The Premier Sim Gaming League travelled to the principality of Monaco for the third round of Season 30. The famous roads of Monte Carlo have played host to Formula 1 machinery for over 50 years, so it’s no surprise that it is a regular stop on the league racing calendar. Aston Martin’s Shanaka Clay leads the championship by 11 points over McLaren’s Bari Boroumand, with third through to sixth separated by only two points between McLaren Shadow’s Wilson Hughes (racing in Alpha Tauri colours for this season, as there were already 2 McLaren Shadow drivers taking part when he signed up), current champion Jarno Opmeer from Mercedes, Williams Esports’ Alvaro Carreton and Race-clutch’s new signing Simon Perigny.
Into the first of the familiar three-phase qualifying sessions, where we saw that Josh Idowu still had to serve a qualifying ban, following on from his no-show at Silverstone, which he took here. The same also was true of Mattijs Van Erven, Alessio Di Capua and Daniele Haddad, relieving some pressure from the rest of the field as four of the bottom five positions were already set in stone. Alpha Tauri’s Joni Tormala was first to break cover to start a fast lap, but a mistake at the Chicane after the famous tunnel then claimed its first victim, with the Finn having to slowly crawl back to the pits. Dani Bereznay was first to get a time on the board with a 1:08.737 on the soft tyres, and Luke Smith (standing in for champion Jarno Opmeer, who was on eRace of Champions duty) was the first to set a time on the Medium of a 1:09.064.
Championship leader Clay was not far behind Smith with a 1:09.128 on the same compound, where the vast majority of the field getting in times on the same tyres early, as most of the danger zone was already occupied. A variety of laps aborted is nothing unexpected at the tight turns of Monte Carlo, displayed rather dramatically by Nicolas Longuet from France, who missed his braking point entirely into the chicane and flying completely over it rather than around. Ruben Pedreno, who stood in for Wilson Hughes, also highlighted how difficult the circuit is by introducing his front wing to the wall at Tabac.
With the lap being so short, the effect of a single mistake could be the difference between pole and last on the grid, which Sam McBride (standing in for Carreton) demonstrated on his first run on the soft tyres. A slow exit from Sainte Devote compromised the lap after it had barely begun, and he bowed out of the lap by the time he went through Mirabeau. In the second half of the session, the pole time started to be fought between Boroumand, double champion Brendon Leigh, and Longuet as the mid 1:08s started to emerge. The medium tyres were being put away for the softs by almost every driver by this point, with Pedreno being the only driver without a lap time set with only five minutes of the session left, so he was left gambling with the remaining time at Monte Carlo.
Smith also felt the pressure at the Virage Louis Chiron, with a big slide through the chicane and flirting very dangerously on his push lap with the barriers, but the slide seemed to do him well as he took pole by half a tenth from Boroumand. With just over 3 and a half minutes left, Pedreno finally got himself off the mark with a 1:08.787 putting him in ninth, which pushed Louis “The Pad Man” Welch into the danger zone of 16th place. Clay felt the need to go again, being that his time saw him in 14th place but he stuck with the Medium tyres, However, his Aston Martin was sliding everywhere so he brought the car into the pits.
Another lap was claimed by the Chicane, as Longuet invalidated his run on a new set of soft tyres, having to risk another lap on the same tyres with the seconds ticking away. Most drivers remained in the pits with 1 minute of the session left, Welch gave it everything he had to get out of 16th, which he did manage to do with a 1:08.920 to put him in 13th. This caught out Simon Weigang as he was still in the pits when the lap was set, so the German was pushed out at Q1 by one one-hundredth of a second from Clay. The final laps were finished, and it was stand-in Smith at the top of the tree for Q1.
Whilst Q1 was a fairly standard affair for Monaco, the start of Q2 was very much the reverse. The weather had turned a little inclement during the interim time between the sessions, with the rain beginning to fall as the drivers were released. This then triggered a mad dash by all bar one driver to get on track on the dry tyres in order to set a lap that would become unbeatable as the rain continued to fall (Dario Iemmulo, standing in for Fabrizio Donoso, had sadly disconnected in between sessions, so was left in the pits).
