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30 May 2011

As if the Monaco Grand Prix had not already been dramatic enough, Lewis Hamilton's controversial comments afterwards will ensure it makes even bigger headlines across the world.

The McLaren driver quoted Ali G, the original spoof character dreamt up by Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen, as he railed against the decision by race stewards to call him to explain his part in two separate incidents during Sunday's event.

Hamilton pointed out to BBC F1 pit-lane reporter Lee McKenzie that it was the fifth time in six races this year he had been called to account for his actions, and she asked him why he thought that was.

"Maybe it's because I'm black," he said, laughing. "That's what Ali G said. I dunno."

"People want to see overtaking and racing and you get done for trying to put on a show and make a move," he continued. "Fair play. If I really feel I've gone too late and hit someone, I'll put my hand up and say I've caused the incident and been the stupid one."

Hamilton described his being called to account for incidents for which he felt was blameless as "a joke", and described the rivals in question - Ferrari's Felipe Massa and Williams novice Pastor Maldonado - as "stupid".

What was he going to do about the situation? "I'll just try and keep my mouth shut," he said.

It is too late for that, though, even though McLaren went into damage-limitation mode after the race.

"Immediately after the race he was very down," team principal Martin Whitmarsh said, "and during a post-race TV interview he made a poor joke about his penalties that referenced Ali G. However, I'm pleased to say that he chose to return to the track a little while later to speak to the stewards about the joke. They accepted his explanation."

Hamilton's remarks came at the end of a weekend when nothing seemed to go right for him.

A wrong call to do only one run in qualifying led to him starting the race from ninth place, after he made a mistake and cut a chicane on his flying lap.

Trying to make up ground in the race, a brilliant early pass on Michael Schumacher was followed by the two collisions with Massa and Maldonado.

Sir Jackie Stewart talks about the importance of ridding yourself of emotion before stepping into a grand prix car, but it looked as if Hamilton had not taken the great man's advice on Sunday.

Hamilton has made himself one of global sport's highest profile figures thanks to his inspirational driving, and cool, youthful image. And he has established himself in the four and a half years of his career as unquestionably the greatest overtaker in F1, as well as arguably its out-and-out fastest driver.

But he did not earn that reputation with performances like that in Monaco on Sunday. BBC F1 commentator Martin Brundle described his late lunge down the inside of Massa as "clumsy" and his attempt to pass Maldonado later on was similarly optimistic.

When Hamilton watches the incidents back, I suspect he might agree, as he may well regret his post-race comments when he calms down after what was admittedly an intensely frustrating weekend. It remains to be seen whether they will get him into hot water with governing body the FIA.

In the days of the former president Max Mosley, there is no question Hamilton would have been called up to answer a charge of bringing the sport into disrepute. His successor Jean Todt has taken a less antagonistic approach, but has not yet had to deal with a similar incident.

Brundle said he thought Hamilton had let frustration creep into his driving, and it certainly looked that way.

He entered Monaco expecting to fight for victory and was quick throughout practice on a circuit he adores and on which he excels, only for it all to slip agonisingly through his fingers.

That frustration will be heightened by the fact that Vettel is now in what has to be considered a virtually unassailable position in the championship.

Hamilton is well aware of how good he is. He aches to add more crowns to the one he won in 2008, and even before Monaco it was obvious that the fact this season is likely to be another barren year was already bubbling provocatively inside him.

But the sooner he realises that his quest to win the multiple titles he feels he deserves will not be helped by this sort of reaction, the better it will be for him.

While luck appeared to desert Hamilton in Monaco, the angels are truly smiling on Vettel this season. And it is not even as if he needs them.

Time after time, circumstance has intervened to make the German's path to victory easier than it should have been, and Vettel has taken full advantage.

Vettel's victory in Monaco on Sunday, his first in the principality, was his fifth in six grands prix so far this season. Only Jim Clark, Nigel Mansell, Schumacher and Jenson Button have achieved that and all of them ended the season in question as champions.

Vettel now leads the championship by 58 points - that means Hamilton, his closest pursuer, would have to take two wins and a sixth place with the Red Bull driver not scoring just to draw level.

It is the sort of margin that can be closed only by a driver in the best car. The problem is that it is Vettel himself who enjoys that luxury and, boy, is he capitalising on it.

His and Red Bull's domination is being founded on their blistering superiority in qualifying. In races, as Sunday demonstrated yet again, the Red Bull is far more vulnerable.

This time, a mix-up at Vettel's first pit stop meant he rejoined on the harder of the two tyre choices, the softs, when Red Bull had been intending to put him on the super-softs, which his closest pursuer Button chose to fit at his first stop.

The mistake made, Red Bull altered their strategy, in light of a mid-race safety car period, and decided to try to make it to the end of the race on those tyres.

That meant Vettel entered the final 30 laps of the race with tyres that were already 32 laps old and with two of F1's finest drivers closing in fast on fresher rubber.

The tyres on Fernando Alonso's Ferrari were 17 laps younger than Vettel's, Button's a full 31; and with a little less than 20 laps to go the three of them were running nose to tail.

Vettel, driving brilliantly as he has all year, had held them off relatively comfortably until a big crash involving Hamilton, Vitaly Petrov, Jaime Alguersuari and Adrian Sutil brought out the safety car again and subsequently the red flag.

The 20-minute stoppage before the race was resumed robbed millions of viewers around the world of what promised to be a spectacular climax to the race - it meant all the drivers could fit fresh tyres and Vettel survived the last eight laps of the re-started race without incident.

It will never be known whether he could have held off Alonso and Button had the race not been stopped.

But McLaren managing director Jonathan Neale told BBC pit-lane reporter Ted Kravitz that by their calculations Vettel's tyres had no more than three more laps before they "dropped off the cliff", as F1 teams have taken to describing the moment the Pirellis that have done so much for the racing this year finally lose all their grip.

If Neale was right, even at Monaco Vettel would surely not have been able to hold Alonso and Button back.

Even Red Bull team principal Christian Horner admitted luck had shone on his team, saying the red flag was a "reprieve".

It was just the latest example of a recurring phenomenon this year. For all Vettel's searing qualifying pace, he is vulnerable in races, but events are transpiring to give him the breathing space he needs to keep winning.

Monaco followed Australia, Malaysia and Turkey this year as a race in which he might have faced a more serious challenge but didn't.

The championship may already appear to be a formality but the races themselves are making up for it with a combination of action and unpredictability that F1 has never seen before.

Next up is the Canadian Grand Prix, on one of the least favourable tracks for Red Bull, the long straights at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve favouring the extra power of McLaren's Mercedes engine and Ferrari over the Renault in the Red Bull.

Last year, Red Bull could manage only fourth and fifth in Montreal, behind Hamilton, Button and Alonso, in a race that prompted the decision to ask new supplier Pirelli to produce tyres that degraded rapidly.

The unique track surface there made the super-durable Bridgestones used last year behave like the Pirellis are doing at every race this season, and prompted the most exciting grand prix of the year.

If that happened when the racing was sometimes processional, even if the title fight was thrilling, the mind boggles at what could happen there in 2011.


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