Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturday: Charles Leclerc on Pole, Crashes Car in Monaco

With passing opportunities few and far between at the Circuit de Monaco, qualifying around the streets of Monte Carlo is critical, and Charles Leclerc’s pole position puts him in prime position to secure victory in tomorrow’s race. However, Leclerc’s fate took a sharp turn at the end of qualifying — he crashed coming out of the Swimming Pool section, red flagging the session, and he might receive a grid penalty if his gearbox needs replacing. When asked whether he was concerned about a penalty, Leclerc responded, “I am, but let’s see.”

Leclerc collision meant that the other drivers couldn’t mount a final challenge for pole position. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, two-tenths behind Leclerc on their initial runs, was on a rapid lap but had to back off due to the red flag and will start second. He lines up ahead of Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas, who was 0.025 seconds behind Verstappen. 

Carlos Sainz’s was hampered by a weak middle sector on his first lap in Q3 and he finished qualifying in fourth, just 0.10 of a second behind Bottas. He barely beat out McLaren’s Lando Norris, who was nearly three-tenths quicker than sixth-place Pierre Gasly. Lewis Hamilton was uncharacteristically slow throughout qualifying, finishing seven-tenths off pole and seventh on the grid. He aborted a lap in the final minutes of Q3 after brushing the walls at Portier before Leclerc’s shunt prevented a last-gasp run for the Mercedes driver. 

Behind Hamilton, Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel continued his streak of reaching Q3 at Monaco with a strong drive to eighth. Sergio Perez, however, struggled around the tight Monte Carlo streets, the Red Bull driver starting his final lap strangely early before tapping the walls and encountering traffic, failing to improve from ninth. Antonio Giovinazzi finished tenth in Q3 but will be happy to have achieved Alfa Romeo’s first Q3 appearance in 2021.

In Q2, McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo couldn’t reach the line before the checkered flag came out, missing out on his final flying lap and qualifying a disappointing 12th. He is just behind the Alpine of Esteban Ocon, who improved on his last lap but couldn’t escape the elimination zone. Meanwhile, Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi’s quick lap at the end of Q2 squeezed him into the top ten, beating Ocon by 0.077 of a second. His teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, finished in 14th, behind Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll. Fifteenth place on the grid went to George Russell, who reached Q2 for the fifth time in five races this season.

In Q1 the drivers battled through traffic as they tried to avoid being knocked out. Rookie Yuki Tsunoda, driving for Alpha Tauri, improved his time on his final run but ended up 0.018 of a second behind Vettel and will start 16th. Behind him was the experienced Fernando Alonso, with the two-time champion severely off the pace all session. Williams’ Nicholas Latifi, competing in his first Monaco Grand Prix, qualified 18th with Haas rookie Nikita Mazepin in 19th. Mick Schumacher had a big crash in FP3 and could not participate in qualifying. He will start last on the grid if the stewards allow him to enter the race. 

See also
F1 Midweek: Drivers Excited for Return to Monaco After 2020 Absence

Before the on-track action got underway this week, McLaren made two major announcements. First off, the Woking-based team unveiled a special one-off livery for the Monaco Grand Prix featuring the iconic blue and orange colors of Gulf Oil. The new look also extends to the drivers’ race suits, helmets and the rest of the team’s gear for the weekend. 

McLaren and Gulf have extensive history — the oil company first sponsored McLaren back in 1968 when founder Bruce McLaren was still at the helm of both the team and one of their F1 cars. The Gulf logo was present on McLarens in F1 and Can-Am until 1973 and the relationship was renewed when a McLaren F1 GTR Longtail sporting Gulf colors took second at the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans. The two companies reunited last year when Gulf Oil became a strategic partner of McLaren Racing, and the partnership has now blossomed to create this stunning homage to one of motorsport’s most iconic paint jobs. 

A new livery won’t improve the MCL35M’s performance around the Circuit de Monaco but the deal is another example of McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown’s prowess for attracting sponsors to the team. Brown replaced the well-established Ron Dennis as CEO in 2016 following the team’s slide down the pecking order — after being a consistent top three team during the previous decade, McLaren had finished a dismal ninth in the 2015 Constructors’ Championship.

Under Brown’s leadership, the team has not only climbed their way back to place a sensational third in 2020, but has gone from having a bare livery with minimal sponsorship to a car plastered with logos. Brown moved McLaren away from having just one title sponsor, who takes up more space on the car and can dictate livery colorways, to instead secure dozens of smaller deals. This tactic has brought in the necessary funds to keep McLaren healthy and allow them to develop a car with podium potential.

This sponsorship structure also allows for exciting one-off liveries like the Gulf paint job seen this weekend, since there isn’t one title sponsor whose logo and color scheme decide the car’s look, such as the silver and red McLarens of the Vodafone-sponsored era. 

The buzz around McLaren’s one-off livery will also hopefully lead more teams to try special liveries, perhaps for home races or anniversaries, and there have even been murmurs of doing a NASCAR-style throwback event. Just don’t expect Mercedes to join the party after the disastrous 2019 German Grand Prix, which saw a crash from Bottas and a 50-second pitstop for Hamilton while the team was decked out in a throwback livery and outfits to celebrate their 125th year in motorsports.

Along with the fancy new paint scheme, McLaren announced a contract extension for their prodigy Lando Norris. Norris, who joined the team in 2019 and had been a McLaren junior driver since his 2017 title-wining European F3 campaign, has now signed a multi-year extension with McLaren. Although the contract’s specifics were kept secret, the 21-year-old will stay with the team till at least the end of 2023.

See also
Lando Norris Signs Multi-Year Extension With McLaren

The extension is a nice reward for Norris, who has been a key player in McLaren’s recent return to form. After a solid 11th in his rookie season, Norris claimed his first F1 podium in the opening race of 2020 and scored in all but four races last year en route to ninth in the Drivers’ Championship. The young Briton is off to a hot start in 2021, with points finishes in the first four races including his second career podium in the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola. 

With McLaren on an upward trend and Norris settled into F1, this new deal has the potential to yield a future world championship pairing. That certainly depends on how McLaren handles the 2022 regulation changes, but with the new rules designed to create a closer field, having a strong driver who is well embedded in the team like Norris will be more crucial than ever. 

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