F1: Round 14 – Monza, Italy – Sep 12

It’s been a difficult mid-season stint for Ferrari, as their form seemed to flag and then they were embroiled in the team orders furore. As they came back to the hallowed tarmac of Monza they must have been hoping for a day of triumph to boost their spirits: and that’s just what they got.

It didn’t look like it initially, when Jenson Button got the better run down the inside into the first chicane and was able to force pole sitter Fernando Alonso wide, leaving Alonso struggling to hold off Felipe Massa as the trio came out of the chicane. Button did may a small price for his victory when Alonso ran into the rear of the McLaren, breaking a part of Button’s rear aerodynamics end plate. It left Button with a loss of down-force and impaired his speed, but fortunately didn’t put him out of the race. More surprisingly in many ways was that Alonso seemed to suffer no perceptible front wing damage.

Behind them, Lewis Hamilton had a good start (especially compared with Red Bull’s Mark Webber, who had a horror show and fell back to 9th place) and had a close up view of the duelling Ferraris. He was waiting to pounce, and stuck his nose down the inside of Massa into the second chicane. It proved a risk too far for the Briton: Massa had Alonso on the outside and no room to spare, so he duly cut across the front of Hamilton – and the Ferrari’s rear left tyre dealt a fatal blow to the McLaren’s front right steering. At first sheer momentum allowed Hamilton to dare to hope, but the next time Hamilton needed to steer into a turn – at the first Lesmo – the right wheel folded in on itself at a terminal angle. Hamilton had no control and went off into the gravel, his day most emphatically done – with major consequences to the championship battle. It was something of a return to the Lewis of old, the hot-headed youngster with little to lose; but instead he had everything to lose in terms of the title battle and will be ruing his rashness.

Button continued to lead, but the high downforce the McLaren was able to run thanks to the compensating effect of the F-duct system left him vulnerable down the straights to the faster Alonso, and when he also had to deal with unhelpful backmarkers Alonso was right there, inches away, breathing hot and heavy down his neck. It would all come down to pit stops.

There was a complication with pit stops when pit lane was closed for an ambulance to attend the Hispania pits – Sakon Yamamoto’s radio man had been leaning into the cockpit of the car when Sakon was ushered out of the pit box, and consequently he was knocked down and then run over for good measure. But the medical attention was swiftly dispensed and pit lane was open for business again – which of the leaders would come in first?

It proved to be Jenson Button on lap 37, the McLaren team accomplishing a perfect stop for their sole remaining representative. The team were hoping that the fresh rubber (albeit the harder compound) would give Button an edge in his outlap to allow him to keep the lead, but it proved a miscalculation: Alonso unleashea two devastating in-laps before pitting, and came out wheel-to-wheel with Button, but crucially just ahead and on the inside line going into the first chicane. Button couldn’t do any more: Fernando had reclaimed the position Button had stolen from him at the start. Alonso was able to stretch out a lead and leave Button to play with Massa, but the podium was decided and it was victory for Ferrari.

Alonso’s victory, and Button’s second place, have major implications for the title race given that Lewis Hamilton left Monza with no points whatsoever, costing him the lead of the championship. Red Bull weren’t expecting Monza to be good for their car, and sure enough this was rather more of a damage limitation exercise than they would have liked, not helped by Webber’s poor start that put him behind Michael Schumacher in 8th and Webber’s team mate Sebastian Vettel in 7th, also not having the best of starts. Webber was able to make a charge on Schumacher and force his way through up the inside of the first chicane on lap 7 and then hold off Schumacher’s counterattack into the second chicane to put the Red Bulls running line astern. Anyone recalling the debacle of the Turkish Grand Prix would have been forgiven for fearing the worst, but then suddenly Vettel slowed and Webber was past.

Another new team orders row? It didn’t seem that way, and Vettel’s wail about the engine misfiring and losing power seemed heartfelt and utterly sincere. It looked for a few minutes that he was on the way out of the race, but then he seemed back up to full power (it was later revealed by the team that the problem had been a briefly stuck brake and not an engine issue at all.) The prospect of sudden engine death would never have been far from his mind for the remainder of the race, but he wasn’t sitting back and giving up: instead, he switched to plan B and went for a super-long pit stop strategy that saw him stay out until the penultimate lap. All that extra track time paid off and he emerged back on track not only in front of Webber, but even comfortably ahead of Nico Rosberg who had been enjoying a strong but relatively anonymous run all afternoon.

