F1: Round 14 – Monza, Italy – Sun Sep 14

There’s a school of thought that says that all F1 Grand Prix races should be held in wet conditions, and with a thoroughly mixed up grid, because you always get a classic race that way. This weekend’s Italian Grand Prix proved … Exactly that.

Sebastien Vettel had taken pole position in a sodden qualifying session on Saturday, making him the youngest pole sitter in F1 history. Naturally everyone knew it was a fluke, a stroke of a good luck. It was nice for one of the F1 minnow teams to have the limelight (remember, they’re what remains of the perennially unsuccessful Minardi team) but everyone knew that they didn’t have a chance in hell of converting it to a win and would be pushing it to make a podium.

As if to prove the point, Vettel’s Toro Rosso teammate Sebastien Bourdais stalled on the grid and had to be wheeled into the pit lane, going a lap down as the cars started under safety car conditions because of the rain that was still falling, and which made the first chicane a multi-car pile-up waiting to happen.

But Vettel had no such traumas, and when the time came for the safety car to come in and the cars to take the green flag, Vettel handled the restart with the cool assertiveness of a seasoned pro. Any thoughts that Heikki Kovalainen might have had about pressuring the young German into a mistake were quickly dispelled.

With the water spray causing visibility problems for everyone, the only place to be was in the front – with a clear field of vision. That’s what Vettel had, and he used it for all it was worth. He posted times almost 2s per lap faster than Kovalainen for the first stint, pulling out a lead of almost 10s.

Of course, Vettel was two-stopping – it was the only sensible decision for the cars up front, while cars further back would be trying a one-stop gamble instead. So when Vettel, Kovalainen et al came in, things started to get very interesting as we waited for the divergent strategies to work themselves out.

Kimi Raikkonen was starting from 14th and Lewis Hamilton from an atrocious and very unfamiliar 15th. And it seemed as though all the furore in Spa had got to Hamilton, because for the first few laps he seemed to be sulking – sullenly following Raikkonen around but making no moves. Very un-Lewis-like.

But it was clear that Lewis was battling not only a very heavy fuel load, but also being held up by Raikkonen who was making heavy weather indeed of getting past Giancarlo Fisichella in the Force India. When Kimi finally made it past, Lewis followed through in a matter of minutes – and then sliced past the Ferrari for good measure.

From that point on, Hamilton was on fire, seemingly able to drive past all and sundry at will. Also gaining positions thanks to the two stoppers coming out of the pits behind him, Lewis found himself gaining over a second a lap on Vettel himself. With only one planned pit stop for both of them to come, Lewis was within two seconds of the leader by the time he came in for his stop at the halfway point of the race.

Everything now hinged on the weather. Up to this point, everyone had been on extreme wet tyres – the only reasonable choice. And the weather forecasts were saying that more rain – heavy and persistent – was imminent; but the track was definitely drying out ahead of that new rain and the extreme wets were starting to suffer. Lewis stayed on the extremes, and continued to make up time on Vettel, but it came down to when that rain would arrive as to whether he could make the extremes last all the way to the end.

Unfortunately for Lewis, it turned out not to be a case of “when will the rain arrive” as “where did that rain go”? It never came. It fell perfectly for the two stoppers, who could now take their second stop at just the right moment when the track was dry enough and the intermediates the faster tyre; the one stoppers were royally screwed. They would have to come in again themselves for a second, unscheduled stop to change tyres; from being a contender for the race win, Lewis Hamilton was now scrapping for the minor points. He also seemed to cook those intermediate tyres in one last big push for the points, and was struggling in the closing laps pressured from behind by Mark Webber. Webber tried one big move to overtake Hamilton and nearly did it, but Hamilton savagely closed the gap and left Webber no room except to run off the track and cut the chicane. A bit naughty of the Brit, frankly.

Hamilton found himself running just astern of Felipe Massa, his chief championship rival. Despite being one of the two-stoppers, nothing had ever really worked for Hamilton’s chief rival. He ran a long-ish first stint, and come in at the right time to switch to intermediates, but came out in traffic behind Nick Heidfeld and make heavy work of the day not able to make up positions. His team mate Kimi Raikkonen was also having a subdued day, not able to match Hamilton’s early charge through the pack and instead ending up out of the points entirely, although he did put on a sport in the drying conditions in the later sections of the race and recorded – somewhat belatedly to be of any practical use – the fastest lap time of the afternoon. But the day’s performance did little to dispel the notion that Ferrari are going through a bit of a slump and finding it hard to take the fight to McLaren right now.

Heikki Kovalainen had also looked rather nondescript compared with Vettel (who had pulled away so far in front) and Hamilton (during the period he was charging through and looking a contender for the win.) But despite a rather subdued strategy it seemed to work for him and when all the ups and downs of wet weather, drier weather, one stop, two stop was done the Finn was still able to pop up into an undramatic but effective second place after all.

Commentators had been lamenting the mediocre showing of Robert Kubica, but it turned out that Kubica had been running an extremely heavy fuel load form the start – practically having to lug around some spare canisters in the cockpit to run as long as he did – and like Kovalainen his unspectacular strategy proved to be ultimately more effective than Hamilton’s heroics. He popped up into third place by the chequered flag, somewhat to the bafflement of everyone concerned.

But with the threat from Hamilton having receded after the need for a second pit stop, Sebastien Vettel was reigning supreme in the rain. No one was there to touch him; and yet despite the huge lead he now had, he was pushing all the way. He didn’t put a tyre wrong and was immensely composed. All the nay sayers who had predicted heartbreak for the 21-year-old were being proven completely wrong: the young kid and the little team that could (but never could, it seemed) was going to pull it off.

