It’s one thing to have the best car, quite another to make the most of it. Fortunately for Red Bull, while Max Verstappen threw his weekend away with a big crash in FP3, his team mate Daniel Ricciardo delivered when it mattered to take a sensational pole in Monaco.
Red Bull had looked mighty all weekend, securing one-twos in all three practice sessions with Ricciardo just ahead of his team mate. They should have had the front row to themselves, but instead bookend the grid, with Verstappen set to start from last after failing to set a lap time – the result of his car, which needed a new gearbox after his practice shunt, not being ready in time.
But while Verstappen was MIA, Ricciardo smashed it out of the park with a lap from the very top drawer. To reiterate his speed, he pumped in another lap in the 1m10s. No one could come close.
Mercedes have looked distinctly third-best in Monaco so far this weekend, but Hamilton looked to have sprung a surprise in second, only for his title rival Sebastian Vettel to snatch the position with his final run.
The other Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen was fourth, ahead of Valtteri Bottas with Esteban Ocon a brilliant sixth in the Force India and Fernando Alonso seventh in the McLaren. Renault’s Carlos Sainz, the other Force India of Sergio Perez and Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly completed the top 10.
All eyes were on the Red Bull garage as qualifying kicked off. As the team raced against time to fix Verstappen’s car, Ricciardo continued his domination of this unique street track with a brilliant lap to end the session fastest. The Ferraris were his closest challengers, but they were a staggering four-tenths adrift.
Traffic was a problem for everyone, with most drivers complaining on team radio that they had their lap compromised at some point during the lap, but the stewards chose not to investigate any driver for blocking.
Valtteri Bottas left it late to escape the drop zone, but Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley – who complained that a Force India had tried to put him in the wall – was eliminated along with Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson, Williams’ Lance Stroll and Haas’s Kevin Magnussen, who was eliminated in Q1 for the first time this year.
Mercedes rolled the dice in Q2 as they chose to fit both Hamilton and Bottas with the ultrasoft tyres, while everyone else opted to continue on the quicker hypersofts.
There’s around a second between the two compounds, so it was a high-risk strategy that might have paid off handsomely in the race. But after a single run, Hamilton described the rubber as “terrible” and they abandoned the play, returning to the pink-marked hypersofts for their final runs.
Ricciardo looked mighty once more. Not content with his table topping first lap, the Australian headed back out and improved his benchmark once more, moving just over a tenth clear of Raikkonen, as Ferrari appeared more threatening.
His team mate Vettel and the two Mercedes safely made it through, ahead of the two Force Indias who emerged as best of the rest in qualifying trim.
But Gasly was arguably the star of this segment, the Toro Rosso driver scraping into the top 10, at the expense of Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg. McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne, Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin, Sauber’s local hero Charles Leclerc and Haas’s Romain Grosjean also failed to make the cut.
Ferrari looked like they may threaten Red Bull for pole, but Ricciardo was having none of it in Q3.
His first lap out of the box was epic, the Australian becoming the first driver – and as it turned out only driver – to break into the 1m 10s, smashing the track record in the process.
He then asked “how much are we quickest by?” He needn’t have worried, with a stunning four-tenths of a second tucked in his pocket. He went again and clocked a lap that was just 0.036s slower than his benchmark. It didn’t matter. He still had a 0.25s lead.
After heading out late, Vettel improved on his second run to jump Hamilton and go second quickest. The Briton had briefly set the timing screens purple in sector one on his final run, but in the end faded as the lap went on, with an error at the last corner the final nail in the coffin. Still, with Mercedes looking a distinct third best this weekend, Hamilton will be pleased to have split the Ferraris.
The second Silver Arrow of Bottas settled for fifth behind Raikkonen, as Ocon took a brilliant sixth.
But the day belonged to Ricciardo, who took just his second career pole position – and Red Bull’s first since the Australian broke his duck in Monaco two years ago. That year, Red Bull messed up his pit stop, robbing him of victory. He’ll be hoping lightning doesn’t strike twice on Sunday.