Then, on Saturday, he seemed on track for a front row grid slot until the qualifying hour was interrupted by Sergio Perez’s high-speed crash at the harbour chicane.
The plucky Mexican was fortunate to escape from the accident with little more than concussion and thigh injuries, but the FIA will surely insist on modifications to the track after numerous serious accidents at what is the fastest part of the circuit.
So, fourth on the grid it was for PUMA’s partner team Ferrari, from where the Spaniard snatched an immediate third from Red Bull’s Mark Webber at the ‘off’, thereafter remaining in contention for victory until the final metre. He eventually crossed the line just 1,1 seconds adrift of Vettel after 78 laps.
Team-mate Felipe Massa was less fortunate after finding himself squeezed at the start, then attacked by Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren in the hairpin. The Brazilian’s Ferrari, damaged in the ensuing contact, developed a mind of its own in the tunnel as a consequence, pitching the Brazilian into both the wall and retirement. His crash triggered the first Safety Car phase, and ultimately changed the face of the race by instigating changes of strategy down the field.
Hamilton was deemed culpable for the incident, receiving a drive-thru penalty. Having attracted the steward’s attention four times in the course of this weekend - and visited their offices in five of six races to date – criticism of his on-track conduct is mounting.
The outcome of the 69th Monaco Grand Prix could have been even closer – or better – for Fernando, for without doubt he had the better rubber with eight laps remaining. Having treated his tyres gently, he planned to ‘have a go’ at the leader towards the end, but then the race was interrupted by a red flag period due to a multi-car accident in which Renault’s Vitaly Petrov was injured, fortunately only lightly.
During the stoppage, the leading duo switched to Pirelli’s ‘supersoft’ compound as permitted by the regulations, which rather frustratingly negated Fernando Alonso’s earlier advantage. Although he bobbed and weaved every which way after the restart behind the Safety Car, a third victory in Monaco for the matador was not to be, although second still represents his best finish of the year.
That said, from being lapped in Spain a week ago to finishing a second off the winner on the streets of Monaco after fighting tooth and nail represents a remarkable turn-around for the team from Maranello, and bodes extremely well for the next two rounds in Montreal and Valencia: street circuits both.
Equally encouraging for Ferrari is that same supersoft/soft compounds will be supplied in Canada, while for the European Grand Prix teams will have a choice of supersoft/medium rubber.
The grand prix on the streets of the enchanting Mediterranean principality has long been the jewel in Formula 1’s crown, and this weekend’s event certainly did not disappoint. Clear blue skies framed a Monte Carlo harbour filled to the brim with floating palaces, while the rocky backdrop of alpine peaks served to accentuate the beauty of the place. No other grand prix venue comes close, and is not likely to.
However, in a fortnight it’s Montreal’s turn to host Formula 1. The city is absolutely marvellous and has a unique character, with its circuit being situated on a man-made island in the middle the St Lawrence Seaway. Does any sport offer a greater (or better) variety of venues?