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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Glory for Hamilton, heartbreak for Sutil in the streets of Monaco

Despite smacking the barrier early in the race, Lewis Hamilton benefited from McLaren’s race strategy to win an event-filled, rain-washed Monaco Grand Prix.

"This has got to be the highlight of my career and I am sure it will continue to be the highlight for the rest of my life," Hamilton said. "I remember on the last few laps I was just thinking that Ayrton Senna won here a lot of times and to win here would be amazing. But I know anything can happen here and I have to just keep it out of the barriers."

Robert Kubica took second and Felipe Massa third.

"I think it is quite a lot of miracles that I finished the race," said Kubica. "It was a very hard race for me and I think second place was the maximum with our performance this weekend. I am very happy."

Twenty minutes before the race started the track was damp and rain drops were starting to fall, a precursor for what was to come as teams monitored the conditions and tried to make proper tire choices.

The indecision would hurt Kimi Raikkonen, whose tires were not fitted three minutes before the race as required by the regulations. The Finn would receive a drive through penalty.

The craziness kicked off on the formation lap as Heikki Kovalainen couldn’t get out of the box and dropped to the back.

When the lights went out, Felipe Massa led the field into the first corner, but Hamilton got the better of Kimi Raikkonen and slotted into second as the rain started to fall in earnest.

Further back Nico Rosberg made contact in the hairpin with Fernando Alonso, and Jenson Button ran into the back of Nick Heidfeld. Button would come in for his new nose on lap 2, and Rosberg would be in on lap 4.

David Coulthard was a big winner on the start, jumping up to 12th from 15th.

As the rain intensified, it claimed its first front runner, when Hamilton hit the barrier exiting the swimming pool. His right-rear tire down, the McLaren driver headed to the pits with Massa, Raikkonen and Kubica in front. While Hamilton was able to continue, it did not look good for him.

"Through turn 12, Tabac, there was a sort of river coming through and as I was catching Felipe I hit this river and just oversteered and just slid across into the barrier," Hamilton explained. "I couldn't believe it and I knew I had only just touched it and I had a rear puncture and fortunately I was able to tell the team quickly and they were able to react as quickly as possible and get out."

Next, DC’s shocking season continued as first Coulthard, and then Sebestien Bourdais, slid into the wall at the same spot at the casino, deploying the safety car.

Fernando Alonso, who had just clipped the wall as well, pitted and made the decision to continue on the extreme wet tire. He soon started making big progress as it was proving to be the better choice, first dusting off Mark Webber and then hounding Nick Heidfeld.

But disaster would strike as the Spaniard got ambitious at the hairpin and made contact with the German. Webber would also touch in the ensuing bottleneck, but while Alonso and Heidfeld would have to pit, the Red Bull driver was able to continue.

Massa lost his lead on lap 15 when his car slid off at St. Devote. Through shear luck he did not make contact with the wall, but he gave up the lead to Kubica.

"For sure, a lot of us had a little moment there. In a race like that it is so easy to have a small off through concentration or whatever," Massa said. "I just braked over the line and I couldn't stop the car because you have the line going out from the pits. I just braked a little bit over the line and I just couldn't stop the car."

As the rain stopped, track conditions slowly began to improve, and Massa and Kubica began to swap fastest laps. The race was fast approaching the window for two-stoppers, and Kubica was in by lap 26. He came back out in fourth, but quickly benefited when Raikkonnen strait-lined it into St Devote, hitting the tire barrier and forced to pit.

Kubica was not so lucky with Massa, the Brazilian pitted on lap 33 and beat the BMW driver out of the pits. Against the odds, Hamilton was now leading the race.

Hamilton pushed relentlessly to open the gap with Massa in hopes of retaining first place after his stop, and had built up a 23 second cushion as Massa ran into traffic on the tight streets.

A definite dry line was beginning to appear on the track, and those teams on the extreme tires were now caught out. But rain was predicted to make a return, so teams were finding it difficult to commit to a tire choice. First to make the move to dries was Alonso, and the pit lane began watching the Spaniard’s performance intently.

Next was teammate Nelson Piquet, and while Alonso struggled but persevered, Piquet was not so lucky, going off at St Devote and bringing his race to an end.

Mark Webber was the next to switch , then McLaren sent Kovalainen out on dries, and McLaren began to furiously study the data while preparing for Hamilton’s stop.

By lap 54, dry tire performance was no longer in question. The promised rain was not materializing. Hamilton pitted and came out with dry tires.

Massa would soon have to follow suit, giving second place back to Kubica. Massa said his strategy was compromised by a radio problem.

"I had a very difficult race as I lost the radio for 20 laps and I couldn't talk to my team, I was just looking to the board and it was not so easy to know what was going on in the race," Massa said.

In front, Hamilton had built an almost 40 second gap, but all that was about to change as Nico Rosberg suffered a huge shunt at the swimming pool, his car ping-ponging across the track, deploying the safety car and bunching up the field.

"I said it was going to be an eventful race. I hope Nico is okay," said Hamilton. "The team came over the radio and said he should be okay. For sure that looked like a big shunt."

As the field sorted itself out behind the safety car, it was becoming obvious the two-hour time limit would come into play.

Eleven minutes remained when it came in, and Hamilton led Kubica and Massa.

Meanwhile, the big surprise was Force India’s Adrian Sutil, who made his way up to fourth, the customer Ferrari leading Raikkonen. Would Monaco bring Vijay Mallya’s team its maiden points?

Sadly it wouldn’t, as on lap 68 the Finn would outbrake himself coming out of the tunnel and run into the back of the young German. Both cars would pit, but only Raikkonen would emerge, the Force India car too damaged to continue and Sutil was left gutted.

As time ran out, Lewis Hamilton had defied the odds and won on one of his favorite tracks. Kubica was second and Massa third.

"It was a shame that we made a little mistake on the strategy but it is good to be on the podium," Massa said. "The championship is long and I am happy with the result even though I expected the victory because we had a great car in the dry and a great strategy as maybe I was the last car to stop. I had a great car yesterday in qualifying and the race itself but unfortunately the strategy did not work."

Hamilton’s win makes him the first Englishman since Graham Hill in 1969 to win Monaco. The Briton has now won in the principality in F1, GP2 and F3.

"I have to say a big thank you to all of my team back home and over here. You did a fantastic job," said Hamilton. "And to all my fans - I know I have got a lot of fans here and also back home - I did it for all of you and especially my family who have been here supporting me all weekend and to my mum, lots of love Mum."

Mark Webber put in a strong performance to take fourth for Red Bull, with likely future teammate Sebastian Vettel taking fifth for Toro Rosso.

Rubens Barrichello took sixth, his first points since 2006. Kazuki Nakajima finished seventh and despite all that worked against him, Heikki Kovalainen finished eighth to round out the points paying positions.

Formula One returns to action for its only stop in North America in two weeks time at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal for the Canadian Grand Prix. Don't miss the top stories of the day, subscribe to the SpeedRead Web newspaper now! -- Email SpeedRead -- Learn more about author C.D. Six

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