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It was lap 11 when the inevitable Monaco safety car was deployed. To clear up the carbon fibre debris from the damaged floor of Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari, inflicted by him driving back to the pits on a punctured rear tyre. Inevitable really that it was Leclerc, given how he was starting 15thon his home track after Ferrari’s miscalculation during qualifying and that he’d decided he was going to have to “risk a crash” to make any progress from there.
It wasn’t the way Leclerc might have imagined he’d shape the race’s destiny. But he did. Because that lap 11 timing – triggering early tyre change stops for the two Mercedes, Max Verstappenand Sebastian Vettel - was absolutely on the cusp of being just late enough to get the medium tyre to go to the end. Had it been earlier, they would all have been forced to fit the hard. As it was, Verstappen and Vettel did go for the hard – and only the Mercedes opted for the mediums (changed for hards a lap later on Valtteri Bottas’ car because of a puncture from a pit lane contact with Verstappen).
That guaranteed the race-leading Lewis Hamilton a super-stressful race, defending from Verstappen but on a much more delicate tyre that he was convinced was never going to last. It was much more delicate than the Mercedes pit wall had forecast and, in hindsight, they should have fitted Hamilton with the hards and given him a much easier victory than the one he eventually managed to grind out.
But in the moment of the decision, there were several factors driving them towards the medium. For one, if they had fitted the slow-to-warm hards and those behind had gone for the mediums, there was every chance of being mugged on the restart. For another, there was a light shower forecast and the medium was much the better tyre for a wet track. Thirdly, it had looked the better tyre during Thursday practice, even if it did have a shorter range. Pirelli reckoned it would be good for 50 laps. Mercedes was reckoning that with some pace management by the driver it could comfortably last the 67 laps it was asking of it.
There was nothing comfortable about it, as it turned out. But Hamilton dealt with the situation masterfully, keeping himself out of range in the two overtaking spots and just making his car wide at all the places in which it was gripless and horrible – notably the hairpin where several times Verstappen was partly alongside, and with Vettel holding a watching brief only a couple of car lengths behind. Verstappen even tried a desperate late lunge down the inside into the chicane two laps from home, in which contact was made. But not enough to dislodge the victory from the Mercedes driver’s hands. “I think that was the hardest-won race I’ve ever had,” said a drained Hamilton afterwards...