F1: Round 13 – Monza, Italy – 13 September

Remember when we used to complain that F1 was too predictable? Well, now fortunes swing up and down so wildly from race to race that it’s hard to keep up with developing whiplash. Brawn, after starting off the season in such dominating form, looked to be a busted flush and the momentum was all with Red Bull; but after Monza, it’s Red Bull who look to be all out of energy, and the Brawn boys are back on top with swaggering assurance.

Much of the first half of the race centred on whether or not McLaren’s two-stop strategy for Lewis Hamilton would be the joker in the pack. According to all the calculations, a one-stop was the way to go and a good 7s faster than the two-stop alternative; and everyone from fourth place down on the grid was fuelled to the mid-point of the race; but Lewis Hamilton, Adrian Sutil and Kimi Raikkonen were all light and going for two-stop approach. Could it work?

After a sluggish start in which he was lucky to make it ot the first turn in the lead, Lewis Hamilton certainly set about the task with everything he had, pulling out over 17s over the first of the two-stoppers, Rubens Barrichello back in fourth. It was right on the mark of where he needed to be, as he emerged back on track a long way behind Jenson Button (in 5th) and just ahead of the flying Force India of F1 returnee Vitantonio Liuzzi who was fighting off the raged attentions of Fernando Alonso on lap 16.

But that was the high point of Hamilton’s challenge; on a much shorter middle stint on the harder tyres Hamilton’s pace was no longer enough; now the one-stoppers were all running lighter and hence faster and there was no way to eke out the kind of lap-by-lap advantage that he needed to make his second pit stop and emerge back on track in the lead.

Still, when he did make his final stop on lap 35, he was back out in third and not all that far off the back of Jenson Button’s Brawn. As the race grew to its climax Hamilton had the gap down to 1.2 seconds – and less than four seconds covered the top three. Unfortunately Lewis then pushed it too hard and on the penultimate lap just put a tyre onto the artificial grass through the Lesmo curves. The car snapped abruptly away from him and Lewis hit the opposite barrier hard enough to detach one of his wheels; Lewis sat motionless for a minute, stunned and disconsolate at throwing away an excellent podium position with such a mistake. The accident was severe enough for the marshals to call out the safety car, meaning that the race ended under caution.

Amidst all this drama it would be easy to overlook just how perfectly the Brawn duo of Barrichello and Button performed. With the car looking back on form after a scary mid-season dip, and the drivers delivering precisely what Ross Brawn’s brilliant strategic mind had devised, the race simply opened up in front of them and delivered itself into their laps. While Barrichello had looked the faster driver of the two in the first half of the race, and thoroughly deserved the win, Button managed to hold off the charging Lewis Hamilton without batting a hair and closed the gap right up to Rubens by the end so tat there was little to it.

Naturally Rubens was overjoyed and bouncing around with glee in parc ferme; but Jenson Button was also sporting a genuine smile, partly (one suspects) one of huge relief to be back on the podium after a long gap since his win in Turkey but also of delight for his team mate – even if it happens to be his chief rival. Despite the win, Rubens only cuts Jenson’s lead by 2pts – Button’s astonishing luck in the championship bid continues to hold.

Further back, one of the most interesting spectacles was seeing Ferrari and Force India pick their knife-edge battle form Spa. It still seems amazing that Ferrari should be under such threat from Force India, but Monza proved that the Spa battle was no one-hit-wonder. Kimi Raikkonen got past Adrian Sutil into the first chicane thanks to the KERS advantage but never got away from him for the rest of the race, and when Force India came in early for their first pit stop on lap 18 and short-fuelled Sutil to jump the Ferrari next time around, Ferrari had to go into high gear, call in Raikkonen and follow suit in order to maintain position.

It still almost went wrong for Raikkonen at the second stop when both he and Sutil came in together on lap 38. A little twitch from the lollipop man and Raikkonen almost pulled out too early, stuttering to get away when finally ushered out. It should have been enough to give Sutil the position, but Adrian had knocked over some of his pit crew with a messy arrival into the box, losing a wing mirror in the process, and was in no state to take advantage. They still kept fighting to the end, but possession is nine-tenths of motor racing law and Kimi had a lock on the 4th place by the time Lewis crashed out and rounded the position up to 3rd.

Sutil’s new team mate Tonio Liuzzi showed that the pace of the Force India was entirely real when he blasted past Heikki Kovalainen into Parabolica on lap 2 despite the McLaren’s KERS advantage. In fact, Kovalainen had a terrible early part of the race, losing far too many positions while on the one-stop strategy which suggested that perhaps Hamilton was two-stopping because the car just wasn’t up to the massive load of fuel necessary for a one-stop. Either way, Heikki’s pace was very poor and while he gradually found the pace to take 6th it was a disappointing performance that will have done little to stake his claim to a renewed contract at McLaren for 2010.

Kovalainen finished just behind Fernando Alonso, who had wrung the neck out of his Renault to get 5th position. His efforts hadn’t been helped by a mixed start despite the team recalling its KERS system for Monza; too much tail spin meant that the KERS became a damage-limitation tool rather than an advantage over the other cars. Alonso’s team mate Romain Grosjean, meanwhile, laboured toward the back of the field with anoverheating gearbox and a mistake in the early laps.

