kept himself ahead of the Brazilian's team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, that Hamilton made his sole mistake. On the exit to the Tabac corner he brushed the outer wall and punctured his right rear tyre.
"I was able to get a good start and I felt comfortable, that I had a good car, and that I could challenge Felipe," he said. "But I couldn't see anything so I just stayed in second place. As the rain came down there was so much spray. Through Tabac there was a river across the road and as I was beginning to catch him [Massa] I hit that and oversteered into the wall. I just touched it, but I couldn't believe it."
Ironically, that error was one of the factors that assisted him in his victory. McLaren brimmed his car with fuel and sent him back out on fresh wet weather tyres, and he only dropped back to fifth position.
The next factor came on the eighth lap when the safety car was deployed after David Coulthard and Sebastien Bourdais went off at Massenet corner in separate incidents. The racing resumed on the 11th lap, and two laps later Raikkonen pulled out of second place when he had to serve a drive-through penalty for having his tyres fitted after the three-minute warning on the starting grid. Now BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica moved up to push Massa, and the Pole was able to snatch the lead when the latter slid momentarily up the escape road at Sainte Devote on the 16th lap. Hamilton was chasing hard, with Raikkonen now trailing in fourth.
Kubica kept the lead until he refuelled on the 26th lap, whereupon Massa went back ahead until his stop on the 33rd lap. By then Hamilton was second, and after taking the initiative he just kept going.
He did not have to refuel until the 54th lap, and that lengthy stint proved crucial. Kubica had already stopped for the second time a lap earlier, so he posed no further threat, and with a lead of 37.6sec Hamilton was able to refuel, switch to dry weather tyres, and resume still in the lead.
Still he was not home and dry, however. He was 40sec ahead when Nico Rosberg, running a lap down after two pit stops to replace damaged noses on his Williams, slammed hard into the walls after losing control on the exit of the Swimming Pool on the 61st lap. Out came the safety car again, and this time it worked against Hamilton as his advantage was almost instantly wiped out.
"I said it was gonna be an eventful race, didn't I?" he grinned. "I hope Nico is OK. It was a big shunt. When the safety car came out again the team told me my tyres had another 30 laps on them. The track was getting dry, but I managed to look after them and that was what really gave us the win. I could stay out, no problem. And I was used to the safety car so I did a good job; remember last year in Canada? It was no sweat. I just kept it nice and cool at the end, but I was counting down the laps."
The second safety car intervention threw Kubica and Massa lifelines that they were unable to exploit, but ironically led to the race's biggest hard-luck story. The German driver Adrian Sutil, Hamilton's close friend, had run throughout with a big fuel load and was running in fourth in his Force India, well ahead of Raikkonen, when Rosberg crashed. On the restart the Finn got it badly wrong coming out of the tunnel, and slammed his snaking Ferrari into the back of Sutil's car hard enough to force it into retirement. Raikkonen was forced to pit for a new nosecone but rejoined out of the points-scoring positions. Hamilton was stunned when the news was broken to him.
"I'm sorry for hitting the wall, but I made up for it. Let's party tonight!" Hamilton said to his team, after admitting that he screamed to himself as he exited the final corner.
Clearly delighted, he added: "This is the highlight of my career and it will be the highlight for the rest of my life. Over the last few laps I was picturing it: Ayrton Senna won here many times, so for me to win here... The last 20 laps were very emotional and I was just trying to keep that in and to keep the car on the track. It is an incredible feeling, really emotional.
"This is my favourite circuit, this was the race I wanted to win more than any other in the world. When I was a kid I looked at the tunnel, the swimming pool, it just looked spectacular so automatically it became my favourite race. And I was very, very close to winning last year. This is the best, even if I was to win here again, this will be the best one."
Could this mark the start of an era similar to Senna's in Monaco, he was asked? "This weekend has shown that anything can happen. I hope this is the start of something very good."
Monte Carlo race details
1 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 2hr 42.742sec
2 R Kubica (Pol) BMW Sauber +3.064sec
3 F Massa (Br) Ferrari +4.811sec
4 M Webber (Aus) RedBull-Renault +19.295sec
5 S Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso-Ferrari +24.657sec
6 R Barrichello (Br) Honda +28.408sec
7 K Nakajima (Japan) Williams-Toyota +30.180sec
8 H Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +33.191sec
9 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari +33.792sec
10 F Alonso (Sp) Renault +1 lap
11 J Button (GB) Honda +1 lap; 12 T Glock (Ger) Toyota +1 lap; 13 J Trulli (It) Toyota +1 lap; 14 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber +4 laps; Not classified: 15 A Sutil (Ger) Force India-Ferrari +8 laps; N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota +17 laps; N Piquet (Br) Renault +29 laps; G Fisichella (It) Force India-Ferrari +38 laps; D Coulthard (GB) RedBull-Renault +69 laps; S Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso-Ferrari +69 laps
Fastest Lap: Raikkonen, 1:16.689, lap 74.
1 Ferrari 69; 2 McLaren-Mercedes 53; 3 BMW Sauber 52; 4 Williams-Toyota 15; 5 RedBull-Renault 15; 6 Toyota 9; 7 Renault 9; 8 Toro Rosso-Ferrari 6; 9 Honda 6; 10 Force India-Ferrari 0.
*Super Aguri-Honda have withdrawn from the 2008 Formula One championship.Reuse content