McBride was the first car on track, and the tail end of the field were all sliding around everywhere, trying to find space and find any method to get heat into their soft tyres. Whilst the Williams of McBride ran off into the distance, Silverstone pole-sitter Longuet fell foul of Sainte Devote and invalidated his lap, but whilst the early advantage belonged to McBride. It was not to last as he went sailing over the chicane ruined his lap. The gamble on the weather didn’t seem to pay off for anyone, and whilst some of the laps were being set, whilst Smith opted to return to the pits early to go on the intermediates.
Longuet decided to try another lap onto the soft tyres, but his lap went the way of Smith and another lap was claimed by the chicane. John Evan’s replacement driver for this round was Thomas Ronhaar, who had the current pole time of 1:19.314, with all eyes at this point on Smith, as he was the first driver out on intermediate tyres. There were a number of slides of lock-ups from Smith on his lap but he did manage to complete it, but it wasn’t enough to take Ronhaar off the top spot just yet with his time of 1:19.706.
Tormala, now armed with intermediate tyres, went second with a 1:19.620, but Ronhaar still had three-tenths of a second in hand, and the rain continued to fall, which made improvements even harder to find. This put pressure on Clay, Red Bull’s Liam Parnell, Welch, Iemmulo and Longuet, as all were facing the ever more difficult task of getting out of the danger zone. Clay and Longuet managed to deliver laps that saw them into the top 10, pushing Pedreno and Jake Benham into the bottom five. But no sooner could drivers take stock of the situation, the top of the lap times suddenly came alive with times from Smith, Leigh, Boroumand, Tormala and Longuet.
Parnell crashed into the wall at Tabac, as Ronhaar had opted to go back out on intermediate tyres, having seen his soft tyre time beaten and almost slid into the wall in the tunnel as a result of the conditions worsening. Leigh went for a run on full wets, triggering a few other drivers to do the same, and somehow Iemmulo managed to prove there was still time to find on the intermediate tyres and jumped up to eighth place. This ended up pushing Bereznay out of the top 10 as he had retired from the session, so he was caught out in the same way Weigang was in Q1. Along with Bereznay, Benham, Parnell, McBride and Welch were also knocked out of qualifying at this point.
Q3 saw little change in the weather conditions, and it was Leigh who went straight out on the full wet tyres, but there was a mixture of wets and intermediates being trialled by the drivers. Leigh didn’t complete the lap, allowing Tormala to go for the first timed lap of the session of 1:21.010. The intermediate runners were definitely struggling for traction, but the conditions were beginning to show signs of improving, as the pole time was changing hands with almost every completed lap. Boroumand was the first to get into the 1:20s, and Leigh was the first to find the 1:19s. No one was keeping the pole time for long, as the track conditions continue to improve.
Curiously, Longuet opted to remain in the pits for the majority of the session, but with 3 minutes of the session remaining, the Frenchman took the gamble and went for the lap, but the gamble didn’t go his way and backed out after the chicane. Top honours had changed hands many times through the session, but with a minute to go, it belong to Leigh who was constantly finding improvements through the session. Clay came alive on his final run and smashed his way to pole with a 1:18.755, Ronhaar was next to answer with 1:18.891, but nothing was going to deny Leigh as once again the Brit regained the top spot with what would prove an unassailable 1:18.681, showing an incredible return to top form for the first F1 Esports champion.
Leigh and Clay had the best seats in the house with the front row of the grid, as the conditions had returned to bright blue skies, with the only moisture to be found in the harbour. With free tyre choice to the drivers because of qualifying in wet conditions, it was almost a 5-50 split between soft & medium tyres, with 4 of the top 5 cars opting for softs, apart from Schutte in fourth. The Monaco Grand Prix is notorious for first lap incidents, but the sim racing elite of the F1 world showed how it was done with the field making it through Sainte Devote for the first time in anger.
Smith and Bereznay were locked into a side by side battle coming through Massenet, Casino Square and Mirabeau, as the Hungarian finally fended off the advances of the Briton coming through the Grand Hotel hairpin. Clay was defending early from Boroumand, which gave Leigh an early advantage of seven-tenths of a second by the time lap one was over. Van Erven’s race ended at this point, opting not to continue following an early stop for a new front wing and hard tyres.