Webber’s afternoon had become an exercise in frustration as he’d emerged from his pit stop on lap 36 right behind Robert Kubica – who was swiftly dealt with – and Nico Hulkenberg, who proved an altogether different prospect. While Webber was clearly faster, Hulkenberg hung on to his position with grim-minded dogged determination. Even if it meant cutting chicanes, weaving and blocking he was going to do whatever it took to hold back the Red Bull: Webber got increasingly steamed up and was certain the stewards must intervene with a penalty, but they never did. In the end Webber finally bested the young German down the outside into the second chicane, but that was on lap 51 with just two laps to go before the end and so there was no time to capitalise further as Vettel popped out of the pits ahead of him and Rosberg.

Vettel’s fourth place was a major achievement for the team at Monza, but ironically he’s still back in fifth place in the championship, while Webber – who ended up just sixth – nonetheless wound up retaking the lead of the title race. There’s just 25pts – the same as the points for first place, so equivalent to 10pts in “old money” in last year’s championship – emphasising just how close and tight Monza has made the season as it goes into its climactic last five Grands Prix.

Considering the high retirement rate in the supporting GP2 race, the Grand Prix had remarkably low attrition: Kamui Kobayashi suffered gearbox problems that saw him attempting – and failing – to start from pit lane before calling it a day. Bruno Senna was another retirement on lap 12, pulling over to the grass verge with mechanical problems, while Jarno Trulli’s retirement on the start/finish straight was somewhat more smoky on lap 47.

But the key retirement was that of Hamilton, and its repercussions on the championship will be the talking point as Formula 1 wraps up its European season and heads off for Singapore in two weeks’ time.

Race result

Pos  Driver       Team                 Time
 1.  Alonso       Ferrari              1:16:24.572
 2.  Button       McLaren-Mercedes      +    2.938
 3.  Massa        Ferrari               +    4.223
 4.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault      +   28.193
 5.  Rosberg      Mercedes              +   29.942
 6.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault      +   31.276
 7.  Hulkenberg   Williams-Cosworth     +   32.812
 8.  Kubica       Renault               +   34.028
 9.  Schumacher   Mercedes              +   44.948
10.  Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth     + 1:04.200
11.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari    + 1:05.000
12.  Liuzzi       Force India-Mercedes  + 1:06.100
13.  Petrov       Renault               + 1:18.900
14.  De la Rosa   Sauber-Ferrari        + 1 lap
15.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari    + 1 lap
16.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes  + 1 lap
17.  Glock        Virgin-Cosworth       + 2 laps
18.  Kovalainen   Lotus-Cosworth        + 2 laps
19.  Di Grassi    Virgin-Cosworth       + 2 laps
20.  Yamamoto     HRT-Cosworth          + 2 laps

Fastest lap: Alonso, 1:24.139

Not classified/retirements:

Driver     Team              On lap
Trulli     Lotus-Cosworth    47
Senna      HRT-Cosworth      12
Hamilton   McLaren-Mercedes  1
Kobayashi  Sauber-Ferrari    1

World Championship standings, round 14

Drivers:              Constructors:             
 1. Webber      187   1. Red Bull-Renault     350
 2. Hamilton    182   2. McLaren-Mercedes     347
 3. Alonso      166   3. Ferrari              290
 4. Button      165   4. Mercedes             158
 5. Vettel      163   5. Renault              127
 6. Massa       124   6. Force India-Mercedes  58
 7. Rosberg     112   7. Williams-Cosworth     47
 8. Kubica      108   8. Sauber-Ferrari        27
 9. Schumacher   46   9. Toro Rosso-Ferrari    10
10. Sutil        45  
11. Barrichello  31  
12. Kobayashi    21  
13. Petrov       19  
14. Hulkenberg   16  
15. Liuzzi       13  
16. Buemi         7  
17. De la Rosa    6  
18. Alguersuari   3  
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