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Mark Webber Wins Monaco Grand Prix

Mark Webber leading Robert Kubica at Monaco

Mark Webber made winning look easy today in Monaco, as he led from pole to checkers and never looked back.  Red Bull continues to assert itself as the team of the moment, and Mark Webber, who looked like a perennial also-ran for much of last year, is beginning to show that he’s at least equal to, if not better than, his highly rated young team mate, Sebastian Vettel.

Vettel managed a second place finish less than a half second behind, but his close proximity to the race winner was largely a result of the final deployment of the safety car, which bunched up the formation of the cars.  Prior to that, Webber had enjoyed a comfortable margin, as he had for much of the race.

In fact, Webber’s pace and form was so good today that he made the job look effortless.  His biggest challenge seemed to stem from the repeated safety car deployments, each of which resulted in a bunched up field, which, in turn, forced Webber to build a gap once again.

One of today’s stars was certainly Renault’s Robert Kubica, who started second, and managed to make the last podium position.  At Monaco, the driver can make a difference, and in this case Kubica certainly did.  Once again, he flattered the car.  There have been rumors that Ferrari are thinking of snapping him up for 2011 or 2012, and certainly his performance this weekend gives ample evidence why.

Ferrari’s Felipe Massa did a creditable job today: he started fourth and finished in fourth.  Basically, he drove a consistent race and managed to avoid trouble.  Ditto, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, who finished in fifth.

Fernando Alonso, on the other hand, started from pit lane, and managed to finish sixth.  The results below show him in seventh, but that’s a result of a sneaky pass by Michael Schumacher in Rascasse after the final safety car left the track.  Schumi caught Alonso off-guard, and nipped by him, in a classic move that recalled the Schumacher of old.  Unfortunately, the stewards disagreed with Mercedes’ interpretations of the new rule regarding safety car procedure on the final lap of a race, and Schumacher was later given a 20 second penalty, which demoted him to 12th.  Mercedes have announced their intention to appeal the decision.

Rosberg lost a position to Schumacher at the start and never recovered it.  While Rosberg did record a few fastest laps in clean air while Schumacher, and Rubens Barrichello, who had been holding up both Merc drivers, pitted, the Mercedes crew swapped Schumi’s tires in what was the quickest pit stop of the race, allowing Schumacher to emerge ahead of both Barrichello and Rosberg.  Barrichello later crashed from a rear suspension failure, and Rosberg trailed Schumacher for the rest of the race.

The remaining drivers who finished on the same lap as the leaders were Adrian Sutil and Tonio Liuzzi (both Force India) and Sebasatian Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari (both Toro Rosso), who managed to cross the finish line in orderly pairs. The final classified finisher was Vitaly Petrov, who finished four laps down.

As is often the case at Monaco, it was a race of high attrition.  Eleven cars either crashed or stopped with mechanical glitches.  That’s nearly half the field.  And while Monaco always generates its own brand of excitement, and while the corkscrew street track poses a special challenge to the drivers, purely in racing terms the event is usually a bust.  There is virtually no overtaking possible, due to the track’s narrowness and configuration, which means that most of the effective overtaking occurs through pit stop strategy.

In fact, Bridgestgone engineers indicated that tire degradation today was insignificant, such that, were it not for the rule mandating use of both prime and option tire compounds, pit stops would have been unnecessary.  As a result, pit stops were “position-driven” rather than “tire-driven.”  During the refueling era, of course, pit stops could also be “fuel-driven,”  which added a third strategic element to the mix.

In the end, while the race had its share of excitement, it must be admitted that it was a bit of a processional.  Much of the excitement during the early laps was attributable to Fernando Alonso, who made a difficult charge through the backmarkers until he reached sixth place, where he settled for the remainder of the race.

Today’s result created an interesting situation in the points standings.  While many pre-season prognosticators predicted a  four-way race for the title, it’s beginning to look like a two man race, featuring Red Bull team mates Webber and Vettel.  They’re now tied.  Alonso trails them both by five points.  Of course, the season is long, and under the current points system the standings seem especially fluid (kudos, FIA).  Note for example that Jenson Button led the roster going into this weekend, and now he’s fourth.  So any one of the leaders could fall from hero to zero in a heartbeat.  Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the Red Bull boys pulled off what might have seemed impossible just a few years ago – a Red Bull championship.

But on which driver would you place your bets, Webber of Vettel?  At the beginning of the season, smart money would’ve been on Vettel.  But at the moment, it’s looking too close to call.

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