By Alan Baldwin
MONACO (Reuters) – Lewis Hamilton withstood lap after lap of intense pressure on worn tires to win a nail-biting Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday in a triumphant tribute to his Mercedes team’s late Formula One great Niki Lauda.
The Briton, who now has 77 career wins and a 17-point lead over team mate Valtteri Bottas in the championship, had called for a miracle as Red Bull’s Max Verstappen filled his car’s mirrors, with the pair banging wheels late on.
The five times world champion held on, taking the chequered flag for his fourth win of the season and third in Monaco, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel the runner-up after a time penalty demoted Verstappen to fourth.
Bottas, who was involved in a pitlane collision with Verstappen on lap 12 that led to the Dutch driver’s penalty for an unsafe release, finished third.
“That was definitely the hardest race I’ve had,” said Hamilton, before cooling down with a plunge into the trackside swimming pool in his sweat-covered overalls after the podium ceremonies.
“I really was fighting with the spirit of Niki.
“I know he will be looking down and taking his hat off. I was trying to stay focused and make him proud,” he added of the Austrian, a triple world champion and non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team who died on Monday, aged 70.
Mercedes, who extended their winning run to six, lead Ferrari by 118 points in the constructors’ standings. Hamilton has 137 to 120 for Bottas, with Vettel moving up to third place on 82.
Hamilton and Verstappen finished under investigation after they banged wheels going into the chicane at the tunnel exit two laps from the end when the Dutchman tried to pass, but stewards took no further action.
The Briton was forced to cut the corner but kept his advantage.
HOPING FOR A MIRACLE
Hamilton, who started on pole, had earlier had some anxious and angry exchanges with his team who admitted they had made a mistake with their tire selection.
“I don’t know what you’re thinking by keeping these tires on, man. You need to hope for a miracle,” Hamilton said, with Verstappen on longer-lasting hard rubber and doing all he could to pass.
The ‘miracle’, with Hamilton wearing a retro red helmet sporting Lauda’s name and colors while the car carried a variety of tributes, duly happened as if by the late champion’s celestial command.
“That was an incredible drive. There was no one else who could have done that,” Mercedes chief strategist James Vowles told him over the radio.
“It was a world champion’s drive for a world champion who is not with us any more,” declared team boss Toto Wolff. “Niki would have loved it.”
Monaco, with its twisty streets and unforgiving barriers, is notoriously difficult to overtake on but Hamilton still made all the difference.
“The pressure felt immense and there was every opportunity to crack today under that pressure,” he said. “I was determined not to crack.
“Max put on a great race, I nearly crashed, like, 30 times so I’m grateful I didn’t. But I did touch the wall a couple of times.”
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc had created much of the early excitement of an entertaining race but was also the sole retirement, stepping out of the car in the pits with 19 laps gone.
The Monegasque, starting 16th, was up to 12th by the end of lap seven after overtaking McLaren’s Lando Norris and Haas’s Romain Grosjean at the hairpin and Rascasse.
The youngster, who had vowed to be aggressive after a Ferrari strategy blunder messed up his qualifying, paid the price when he tried the same move on Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg at Rascasse.
Leclerc spun and picked up a right rear puncture, limping home on a rim and flailing rubber, losing a lap to the leaders and flinging out debris that led to a safety car period for marshals to sweep the track.
Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly finished fifth, with Carlos Sainz sixth and consolidating fourth place overall for McLaren. They were followed by Toro Rosso pairing Daniil Kvyat and Alexander Albon.
Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, last year’s winner for Red Bull, was ninth and Romain Grosjean collected the final point for Haas.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Tony Lawrence)