Where it went wrong for McLaren in Monaco

Sebastian Vettel leads the Monaco GP

For the second time in two weekends, McLaren came away from a grand prix having touched the hems of victory - but yet again it was Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel who prevailed.

Five victories from six races for the reigning world champion is making him look invincible - and this perception may actually be what led McLaren to making what, in hindsight, were two crucial choices at Monaco that lost them the possibility of the win.

Both were aggressive choices, one on Saturday another on Sunday, that circumstance punished.

On Saturday the team decided that Lewis Hamilton would do only one run in Q3, late in the session.

It meant he would be out when the track was at its quickest, and that he would save a set of new super-soft tyres that could give him an advantage on race day.

It was a plan with a certain logic to it. The McLaren is invariably not quite as fast as the Red Bull over one lap of qualifying, but around Monte Carlo Hamilton's acrobatic skills might just have allowed him to make the difference.

He would need everything aligned in his favour, but if Red Bull was to be beaten to pole anywhere, the Monaco streets were favourite.

Aligning every last thing in Hamilton's favour, of trying to achieve something against the odds, was what his Saturday strategy was all about, but it carried with it risks.

At Monaco, with walls and barriers to hit rather than run-off areas, there is a much higher likelihood of red flags.

Get one of those at the wrong time - after your rivals have set their times but before you have done yours - and there is obvious potential to be caught out.

Which, of course, is exactly what happened. Sergio Perez's accident came after Vettel, Button and Webber had set their times but before Hamilton had set his.

Depending upon your view, it was either unlucky or ill-considered. There was a risk - and that risk had become reality.

All of which left Jenson Button - starting from second to Hamilton's ninth after a more conventional strategy - as McLaren's main hope for the race.

As the race got under way, with Button running second to Vettel and ahead of Fernando Alonso's Ferrari, so the team displayed the same aggressive attitude in the running of Jenson's race.

They pitted him early in order to jump him ahead of Vettel, fitting him with a fresh set of option tyres that allowed him to pull away from the Red Bull which, in error, had been fitted with the slower primes.

So far, so good. The early stop potentially made Button vulnerable later in the race, but it had got him into clear air with fast tyres and he made great use of that.

The real gamble came as the second round of stops approached. Again he was brought in early, on lap 32.

Monaco Grand Prix from the pit lane

At this point he was fitted with another set of option tyres - which put him definitively on a three-stop strategy, with the rules requiring that you use both types of tyre during the race.

From where he was on lap 32, the fastest way to run the remaining 46 laps was to split it up into two further stints, so much quicker was the option tyre than the prime.

Of course, it made you very vulnerable to a safety car compared to those who had already used both types of tyres, because they could get away with not pitting again in these circumstances and you couldn't.

Just as on Saturday, that risk became reality. The crucial safety car came on lap 34 and the Button victory strategy was essentially doomed.

Again the logic was understandable. To stand a chance of beating a faster car you surely need to do something different.

But maybe the Red Bull is not as unbeatable as the results are making it seem. In both Malaysia and Turkey Vettel's lead was made impregnable by slower cars - Nick Heidfeld's and Nico Rosberg's respectively - getting between him and his real rivals at the start of the race.

It gave him enough of a lead over the cars he was really racing, specifically the McLarens, that difficult strategic choices did not need to be made; he could simply pit in response to them and still come out ahead.

What China, Spain and now Monaco have all suggested is that actually on race day the McLaren's pace is at least as good as the Red Bulls, maybe better. What is also apparent is that with all the overtaking now possible (though not at Monaco), pole position per se is not as vital as it was.

It could just be that if McLaren relaxed a little, didn't stake all on high-risk aggressive strategy, they might just be able to take the fight to Red Bull regardless.

The championship now looks a tough stretch, given Vettel's lead, but straight race wins, even a sequence of them, are more than feasible. Let's hope so.

Mark Hughes has been an F1 journalist for 10 years and is an award-winning author of several books

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