And indeed it was the Toro Rosso that crossed the finish line in first position, one of those rare moments in F1 when no matter who they support, any genuine F1 fan will be thoroughly thrilled. With this win, Vettel becomes the youngest-ever Grand Prix winner. And the thing is, it was absolutely, thoroughly deserved. He did everything he needed to, at exactly the right times, and didn’t make a single mistake. On a day like this, that takes some serious skill. In fact the only problem Vettel had all afternoon was when he started choking in the post-race press conference.

“Unbelievable,” said an elated Vettel. “The whole race we had no problems, the car was working really fine. I had a fantastic race, a really good strategy but all that was gone when I crossed the chequered flag, and the lap back to the pits all the podium ceremony was unbelievable.

“For sure this is the best day of my life, these emotions I will never forget, it is so much better than you might think it is.

“I can just say a big big thank you to the guys in the team, they did a fantastic job, who would have thought it at the start of the season, in these conditions we can do a bit more. It is fantastic, I am speechless.”

On the podium, we were treated to a very familiar combination of anthems – German for Vettel, Italian for Toro Rosso. The Tifosi might  have come here hoping for a Ferrari victory that never happened, but they must still have got a shiver down their spin at the sound of these anthems, a pairing made so familiar for so long by Michael Schumacher.

Is Vettel the new Schumacher? Seems only weeks ago we were predicting that about Hamilton. Or Kubica. Or Alonso. What it really brings home is just how good a line-up of drivers we have in F1 now, and how any of them can – and do – win at any race. Exciting times in the sport!

Well, when the stewards can keep their noses out of it. Fortunately there were no controversial decisions this week, although Massa was ordered to give a place back to Nick Heidfeld after overtaking through a chicane, and everyone was desperately jumpy throughout about whether or not they had cut a corner by an inch too far. It was a faintly ludicrous undercurrent, but fortunately it was just background noise to an otherwise excellent race, that saw more overtaking moves pulled off in one afternoon than most F1 seasons can manage all year.

There were incidents galore, too many to catalogue sensibly here, but remarkably few serious incidents. Fisichella was the only retirement, crashing at the Parabolica after breaking his front wing on the rear of David Coulthard’s Red Bull and then sledging off the circuit when the wing folded up under his car. Coulthard himself later tangled with Kazuki Nakajima and tapped the Williams into a slide, during which Kazuki Nakajima shattered the Red Bull’s front wing, scattering debris all over the track in the closing laps and necessitating an emergency pit stop.

But really, this was a fantastic race. If we only find a way of holding every race in the rain, and mixing up the grid, and stopping the stewards from lousing things up – then Formula 1 would be a very, very happy sport indeed.

(Oh – the long-range forecast for the next race in Singapore in two weeks is 60% chance of rain. For a night race. Under floodlights. On a brand new circuit. Now tell me that doesn’t sound like a classic in the offing?)

The Italian Grand Prix
Autodromo di Monza, Italy;
53 laps; 306.720km;
Weather: Wet.
Pos  Driver        Team                      Time
 1.  Vettel        Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)  1h26:47.000
 2.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes      (B)  +    12.512
 3.  Kubica        BMW Sauber            (B)  +    20.471
 4.  Alonso        Renault               (B)  +    23.903
 5.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber            (B)  +    27.748
 6.  Massa         Ferrari               (B)  +    28.816
 7.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes      (B)  +    29.012
 8.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault      (B)  +    32.048
 9.  Raikkonen     Ferrari               (B)  +    39.468
10.  Piquet        Renault               (B)  +    54.445
11.  Glock         Toyota                (B)  +    58.888
12.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota       (B)  +  1:02.015
13.  Trulli        Toyota                (B)  +  1:05.954
14.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota       (B)  +  1:08.635
15.  Button        Honda                 (B)  +  1:13.370
16.  Coulthard     Red Bull-Renault      (B)  +     1 lap
17.  Barrichello   Honda                 (B)  +     1 lap
18.  Bourdais      Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)  +     1 lap
19.  Sutil         Force India-Ferrari   (B)  +    2 laps
Fastest lap: Raikkonen, 1:28.047
Not classified/retirements:
Driver        Team                      On lap
Fisichella    Force India-Ferrari   (B)    12
World Championship standings, round 14:
Drivers:                    Constructors:
1.  Hamilton      78        1.  Ferrari               134
2.  Massa         77        2.  McLaren-Mercedes      129
3.  Kubica        64        3.  BMW Sauber            117
4.  Raikkonen     57        4.  Renault                41
5.  Heidfeld      53        5.  Toyota                 41
6.  Kovalainen    51        6.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari     27
7.  Alonso        28        7.  Red Bull-Renault       26
8.  Trulli        26        8.  Williams-Toyota        17
9.  Vettel        23        9.  Honda                  14
10.  Webber        20
11.  Glock         15
12.  Piquet        13
13.  Barrichello   11
14.  Rosberg        9
15.  Nakajima       8
16.  Coulthard      6
17.  Bourdais       4
18.  Button         3

  1. Nice summary. Very thorough. The move Hamilton made on Webber was carbon copy what Schumacher used to do – he even did it to his own brother, I think at this same track. Let’s not forget this “blocking” behaviour was illegal until the FIA allowed Schumacher to get away with it. The new chicane rule will also reduce overtaking, as I said in my blog. IT certainly allowed Hamilton to catch Massa more quickly at Curva Grande…

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