An emotional, but satisfied Lewis Hamilton was showered in praise Sunday as he won the Monaco Grand Prix with a memorable defensive drive to triumph for Niki Lauda and his mourning Mercedes team.
After resisting race-long pressure from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in a manner that stirred memories of Ayrton Senna’s epic, if briefer, 1992 resistance battle against Nigel Mansell, the five-time champion emerged victorious and humbled.
“Mixed emotions,” he said afterwards to sum up his feelings after crossing the line and taking his time to absorb his achievement. “The hardest race I think I’ve ever had,” he added. “I was fighting with the spirit of Niki.”
His Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff was less restrained. “It means a lot and it couldn’t have been more dramatic after the last week. It was a world champion’s drive for a world champion who isn’t with us any more and I don’t think anyone else could have done that.”
Red hats, messages and signals around the circuit paid tribute to Lauda, the three-time world champion Austrian and non-executive director of the all-conquering Mercedes team, who died last Monday, aged 70.
To celebrate, Hamilton squirted champagne and then leapt into a harbour-side swimming pool before emerging to reflect on an extraordinary weekend. “This means so much, but I don’t know how satisfied I am. It was so intense, maybe the most intense race I’ve ever had. It’s how racing should be.
“The pressure felt immense and there was every opportunity to crack, but I was determined not to crack. If you crack in your mind, you’re done. So, on the positive side, I am mentally strong.
“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.”
Hamilton’s win was his fourth this season, his third in Monaco and the 77th of his career and lifted him 17 points clear of his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, on 137 to 120, in the drivers’ championship.
That, however, was of scant interest to the audience packed around the Mediterranean harbour on a tense, sombre and ultimately stirring afternoon in which Hamilton seemed through his anxious radio exchanges to be as concerned about his dying medium compound tyres as the aggressive Dutchman behind him.
“I think, if you accept that the driver needs to have a pressure release – and talking to us is that valve, even if it’s vomiting the anger out – we need to support him,” added Wolff.
“The tyre choice was wrong, but we rarely make mistakes like this and the driver made the difference in the race.”
Hamilton was switched to medium tyres at his pit-stop and complained frequently that he was struggling.
“I’ve not driven on empty tyres since 2009, when McLaren left me out in Shanghai for such a long time. I was never going to come in. I’ve learnt the hard way – and I was asking what would Niki do? Just keep going.”
Vettel was a happy second for Ferrari and expressed a universal view in his summary.
“It was a bit tricky, but it’s a great result and we have a lot of work to do. We’re not quick enough compared to these guys, but Niki (Lauda) would be happy today.
“He will always be around. We will definitely miss him. He’s an icon in the past and in the future and right now my thoughts are with his family. This Monaco is all about him.”