10 things we learned from F1's 2021 Monaco GP

Max Verstappen and Red Bull capitalised on an off-day for many of his rivals - and poleman Charles Leclerc's pre-race driveshaft failure - to score a comfortable victory on Formula 1's return to Monaco. Autosport assesses the key talking points involving title rival mind games, a champion's return to form and F1's latest political saga

10 things we learned from F1's 2021 Monaco GP

After a year away due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Monaco made a welcome return to the Formula 1 calendar with a toned-down version of its usual festivities.

The on-track spectacle met expectations as the race little offered in the way of major drama or exciting moments. But it could prove to be an important moment in the title battle as Max Verstappen landed the first major blow in the fight against Lewis Hamilton.

As Mercedes endured a day to forget, Ferrari, McLaren and Aston Martin all bagged important points, and some off-track comments ramped up tension between the protagonists in both F1 title races.

Here are 10 things we learned from the Monaco Grand Prix.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, arrives in Parc Ferme

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, arrives in Parc Ferme

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

1. Verstappen landed the first major blow in the title race

Verstappen’s victory in Monaco may have been made a lot easier by pole-sitter Charles Leclerc’s absence, but he nevertheless delivered a fuss free, controlled performance at the front.

It ended Verstappen’s tricky record in Monaco that had seen him fail to ever finish on the podium (so much so he didn’t know where to go during the post-race ceremony!), but more importantly landed a potentially significant blow in his title fight with Hamilton.

The 18-point swing vaulted the Dutchman into the lead of the drivers’ championship for the first time, taking full advantage of a rare off-day from Mercedes - which also gave up the lead in the constructors' standings. Red Bull has arguably underperformed in the early part of the year, so to come away from Monaco leading both championships was important.

It will be point swings such as this that will ultimately settle the title race in 2021. Hamilton made clear after the race that Mercedes cannot afford another race like Monaco, and he is right. Red Bull now has the chance to pounce and make Mercedes pay for any further lapses.

Bizarrely, this is the first time in his car racing career that Verstappen has led a drivers’ championship. It’s well deserved after a clinical display in Monaco, even if things were made a lot easier by the errors of his rivals.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Sam Bagnall / Motorsport Images

2. Bad weekends will be extra costly for Mercedes in 2021

Mercedes technical chief James Allison said after the race that the mood in the team was “lower than a snake’s belly”, summing up just how badly the weekend had gone.

The tyre warm-up woes seen largely on Valtteri Bottas’s car in the early part of the year reared their head again in Monaco, this time hurting Hamilton the most. After a sold if unspectacular Thursday, the weekend unravelled from FP3 onwards as the seven-time champion slumped to seventh in both qualifying and the race.

Hamilton did not hide his frustration after either qualifying or the race, making clear Mercedes had work to do to understand why it had been so slow. He was confused by the strategy, with Mercedes later explaining that it felt the undercut had “bigger potential” to beat Pierre Gasly. In the end, it backfired and cost Hamilton two places, much to his annoyance.

PLUS: How strategy proved key in F1’s Monaco midfield battle

This is not like previous years for Mercedes. Whereas before a bad weekend could still see it come home with at least one car on the podium, the increased threat from Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren means dropping the ball will be extra costly.

Monaco 2021 will be up there with Sakhir 2020, Germany 2019 and Spain 2016 as races to forget for Mercedes. But it must also be a race it learns from.

“We’ve shown time and time again in the past that we can bounce back from these weekends,” said Hamilton, “hence why I’m not the most stressed.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

3. Hamilton and Verstappen’s war of words is good soap opera

Verstappen’s cryptic post-race comment that “actions always speak louder than words” capped off a nice back-and-forth between him and Hamilton over the Monaco weekend.

Hamilton said on Wednesday that Verstappen “feels perhaps he has a lot to prove” with his aggressive on-track moves so far this year, only for the Dutchman to quip back that he had nothing to prove at all.

In the end, Verstappen left Monaco with the last laugh and the championship lead, but Hamilton looked to distance himself from any mind games, even needing to be reminded of what he said in the Wednesday press conference.

“I’m not playing mind games,” Hamilton said. “It is interesting what Christian [Horner] comes out with but I couldn’t care less.

“There are 17 races to go, so it starts to get a bit childish when you get into a war of words.”

It may be a bit childish, but as Toto Wolff said, it is giving some great off-track soap opera to this year’s title battle, which is good for everyone.

“We have a fight between outstanding drivers,” he said. “The championship has swung in both directions, things are being said that are good for entertainment.

“I would attribute that sentence to the entertainment factor, and it’s great to talk about it and write about it. This is action on the track, and soap off the track.”

