Saturday at Monza was a good day for Formula One; the on-track action allowed everybody to forget about the issues from Belgium, the weather had some fun with the teams and a likeable chap became the youngest ever pole sitter in Formula One history. It was almost as though it couldn’t be topped, but today Sebastian Vettel dominated the Italian Grand Prix to take his and the team’s maiden victory. A moment I’m sure that will be remembered and repeated for many years to come.
A Slow Start Leads To Lots Of Overtaking
With rain still hampering the preparations for the Italian Grand Prix in Northern Italy, it was decided by race control to start the grand prix under the controlled pace of the safety car. With standing water resting on the surface of the tarmac, the spray generated from the grid as twenty cars drop their clutches would have been unnecessarily dangerous. So as the cars sat on the grid, the teams bolted on extreme wet weather tyres and Bernd Maylander fired up his Mercedes-Benz AMG SL63 and led the pack off the grid.
Well, when I say the pack, I mean all but one. For it was to be a bitter-sweet day for Scuderia Toro Rosso as Sebastien Bourdais was left stranded in his grid slot, the engine seemingly not alive. The team tried to restart Bourdais’s car, but with the pack due to come back around in only a couple of minutes, Sebastien was pushed off the grid and into the relative safety of the pit exit. The team then appeared to mess around with the car for a lap before firing the Ferrari V8 into life and sending the French driver out. Bourdais’s only saving grace was the fact that the safety car did two laps at the start of the race to allow the drivers some time to familiarise themselves with the conditions, meaning Bourdais was able to make up some ground at the back before Maylander pulled into the pitlane.
On the third lap, the drivers were released and the real race began. Immediately Sebastian Vettel stamped his authority and with clear vision of the track ahead, the German driver started to stretch out a gap to Heikki Kovalainen from the offset. Generally speaking, the rest of the field showed respect for one another and little was made of the first few laps. On the fourth tour though, when all the drivers had become better aware of what their cars would do on the slippery surface, they started to harass their neighbours.
Timo Glock and Fernando Alonso were locked in a battle, the German managing to get ahead of the Spaniard, although it didn’t last long as Alonso came right back at Glock. David Coulthard passed Giancarlo Fisichella and Kimi Raikkonen was returned a passed position by Lewis Hamilton has the Briton skipped the chicane. The following lap Glock and Alonso were still arguing over positions and in the frantic attempts to gain places, Glock managed to spin his Toyota.
By the sixth lap, Vettel had a six second lead of Heikki Kovalainen in second, Mark Webber still in third and running relatively well. Further down the field though, Lewis Hamilton was pushing Kimi Raikkonen and the McLaren driver had another go at passing the Ferrari, this time at the Lesmos corners. However, Hamilton couldn’t carry enough speed and was forced to back out of the throttle and let Raikkonen continue. On lap seven, Raikkonen managed to put a small amount of air between himself and Hamilton, and passed Giancarlo Fisichella into the first chicane. It would only last for one lap though as Hamilton attempted a move on the Force India pilot going into the fast Parabolica corner. Again, Lewis backed out but got a superior run out of the important corner and was able to cruise by the Italian on the approach to Turn One.
Lewis wasn’t stopping at Fisichella though, and the championship leader got good traction out of the second chicane and was able to squeeze by the reigning champion going through the fast right-handers of the Lesmos. Felipe Massa was fairing better of the two Ferrari drivers, and the Brazilian took fourth place on lap 13 as he passed Nico Rosberg. Unfortunately, Massa couldn’t keep the car entirely on the black stuff and relinquished the place back to the Williams pilot. Massa made his move stick on the following lap.
On lap 14, David Coulthard found himself behind Giancarlo Fisichella again, and as the Scot made a move up the inside of the first chicane, Fisichella turned and bumped his wing on the back of the Red Bull. Moments later, Giancarlo found himself in the barriers, the wing likely to have fallen off and reducing Fisichella’s front-end grip to nothing. Although not necessarily his fault, this was bump one for Coulthard in Italy.
Lewis Hamilton then had a moment with Timo Glock, the Toyota driver looking quite racey in the difficult conditions. Going into the first chicane, Glock defended the inside line and forced Hamilton to the outside. Hamilton duly took the outside line which became the inside for the return corner. Glock stuck with the McLaren and came back at Hamilton as the pair started to gently turn to the right and on to the mid-straight. However, Hamilton was either pushing his luck or simply didn’t realise Glock had managed to stay with him as the McLaren moved progressively over to the left, squeezing Glock right onto the grass and forcing him to jump out of the Toyota’s throttle.