Schutte had already fallen outside of DRS range to Borourmand, which was proving very frustrating for Ronhaar behind, but the McLaren came into the pits at the end of lap two for medium tyres, a surprisingly early decision for that strategy, but race winner Boroumand had a plan in mind and a lot of free air to utilise. Clay, Ronhaar, Longuet and Bereznay all followed suit a lap later, with Borourmand pushing hard on his out-lap to maximise his undercut, which worked well to gain the Iranian driver a place and then he settled into putting pressure on Clay.
This gave Leigh a 3.6 second lead over Schutte as the Ferrari driver came in at the end of lap four, and whilst that was going on, the Aston Martin pair of Clay and Haddad were now working together to try to gain the championship leader an advantage, with Haddad falling behind Clay to be the rear guard against Boroumand. Leigh managed to emerge from the pits ahead of Clay, and by the time they had got to Mirabeau, Boroumand made a decisive move on the inside line to wreck the plans of the Aston Martins, moving him ahead of Haddad.
Ronhaar didn’t fancy being left behind either, and outbraked Haddad into the chicane, proving that overtakes are certainly possible at Monaco. Welch had a lot of company in sixth place, his worn soft tyres proving a headache for everyone from seventh (Parnell) to 11th (Idowu). Leigh and his entourage in 12th were closing very fast on the aforementioned group, Welch was really struggling to get any bite from his near lifeless soft tyres, so Iemmulo had a go at demoting Parnell from seventh on the inside of the Grand Hotel hairpin, a move that was completed by the Chicane.
By lap nine, Leigh et al had caught Idowu in the train for sixth, all being stuck behind the “Welch-wagon”, so Leigh went for a brave move on the outside of Mirabeau on Idowu for 11th, with Boroumand trying the exact same move on Clay right behind them. Neither attacker managed to gain a position from their respective moves, whilst this was allowing the medium starters, currently led by Schutte, to open up huge amounts of time per lap over the rest of the field. Idwous defence was far from over, as Leigh had a look on the inside of Tabac but the Brit opted not to commit to the move.
On lap 10, Leigh had a charge up Beau Rivage, switching as late as he could for the inside line of Massenet where Leigh finally manages to wrestle 11th from the McLaren. Over the line for another lap on somehow still inflated soft tyres went Welch, and Iemmulo went for an outside move on the Haas into Sainte Devote, pulling off a brilliant overtake for 6th place and the chance to regain some lost ground on his fellow Medium starters. Leigh tried the outside line at Mirabeau again, this time on Di Capua for tenth place, and whilst that yielded nothing, Leigh lost no time in going for the outside line through the Grand Hotel hairpin and made the move stick, gaining tenth from the Williams.
Leigh’s efforts were almost undone by a cautionary run through Sainte Devote by Weigang, which caught the pursuing double champion by surprise and forced an alternate line through the 1st turn, but no harm was done. Leigh went for the outside of the hairpin again on Weigang, but the German successfully defended against the Ferrari. Leigh’s assault on Weigang continued turn by turn and lap by lap, with the Brit trying every possible method to gain the few pixels he needed to get past Weigang, but still, the Alpine would not yield, and now the potential for the Medium starters to pit and re-emerge ahead of the Welch Wagon was getting closer and closer.
By the end of lap 13, Welch finally decided enough was enough and came into the pits for Medium tyres, rejoining in a lonely 15th place. Smith was first to pit of the Medium starters at the end of lap 14, pitting for hard tyres and reappearing in sixth ahead of the previously named “Welch-wagon” contingent by nearly fourth seconds, further highlighting how much time was lost behind Welch. Whilst Ronhaar and Longuet had an argument for 12th place, Leigh managed to claim eighth from Weigang on the run to the chicane. This now put Parnell into Leigh’s sights, but the Red Bull’s defence was short-lived as again Leigh made the switch to the inside line for Massenet, granting 7th to the Ferrari. In comparison to all the action in the midfield, the leaders were still running at their own pace, which by lap 17 consisted of Schutte, Tormala and Benham.