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes

Photo by: Erik Junius

4. Bottas is far better than his points total suggests

Sitting 58 points off the lead of the drivers’ championship, you would be forgiven for already writing off Bottas’s chances of factoring in this year’s title race. But Monaco was a weekend where the Finn was blameless for his downfall, having been about the only bright point in a difficult weekend for Mercedes.

He had the upper-hand on Hamilton in qualifying to take third on the grid, moving up to second after Leclerc’s DNS. While he didn’t have the pace to really fight Verstappen, a comfortable run to second looked on the cards before the wheel nut issue in the pits brought his race to a sudden end.

It was a tough pill for Bottas to swallow. He’d looked in decent shape throughout the weekend, believing he may even have snatched pole had it not been for the red flag at the end of Q3. On a weekend where Hamilton was struggling so badly, he was genuinely able to keep things alive for Mercedes at the front.

The Bottas bashing on social media this year has been largely unfair. He’s had bad moments - Imola was not good, admittedly - but Monaco showed that he is still fighting hard at the front, and deserves more credit, particularly on weekends where he did everything in his power.

The car of Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21, is craned away

The car of Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21, is craned away

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

5. Ferrari needs answers after Leclerc’s heartbreaking DNS

Poor Charles Leclerc. Just when things appeared to be coming good for him around Monaco, the Monegasque's miserable record continues.

Leclerc’s charge to pole on Saturday was a real feel-good story, marking the return of Ferrari to the front after its 2020 spent in the wilderness - only for a driveshaft failure to then crop up before the race. His record of never finishing a race in Monaco remains intact; the home hero didn't even start this one…

Questions were asked of Ferrari in the aftermath of Leclerc’s DNS after it opted against changing his gearbox, having vowed it would “not gamble” on a retirement. But Mattia Binotto revealed after the race that it was a driveshaft issue that stopped him taking the start, meaning a change of gearbox wouldn’t have actually solved things

Ferrari acknowledged it had not checked the driveshaft in the wake of Leclerc’s crash, but remains uncertain whether or not the damage was related to his Q3 shunt. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but the team will need to review its processes to figure out a) if this was preventable, and b) why was the issue missed?

Monaco was a big opportunity missed for Ferrari. It should have opened a decent gap to McLaren in the constructors’ championship, but instead gained back just three points thanks to Carlos Sainz Jr's maiden podium finish with the team.

Nevertheless, it can take real heart from its pace that should see it excel at other slow-speed circuits, with Sainz's performances all weekend proving the Spaniard is a great fit for the squad.

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR21

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR21

Photo by: Erik Junius

6. Vettel proved his doubters wrong

After a sluggish start to life with Aston Martin, Sebastian Vettel finally notched his first points with the Silverstone team in Monaco, executing a foot-perfect weekend en route to fifth place (minus his “eye bleeding” moment in FP2).

Vettel qualified well to reach Q3, but really excelled in the race by getting the overcut on both Hamilton and Gasly to snatch fifth, capped off with a brilliant move at pit exit.

Insight: How revitalised Vettel redeemed himself in Monaco 

Vettel has received a lot of criticism for his struggles when going wheel-to-wheel in recent years, but this was a fight where he left exactly the right amount of room. Gasly said that Vettel could not leave “one more centimetre”, and that any more aggression would have sent both cars into the harbour - but acknowledged it was a fair move.

Major credit must go to Vettel for pulling off the move and giving Aston Martin a big breakthrough. On a weekend where team boss Otmar Szafnauer accepted that a top-half finish in the constructors’ championship was now the revised target for 2021, a strong double score was a good statement to make.

Lance Stroll deserves a huge amount of praise for his race as well. A long stint on the hard tyres lifted him into a comfortable P8, allowing him to stop without losing a place and then pull out another pit window over Esteban Ocon on the softs. A good job all round by Aston Martin after its tough start.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

7. Norris lapping Ricciardo was tough to watch

It’s been a good week or so for McLaren. After dominating the pre-race build-up with hubbub around its special one-off Gulf livery, the team then scooped its second podium of the year as Lando Norris took a well-earned third-place finish.

But as Norris soared once again, Daniel Ricciardo endured his hardest weekend for McLaren yet as he struggled on all three days. Not once did he feature in the top-10 of any session result, with his slump to P12 in qualifying leaving him downcast.

“I’m probably more confused than frustrated,” Ricciardo said after qualifying. “I’m sure Lando’s fast, but I refuse to believe he’s half a second quicker around here, and I don’t mean to say that against him.”