Nick Heidfeld did well to get BMW into the points, after his team mate Robert Kubica had a brief but eventful outing: he tangled with Red Bull’s Mark Webber at the Roggia chicane, tipping Webber into the barrier and damaging his own front wing in the process. With the marshals afraid that the wing might break apart at high speed in a dangerous moment, Kubica got served an orange-and-black flag requriing him to come in and get it repaired. He retired into the garage for good a couple of laps later.

Webber’s retirement was a crushing blow for the Aussie in his title bid, but it wasn’t a good day for Red Bull anyway, with Sebastien Vettel anonymous outside of the points for most of the day, and only getting a late consolation point as a result of Hamilton’s late crash. Whether this was a result of genuine lack of form at Monza, or a consequence of the team having to restrict its running in practice because of running out of engines, or possibly a case of the team having to turn down the power on the Renault power plant to get them through the rest of the season in one piece, it’s hard to say, but Vettel’s disappointing race at Monza really hands back the momentum to the Brawn team in the title fight.

Despite the reputation of Monza as a car-breaker we saw only two technical retirements other than Kubica – Jaime Alguersuari limped back into the pits on lap 20, and Tonio Lizzi’s engine died on him on lap 23 while he was running an excellent 4th place as pit stops cycled through. Nico Rosberg clearly had technical issues throughout, pitting as early as lap 6 for new tyres after finding the handling of the car all over the place; the fresh rubber did little to help and he finished a dismal two laps down after several lengthy stops trying to pin down the problem.

Rosberg’s Williams team mate Kazuki Nakajima did somewhat better and finished 10th, after a vicious scrap with Toyota’s Jarno Trulli. Trulli had been staring at the back of the Williams for much of the afternoon – far too long as far as he was concerned – and finally had a moment of madness, launching a wild move up the inside at turn 1. The two bounced off each other and Nakajima was lucky to survive, while Trulli found himself wheel-to-wheel with his own team mate Timo Glock while trying to recover his momentum from the first clash. The two fought hard into Roggia, and then Trulli finally lost it in Lesmo 1 and slid wide through the gravel trap before returning on track, now behind Sebastien Buemi in the Toro Rosso.

And with that, the European stage of the 2009 Formula 1 championship is done with. The four remaining races are scattered around the globe – Singapore and Japan are next on back-to-back weekends, then Brazil before finally concluding in Abu Dhabi on 1 November. Will there be more ups and downs and reversals of fortune before we get there? Chances are that there will.

But at this point, we seem increasingly assured that the next world champion will be wearing Brawn colours as a result of the Monza weekend.

Race result

Pos  Driver        Team                      Time
 1.  Barrichello   Brawn-Mercedes        (B)  1h16:21.706
 2.  Button        Brawn-Mercedes        (B)  +     2.866
 3.  Raikkonen     Ferrari               (B)  +    30.664
 4.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes  (B)  +    31.131
 5.  Alonso        Renault               (B)  +    59.182
 6.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes      (B)  +  1:00.693
 7.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber            (B)  +  1:22.412
 8.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault      (B)  +  1:25.427
 9.  Fisichella    Ferrari               (B)  +  1:26.856
10.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota       (B)  +  2:00.000
11.  Glock         Toyota                (B)  +  2:43.925
12.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes      (B)  +     1 lap
13.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)  +     1 lap
14.  Trulli        Toyota                (B)  +     1 lap
15.  Grosjean      Renault               (B)  +     1 lap
16.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota       (B)  +    2 laps

Fastest lap: Sutil, 1:24.739

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Liuzzi        Force India-Mercedes  (B)    23
Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)    20
Kubica        BMW Sauber            (B)    16
Webber        Red Bull-Renault      (B)    1

World Championship standings, round 13

With four races to go, Button leads by 14pts – meaning Rubens will have to outscore his team mate by more than an average of 3.5pts per race. In other words, Jenson Button could secure the title simply by making sue he finishes every race immediately behind Rubens – an there’s nothing the Brazilian could do about that. But it’s too close and fragile a lead to be certain of, as one race with a DNF for Button and a win for Barrichello would be enough to turn the whole thing on its head.

It’s harder to see Vettel managing to make up more than 6.5pts to Button now; even a couple of DNFs for Button with Vettel winning both races would still leave the German needing 3pts per race to catch the Briton. And Webber of course is even further disadvantaged,

In other words: the title race was just confirmed as a two-horse race, between two team mates who seem to genuinely like each other – but who both want the ultimate prize in motorsport too much not to do everything they can to win at the same time.

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Button        80        1.  Brawn-Mercedes        146
 2.  Barrichello   66        2.  Red Bull-Renault      105.5
 3.  Vettel        54        3.  Ferrari                62
 4.  Webber        51.5      4.  McLaren-Mercedes       47
 5.  Raikkonen     40        5.  Toyota                 38.5
 6.  Rosberg       30.5      6.  Williams-Toyota        30.5
 7.  Hamilton      27        7.  BMW Sauber             20
 8.  Trulli        22.5      8.  Renault                20
 9.  Massa         22        9.  Force India-Mercedes   13
10.  Alonso        20       10.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      5
11.  Kovalainen    20       
12.  Glock         16       
13.  Heidfeld      12       
14.  Kubica         8       
15.  Fisichella     8       
16.  Sutil          5       
17.  Buemi          3       
18.  Bourdais       2   
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