The on-track overtake count certainly belonged to Leigh by the halfway stage in the race, with those behind unable to brave the same lines that the Ferrari was able to make work. Championship leader Clay was still stuck behind Di Capua, 4 drivers had retired in the pitlane and still, there were pit strategies to play out. Lap 18, it was Ronhaar’s turn to try to make Clay’s day worse with an attempt on the inside line of Grand Hotel hairpin, but the Aston Martin was not being demoted from 11th place by the Haas. With no sign of the leaders to come into the pits, and with Leigh now released from his restraints and with a six-second gap to Smith in sixth, it was time for the pole sitter deploy all the horses at his disposal to close down the gap to the leaders.
The midfield group was now formed behind Parnell, “Liam line” now stretching back to Boroumand in 14th. Lap 20 was when Smith, with his fresh hard tyres now properly bedded in, put pressure on Iemmulo, forcing the Alpha Tauri into a mistake on the exit of Virage Louis Chiron, gifting fifth to Smith and booking Iemmulo a trip to pit lane for a new nose and fresh set of hard tyres, returning to the track in 15th place. The end of lap 21 saw Schutte and Tormala from the lead, new hard tyres fitted but Smiths efforts were rewarded and a 3.5-second gap now faced Schutte to Smith in third.
This left Benham and McBride yet to visit the pitlane, and whilst they decided their fate, the Liam line looked set to break, with Weigang trying a move on Parnell, and Clay trying the same move on Di Capua, all at Mirabeau. There was no change for Weigang, but Ronhaar managed to capitalise on Clays compromised line from the Grand Hotel hairpin and claimed tenth. By the time they reached Tabac, Di Capua bounced his Williams off the wall and Ronhaar needed no further incentive to climb another place in the race to ninth, which led to Di Capua pitting for new carbon fibre on the front and fresh soft tyres with 15 laps still to run.
Lap 25 saw Ronhaar face Weigang into Sainte Devote, the two bouncing off each other well, and setting up a side by side run up Beau Rivage, with Clay also joining in by Massenet, but no change in any of their positions. Benham pitted for soft tyres and managed to beat Leigh to fifth place and only two seconds behind the hard shod cars ahead, setting up an incredible crescendo to the race. McBride followed suit a lap later, rejoining in sixth place, seven seconds behind Leigh and seven seconds ahead of Parnell.
By the start of Lap 28, Smith led Schutte led Tormalla, all on hard tyres. Benham had already destroyed the gap to Tormala in 3rd and still had another 5.6 seconds in hand to Leigh and 11 laps to make some moves. An attempt on the inside of the Grand Hotel hairpin for Benham yielded nothing from Tormala but it reminded the Alpha Tauri that he had a lot of defensive work to do. Turn after turn, lap after lap, the trio of Schutte, Tormala and Benham remained very close, and closing in on Smith in the lead. Leigh had burnt the best of his tyres and was now falling further behind the lead pack with the freshly reshod McBride right on his gearbox.
Lap 31 and Tormala’s Alpha Tauri has been impossibly wide for Benham to do anything about, but a daring move on the outside of the chicane was attempted, but the Finn simply squeezed Benham to the wall and continued on his way, however, the gap that Tormala had got for himself was already gone by the time they were back at Sainte Devote. As the lap count continued to fall, the tyre advantage was fading for Benham, which prompted him to try yet again on the inside of Massenet, and again on the inside of the hairpin.
Yet again Tormala was not in the mood to yield, but at Benham hit the inside barrier on the inside of Portier which put an end to his challenge. Meanwhile, Leigh was having to put on a defensive masterclass as McBride was now the one trying to put in any move he could make stick. Whilst one Williams was fighting with the Ferrari for fifth, the other in the hands of Di Capua made a mistake into Sainte Devote and the front wing was deposited for the marshals to retrieve. Parnell parked his car in the pit lane, making it retirement number five, and Di Capua limped his car back to the pits to become the sixth retiree.
McBride almost joined Leigh in his car on the run to the chicane, the tail of the remaining Williams getting very out of shape before the chicane, but both cars were still glued together in the battle for fifth. With all the battling, with all the defending, in the end, it was the Mercedes of Luke Smith, starting from ninth, who took the win, ahead of Schutte, Tormala, and Benham fourth, ahead of Leigh who hung on to fifth, with championship leader Clay eventually finishing 13th.
They say racing at Monaco is dull, but you can always rely on the sim racing talent at PSGL to provide a great show.