PLUS: How in-form Norris is staking his claim as Britain's next F1 champion 

McLaren F1 boss Andreas Seidl said the team’s car required a “special driving style” that was “not natural” for Ricciardo, but made clear the team would do all it could to help his adjustment.

As that is really what is still ongoing for Ricciardo. He’s clearly still bedding in at McLaren, taking time to get up to speed similar to when he joined Renault for 2019. The issue is that Norris is at his peak and fully in-tune with the MCL35M car, giving him the platform to perform as he did in Monaco.

The little wave from Norris to Ricciardo as he put a lap on the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix winner was hard to watch. There was no malice or intent behind it, of course, but it just rammed home how far from ‘peak Ricciardo’ we are right now. Hopefully it’s not long before he’s back on song.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, 3rd position, crosses the line to the cheers of his team on the pit wall

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, 3rd position, crosses the line to the cheers of his team on the pit wall

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

8. F1 should have more special one-off liveries

Norris’s charge to third place in Monaco put an end to F1’s apparently one-off livery curse - best exemplified by Mercedes’ capitulation at Hockenheim in 2019 - and gave a taste of something we should see more of.

The return of the iconic Gulf colours to the grid was a welcome sight, and acted as a great story in the lead-up to the weekend. It overshadowed Williams’ 750th race celebrations, oddly, proving just how well McLaren is executing its marketing and promotional campaigns at the moment.

PLUS: Why McLaren's special Monaco livery is such a hit 

It’s a shame we don’t see more one-off liveries in F1, as they generate a lot of interest and hype whenever they come along. It would be really cool to see Red Bull run one of their shakedown liveries for a race, or for Haas to deck the car in a star-spangled banner for the United States Grand Prix weekend. It shakes things up and keeps things interesting.

One idea Autosport put to Otmar Szafnauer would be for Aston Martin to go for a James Bond livery later this year to tie in with the release of No Time To Die. Although he said it hadn’t been considered, he said it was “not a bad idea”.

Lots of lessons can be learned from how McLaren pulled off its Gulf livery this weekend. It would be really cool if more followed suit and gave a little more flavour to the grid.

Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo Racing C41

Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo Racing C41

Photo by: Erik Junius

9. F1’s flexi-wing saga is bubbling away

The fuss around DAS and Racing Point’s brake ducts made protests run-of-the-mill in the early part of last season, making the start to 2021 seem rather civil - until now, it seems.

Following Hamilton’s comment about Red Bull’s “bendy wing” in Spain, it emerged the FIA would be clamping down on rear wing designs with more stringent tests from the French Grand Prix onwards.

But that did not satisfy the concerns aired by some in the F1 paddock, with Wolff calling the decision “half baked” and McLaren’s Andreas Seidl saying it was “unacceptable” to wait so long before introducing the tests.

Alfa Romeo boss Fred Vasseur branded it a “joke”, as re-designs will cost a fortune. 

Wolff warned on Sunday that it could get “very messy” in Baku should there be no clarification from the FIA and those running the flexi-wings gain an advantage at a track where a best-of-both approach could offer a huge boost.

With the margins looking so fine in the title fight, the benefit offered by the designs could prove decisive come the end of the year, hence the urgency sought by Mercedes to get a solution. It’s looking like a major political fight that, if unresolved, could ignite in Baku.

Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR21

Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR21

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

10. Monaco’s TV direction was lacking once again

For a race where there is little on-track action of note, you would imagine that the TV directors would be doing all they could to capture the things that actually do happen.

PLUS: The seven reasons why Monaco 2021 wasn’t a better F1 race

The most exciting on-track moment came on Lap 32 when Vettel exited the pits alongside Gasly and Hamilton, leaving the trio together as they went up the hill at Beau Rivage.

Gasly and Vettel stayed by side-by-side approaching Massenet, leaving fans on tenterhooks as to who would pull clear - only for the TV director to then switch to a replay of Stroll running over the kerbs at Swimming Pool. It was laughable, and has already spawned some brilliant memes across social media, cutting away from moments such as the Hamilton/Nico Rosberg crash at the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix and Sergio Aguero’s last-gasp Premier League-winning goal for Manchester City against QPR in 2012.

It was not the only case of sub-standard TV direction through the race, which is the only one on the calendar that is not handle by FOM, but instead by Tele Monte Carlo.

F1 needs to do everything it can to try and hype up Monaco, knowing the on-track spectacle isn’t going to set the world on fire. But the yearly gripes over the TV broadcast - especially in a climate where F1 TV offers all the onboards and footage you can want, often circulating on social media not long after - are a sign that things need to change if possible.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, and the rest of the field at the start

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, and the rest of the field at the start

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

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