Monaco GP truly belonged to Niki Lauda
The passing of an iconic figure usually casts a pall, but even Niki Lauda’s shadow seemed to be wearing the racer’s trademark red peaked cap.
The three-time world champion passed away on Monday, and while he was a regular fixture in modern-day Formula One and visibly missed, the Monaco Grand Prix felt like a celebration instead of a wake. Teams across the grid paid tributes: Mercedes added a three-pointed red star to its standard silver stars for their honorary chairman, and Sebastian Vettel saluted him using a gorgeous Lauda replica helmet. Mercedes champion Lewis Hamilton won the race, fitting given how Lauda shaped his career.
The Austrian legend made the British driver understand the Mercedes philosophy, and join the German team. “He was part of the process of changing my life,” said Hamilton. “I would be a one-time world champion now, (with) probably 22 wins or whatever it was when I was at McLaren, and I sit here a five-time world champion, and I definitely feel like I owe him a lot.”
Hamilton led every lap, but this bout was harder than usual since he was the only frontrunner on medium tyres, meaning everyone behind him was faster while he was forced to nurse his tyres and slow down the race.
His exasperation was apparent—the broadcast featured several instances of him complaining bitterly on the team radio—but he kept the door closed and made no mistakes. Lucky for him both Monte Carlo and the aerodynamics this season are entirely opposed to overtaking.
Fireworks came from the younger pilots. Making his way from 16th place, Charles LeClerc provided astounding moves—including a beauteous lunge, late braking on the inside of Romain Grosjean into Rascasse—but he perished when he rashly tried the same move on Nico Hulkenberg next. Meanwhile, Max Verstappen chased down Hamilton but couldn’t pass him. He did briefly make contact with Hamilton, but all in all the driver formerly known as Mad Max appears to be laying off the chrome paint. He was controlled and mature on Sunday, but alas maturity isn’t enough to trouble Hamilton. In an ominous indicator for this season, Lewis Hamilton now has nearly as many points as both Ferrari drivers put together. With the winning drivers taking off their special Niki helmets to put on special Niki caps for the presentation, one imagines the old fox smirking up there. Lauda was never one for trophies, notoriously trading his for carwashes at the local garage. Hamilton may keep the silverware, but this win belongs to Niki Lauda.
(Raja Sen is a film critic and India’s longest-running Formula One columnist)