Lewis Hamilton survived a late collision with Max Verstappen to deliver the perfect tribute to Niki Lauda by winning an eventful Monaco Grand Prix.
Hamilton, sporting a one-off red helmet in tribute to the Mercedes non-executive chairman who died on Monday, tiptoed his way to the chequered flag on shot tyres, claiming a nail-biting victory – his third on Monte Carlo’s famous streets.
With three laps remaining, Verstappen delivered a gung-ho move for glory on the high-speed exit of the tunnel and into the chicane – his right-front wheel hitting Hamilton’s rear left in a flurry of sparks.
But both men made it to the finish. Hamilton spent much of the race taking aim at his Mercedes team for putting him on the less-durable medium tyres during the only round of stops.
“I don’t know what you were thinking,” he said to them over the radio with 20 laps remaining.
“You need to hope for a miracle.”
Yet, despite Verstappen hustling him all the way, and then banging wheels, Hamilton somehow managed to hold on, emulating his 2008 and 2016 victories in the principality.
Verstappen was demoted to fourth after he was hit with a five-second penalty following an earlier collision in the pit lane with Valtteri Bottas. That promoted Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to second with Bottas completing the podium places.
Hamilton is now 17 points clear of Bottas in his quest for a sixth world title.
— Formula 1 (@F1) May 26, 2019
“That was the hardest race I have had,” said Hamilton. “I was fighting with the spirit of Niki. He has been an influential person in the team. I know he was looking down.
“I wanted to stay focused and make him proud. We truly miss him.”
On Mercedes’ strategy, he added: “I wasn’t going to come into the pits again. I was either going to crash or finish. I was on the wrong tyre.”
Hamilton’s team wore red caps as a mark of respect to Lauda, whose death cast a shadow over the build-up to Sunday’s famous race. A one-minute silence was also staged on the grid.
Hamilton blasted away from his marks to keep team-mate Bottas at bay and the fast-starting Verstappen, too.
Down the field, Charles Leclerc was a man on a mission – the Monegasque having started a lowly 15th after a Ferrari miscalculation in qualifying ensured he was eliminated in Q1.
Leclerc had made up three places by lap nine, executing a marvellous move on Romain Grosjean at Rascasse.
But just one lap later, his race was over. The young Ferrari driver attempted the same overtake at the impossibly tight right-hander, but slammed into Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and sustained a right-rear puncture. He would retire from the resulting damage.
Debris from Leclerc’s tyre littered the track, and out went the safety car. In came Hamilton, Bottas, Verstappen and Vettel. In contrast to Hamilton, Verstappen and Vettel took on the hardest tyre compound available.
Verstappen meanwhile, got the jump on Bottas. The pair banged wheels, and Bottas was forced up against the wall.
Red Bull were penalised for the unsafe release, while Bottas had to stop on the next lap for a change in rubber with Mercedes suspecting a puncture. That left Hamilton as the only one of the four leading cars on the medium tyres.
It seemed a curious decision from Hamilton’s team, given that he had track position and, with overtaking nigh-on impossible, just needing to get his car to the line.
The inquest from Hamilton began with a series of desperate radio messages: “Does James (Vowles – Mercedes’ chief strategist) think I’m in trouble with these tyres?
— Mercedes-AMG F1 (@MercedesAMGF1) May 26, 2019
“I feel like I have the wrong tyre on. I’m definitely in a bad way. I think I’m in trouble guys, the left front is dead.
“We’re going to lose this race. I can’t look after these tyres. I can’t keep the car behind.
“I don’t know what you’re thinking, keeping these tyres on, man. You need to hope for a miracle.”
With 15 laps left, Vowles came over the radio to reassure Hamilton. And despite his late coming together with Verstappen, Hamilton took the win to extend his championship lead.
“Incredible drive,” said Vowles.
“There was nobody else that could have done that.”