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Monaco Grand Prix: Hamilton and Leclerc stumble; Verstappen wins and takes lead in championship points

Monte Carlo, Monaco, May 23/21 (GRW): As luck would have it, Max Verstappen effectively started from the pole and, even through the mid-race pit stop sequence, when he switched from soft to hard tires, he held a comfortable lead the entire race. This win was his first appearance on the podium in Monaco and, given that Lewis Hamilton had qualified seventh and finished in that same position, Verstappen’s extra haul of points elevated him to the lead in the current points standings, the first time in years since any driver other than Hamilton has led the points standings. This race has the fastest ever average speed of any Monaco Grand Prix.

The other two drivers on the podium alongside Verstappen were Carlos Sainz in second and Lando Norris in third.

Much of the story of this Grand Prix played out before the race ever began. On Saturday, in the final qualifying session, Charles Leclerc had set the fastest lap so far and as the cars were coming around to take their final shot at the pole, Leclerc hit the wall at the exit from the swimming pool section, knocking off his front wheel and bringing out the red flag to end the session. Other drivers – including Verstappen, Valtteri Bottas and his Ferrari teammate Sainz had looked like contenders to pip Leclerc for the pole on this final hot lap but the red flag ended that hope and Leclerc was locked into the pole position.

Or was he? There was lots of speculation that the car’s gearbox might have been damaged and that Ferrari might have to replace it for the race, incurring a five-position penalty. But Ferrari reported that when they inspected the gearbox it was good to go, so Leclerc hung onto his pole position. However, come Sunday, when the cars went out for their warm up laps, it became apparent that there was indeed a problem with the gearbox and, given that there was now insufficient time to replace it, Leclerc’s car was withdrawn from the race.

Although race control ruled that the other drivers must continue to line up in their original starting grid positions, Leclerc’s withdrawal effectively moved everyone else up one grid position – Verstappen onto the ‘pole’ with Bottas alongside and Hamilton in ‘sixth’.

As the cars lined up for the start, observers wondered if Verstappen would manage to stay ahead of Bottas in to the first corner given that Bottas had a clear run into that corner to the right of Verstappen. When the lights went out, Verstappen’s car stuttered a bit but then it shot forward and was just far enough ahead to cut in front of Bottas and take the lead into Ste. Devote.

After that, Verstappen had control of the race, leading all the way, even when he pitted mid-race to switch over to hard tires and his teammate Perez almost caught him up.

When Bottas pitted on lap 30 of the 78-lap race for fresh tires early in the mid-race pit-stop cycle, he was still in second place, about five seconds behind Verstappen. He was one of the first to start this cycle of pit stops and it turned into a heart-breaking disaster for him. The wheel nut on the right-front wheel had been cross-threaded, and the nut was stripped by the gun. The mechanics could not get it off – forcing them to retire the car. Bottas’ hopes of a good finish, well ahead of his teammate were shattered.

After these pit stops had been completed, Verstappen was still in the lead with a seven-second lead over Sainz. Sebastian Vettel was up to fifth in one of his best runs since his decline began after the unfortunate penalty at Montreal in 2019. Hamilton was still back in seventh – and not gaining ground.

The race played out the rest of the way like that. Hamilton was able to make a pit stop on lap 67 without losing his position to Lance Stroll who was far back. Now on the soft tires again, he was able to record the fastest race lap and gain one extra championship point.

Verstappen now leads the driver standings by four points from reigning champion Hamilton after five of the 23 races with the paddock heading to Baku next for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on June 6.

He said: "It is so special around here to win and also for me the first time on the podium. Amazing race. It is a lot of laps around here and you really have to keep your focus. It is really cool. It was all about looking after your tires and the others went earlier, so that made it a bit easier for me."

• Click HERE for the Race Results + Points

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