Hamilton dedicates Monaco victory to Lauda after defensive masterclass

Lewis Hamilton dedicated his third Monaco Grand Prix victory to good friend Niki Lauda after pulling off a defensive driving masterclass to keep the charging Max Verstappen behind him.

Hamilton had started the race from pole position and pulled away to lead the race. But, following a safety car situation that saw him pit for medium rubber early in the race, the Mercedes lost all grip and had to defend for the majority of the grand prix on shot tyres.

It was an effort reminiscent of his hero Ayrton Senna in 1992, who held Nigel Mansell behind him for a similarly long period before pulling off a famous victory. With two laps to go, Verstappen tried one last desperate attempt out of the tunnel and into the chicane but couldn’t make the move stick and was forced to abort or risk a collision.

Verstappen was left to finish fourth behind Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas after being slapped with a five-second penalty for an unsafe release in his haste to pass Bottas during the pit window. It left the Finn needing to pit again with a puncture and compromised his chances of victory.

Wearing the colours of Lauda on his helmet in honour of the Austrian great, Hamilton was understandably overcome with emotion after taking the race win.

“That was definitely the hardest race I think I’ve had, but I really was fighting with the spirit of Niki,” said Hamilton afterward. “Niki has been such an influential person within our team helping us to get to where we are so I know he’ll be looking down and I know he will take his hat off today so I was just trying to stay focused and trying to make him proud.

“That’s kind of been the goal all week and we are going to try to continue that through the year. But we truly miss him. I’ve not driven on empty tyres since Shanghai 2007 when McLaren left me out for a ridiculous time, so really fantastic.”

The usual consensus around the tight confines of the Monte Carlo streets is that if you put the car on pole, you win.

And when Hamilton achieved the feat with a mega last-ditch lap on Saturday, that certainly seemed to be the case as he led his teammate, Bottas, Verstappen and the fast starting Ricciardo into the first corner.

Yet there are usually some twists and turns that closely resemble the Monaco track that often throw some variables into the race to make the leader’s life just that little bit more difficult. And with Leclerc on a mission after Ferrari’s disastrous tactical error during qualifying, the Monegasque was always going to attempt some bold overtakes.

A brilliant move on Grosjean into Rascasse gained him a place on lap 7 but then, in his eagerness to also pass Hulkenberg a lap later, he tangled and spun, a right-rear puncture causing a safety car situation as the Ferrari driver shredded rubber on the track whilst returning to the pits.

It spelled the end of the race for the Monaco local, the damage to his floor making his car virtually undrivable and he once again returned to the pits, this time to retire to the despair of the home fans.

For the leaders, the safety car period signalled an opportunity to pit for fresh tyres, Hamilton switching to the medium compound with teammate Bottas and Verstappen gambling on the harder rubber. In the rush to pit and get out ahead, Verstappen almost clashed with Bottas, the stewards slapping the Red Bull driver with a five second penalty. Worse for the Finn, the resultant puncture forced him to pit again and ended his victory hopes.

Then, as if there wasn’t enough going on, spots of rain started to appear on lap 25. And with Hamilton really struggling on the medium tyre, Verstappen closed to the back of the Mercedes gearbox.

The race then became a chess match of tyre management and whether or not to gamble for one more stop as the leaders began reporting major degradation.

Despite repeated radio messages to his race engineer ‘Bono’ that his tyres were shot and a ‘miracle’ was required to win, Mercedes kept their man out, comfortable in the knowledge that to pit with 20 laps remaining would be to throw the race victory away.

“We’re going to lose this race, Bono,” despaired Hamilton. “I don’t know what you’re thinking when you put these tyres on, man,” Hamilton says. “You need to hope for a miracle.”

A miracle it may not have been, but it was certainly a lesson in great defensive driving from another true great of the sport that ranks among the very best.

For his part, second placed Vettel was pleased to salvage something from a potentially difficult race weekend and also paid tribute to a former Ferrari great.

“It was obviously a tough race to manage,” said Vettel. “You know in Monaco something can always happen and today something happened. I thought we had a good stop but Max must have had an incredible stop and I obviously saw them touching in the pit lane so I thought there was a good chance for me and we could capitalise on Valtteri’s puncture, which was a shame for him, but from there we tried to stay there, tried to put the pressure on with Max’s penalty.

“Niki would be happy today, but yeah I think he will always be around, and we will definitely miss him. He has been an icon in the past and he will be in the future so my thoughts are with his family and with him.”

Hamilton’s victory means he extends his championship lead to 17 points from teammate Bottas with Vettel a further 38 points adrift of the Finn and Verstappen four points behind him.

Pierre Gasly’s fifth place finish means that Red Bull closes the gap further to Ferrari after Leclerc’s DNF, whilst Carlos Sainz, Daniil Kvyat and Alexander Albon gained important points for Toro Rosso and McLaren respectively. Daniel Ricciardo and Romain Grosjean rounded off the points-scoring finishers.

Mercedes Halo honouring Niki Lauda 2019 Monaco Grand Prix, Friday – Steve Etherington

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.