All eyes were on Charles Leclerc as the grid arrived to start their weekend in the glorious sunshine bearing down on the Principality of Monaco: coming into Round 3 as the championship leader he had the additional benefit of racing around the streets he has lived on all his life, and if he hadn’t ever raced there previously, no one believed it wouldn’t be another advantage for him to use. He led the championship at the end of the weekend too, but not in the manner he was hoping for when he arrived in the paddock on Wednesday.
And sure enough, the Monegasque driver, resplendent in a new helmet and overalls for the event, led the way in free practice: with qualifying just a few hours away everyone drove within themselves to save their teams the heartache of rebuilding a car in an impossibly short period, but Leclerc belied the fact that he’d never driven on the circuit in a race car before by grabbing the top spot by a tenth over Sergio Canamasas and Oliver Rowland.
The qualifying session was very different to usual, but the end result was the same as every other one this year: Leclerc continued to dominate, grabbing his third pole position in a row. Given the tight, twisty nature of the circuit traffic can have a big impact on a lap around Monaco, and as such the grid was split into 2 groups (odd and even numbered cars), with Leclerc’s Group A out first. The local driver topped his group ahead of Rowland, with a bit of help when Nobuharu Matsushita found the wall late in the session: Alexander Albon topped Group B but was 0.01s short, handing the honours to Leclerc.
“It feels really, really amazing!” Leclerc laughed afterwards. “It was quite scary to be in the first group and then watch Alex and the others in the second group as the times were going down, but by a hundredth I think we made it. I’m very, very happy, and I definitely need to thank the team for a great car. It’s good to start from pole in my home town!”
It looked like a familiar pattern was being formed, but Monaco is nothing if not surprising. Leclerc held off Albon and Rowland at the start, with Matsushita blasting past Artem Markelov into Ste Devote to slide in behind them, and with all of them on the soft compound it looked like the shape of the race was set at a circuit on which it is notoriously difficult to overtake. But an early safety car saw the super soft starters, led by Luca Ghiotto get a free stop, with Albon taking the risk to jump in too and hope that his options would last the race and give him a track position advantage, emerging as he did just ahead of the Italian.
The race went live on lap 12, and Leclerc easily held off Rowland into Ste Devote before building as big a gap as possible back to Albon and Ghiotto, setting a string of fast laps in the process. But the race advantage turned once again when Louis Delétraz and Robert Visiou came together at Mirabeau, prompting another safety car period and turning the fight for the lead around again: Leclerc was called in just before the safety car emerged; Rowland, Matsushita and Markelov just after it (with the latter jumped up a spot in the stop) and coming out ahead of the local driver, who had his race go from bad to worse when a loose nut meant he had to pit again next time through, this time to retire.
Leclerc was gutted to lose what had looked like his race, Rowland was overjoyed to overturn his Monaco hoodoo for his first F2 win, while Markelov and Matsushita were delighted to return to the podium after their wins in the principality last year. “It’s been a while coming!” Rowland laughed in the press conference after soaking up the applause from the crowd on the walk back to the paddock. “Obviously it feels great, and to be honest I didn’t expect it so much after the start because it was quite processional, but the safety cars can cause anything around here!
“To win here is mega special: every year I’ve been here I’ve been slightly unlucky, whether it was last year in GP2 or previously, and even in karting I seized here with 2 laps to go when I was leading! It’s never been that kind but I think today repaid me, but right now I can’t explain how good it feels to win this…”
If the feature race was complicated and dramatic, then the sprint race was blissfully simple, at least for race winner Nyck De Vries. The Dutchman started on the front row, just behind teammate Johnny Cecotto, and if the drivers were looking forward to the race their team were extremely anxious that they don’t do anything to jeopardise what could be the team’s best result in its history, and at the most famous circuit of them all.
They needn’t have worried: when the lights went out Cecotto made a good start but De Vries made a better one, running around the outside if the Venezuelan but leaving him plenty of room to follow through at Ste Devote before sprinting away for what appeared to be a processional victory, while behind him Cecotto had his mirrors full of the fast charging pair Gustav Malja and Luca Ghiotto: the latter two were clearly faster, but Cecotto used all of his experience to deny the pair as he rounded out a Rapax 1-2 on the podium, with Malja alongside them.
But if it looked simple, De Vries was keen to dissuade everyone of that view: “Well, no! Firstly I had to stay out of the walls, which is a challenge here! It’s been an unbelievable weekend: we started quite well but we had some difficulties after qualifying, with two grid penalties. I was back to P14 which was tough to take, but you never know in Monaco, and we kept fighting. Surely everything went our way yesterday to get back in the top eight, which was crucial to have a shot today.
“From the front row, we took the opportunity: I had a very good start! It was a very long race to the end. I lost concentration a little bit at some point and hit the apex at Turn 12: at that stage I told myself to keep it together! I’m extremely happy and thankful to the team and everyone involved.”
The podium afterwards was the embodiment of the old line about the Olympics that the gold medallist is more relieved than happy, the silver medallist is the most disappointed and the bronze medallist is the happiest of everyone because he is just pleased to be up there. De Vries was happy to win, obviously, but looked more relieved that he had brought home the result and had something to start building on, while Cecotto showed just how unhappy a driver can be when beaten by his teammate. But Malja was delighted to be on the podium, and happy to watch all the attention going elsewhere: “It is getting better and better, especially in the last races. Obviously we had a poor start of the season in Bahrain, but we found some good pace since then, and for sure we will get even better.”