Lap 17 and Hamilton, on a charge, passed Robert Kubica as race leader Vettel entered the pitlane for the first of two scheduled stops. Sebastian stayed on extreme wet tyres, despite a line emerging on the drying track. The Scuderia Toro Rosso driver had options still open to him though, the team opting for two stops this race. While Vettel was being serviced in the pitlane though, Hamilton was lining up Fernando Alonso for a pass, which he tried at Turn One. Although the pair came close, Hamilton made his move stick and a couple of laps later, Timo Glock followed the Briton through. Later on lap 21, Hamilton attempted a move on Jarno Trulli into the final Parabolica corner, but again was forced to back out of the throttle and tuck in behind the Toyota. This gave the McLaren driver a good exit though and in the run down to the first chicane, Lewis made another attempt. Trulli is a wise driver though and defended his line well, and Hamilton jumped over the chicane and once again relinquished the position back to the Italian. 90 seconds later, Hamilton proved to be more successful on the second attempt.
Hamilton On A Charge, Possibly On The Wrong Tyres
Around lap 28 most of the one-stoppers poured into the pitlane for fresh rubber and enough fuel to see them through to the end. The biggest question though, was which tyres to go for? The track was definitely drying and the extreme wets were overheating and blistering. Hamilton’s front-right was particularly worn when the mechanic took it off. Interestingly though, the McLaren driver opted to stay on the extreme tyre, the team believing that it may rain again before the end.
Nico Rosberg had a bit of a drama in the pitlane as the fuel nozzle got stuck in the car. Rosberg was given the order to go but sensing (or seeing in his mirror) that the refueller was still attached, the German pilot pulled his clutch and stomped the brake pedal almost immediately. This issue obviously hampered Nico, and a lot of time was lost while the team struggled to get the nozzle clear of the tank. Also drawing interest in the pitlane was David Coulthard. The Red Bull driver being the first among the field to opt for intermediate tyres. As the world watched Coulthard make his way back onto the track, everyone witnessed the Scot not even bother with the first chicane. Although David tried to slow his car down in time, his experience told him that after a certain point, there really is little point in continuing to try. Coulthard negotiated the slalom of barriers and returned to the track.
At this point of the race, Sebastian Vettel had one more stop to make, and Lewis Hamilton had to get to the end of the race with the extreme wet weather tyres. Or at least, that was likely to be the plan going around the McLaren garage. If it rained again, both drivers would be okay. Lewis’s tyres would last a little longer and Vettel could have taken a fresh-ish set at his final stop. If it dried though, and Vettel could get a set of intermediates on his STR, Hamilton would not be able to respond.
Mark Webber’s race comes to a conclusion at Variante Ascari – the third chicane – as after conceding his position to Felipe Massa, the Australian dropped his car on the exit and spun. Although Webber kept the Red Bull out of the barrier and would go on to finish the race, eighth place isn’t a great result from third on the grid.
The Grand Finale
On laps 34 and 35 a lot of the remaining field – only Fisichella retired – pitted for their final stops. Lewis Hamilton threw down some fastest laps and Vettel, still the race leader, came in for his final glug of fuel on lap 37. The STR took a set of intermediates and as Vettel was released from his box, Lewis Hamilton peeled into his box for a set of intermediate tyres too. This effectively put a stop to Lewis’s race, but the McLaren driver had to change tyres if he was to minimise the damage from other drivers. If it had rained, then the story could have been different, but the gamble didn’t pay off and once again, McLaren’s choice of rubber has cost them.
Hamilton returned to the track behind Mark Webber and well down the order. Despite being on cold tyres though, Hamilton opened all the taps and started to charge forward. The McLaren driver passed Mark Webber at the second chicane, sliding his way through and barely keeping his MP4-23 pointing the right way. It wasn’t long before the Ferrari of Massa and the McLaren of Hamilton were in each others sights, the Brazilian having to look in his mirrors and defend his line to the Mercedes-powered car. Hamilton would spend a few laps all over Massa’s gearbox, harassing Ferrari’s champion-hopeful and looking for a way past. Alas, there was no way through and Lewis would end up looking at the rear wing of the F2008 until the chequered flag.
Just five laps from the end and Hamilton had backed away a little from Massa, allowing himself to be preyed upon from the catching Webber. On lap 48, the Australian seized the opportunity and made a lunge into Turn One on the outside. As they turned through the corner Hamilton squeezed Webber to the very outside of the track and the Red Bull was briefly lifted into the air when the wheels banged together. Kimi Raikkonen managed to set a series of fastest laps in the final few tours of Monza, but the result ultimately went to Sebastian Vettel, and Kimi Raikkonen had to settle for ninth. Or to put in the Finn’s language no doubt, last.
The dominant nature of Vettel’s win was inspiring, and the young German thoroughly deserved it after showing fine form for much of the year. With a contract for Red Bull Racing already in place, Vettel will become the team’s second winner to drive for them, Coulthard having won with Williams and McLaren before joining the squad. No doubt Gerhard Berger’s little squad has embarrassed Red Bull Racing, but after such a wonderful performance, in front of the boss of the owning company, Vettel was almost in a league of his own. Only a couple of seasons ago the car that has won in Monza today was called a Minardi, and they were fighting for their very survival, let alone race finishes and points. But today, in the new guise of Scuderia Toro Rosso, Vettel can claim to have won their maiden victory and he himself steps into the record books as the youngest ever grand prix winner.
Heikki Kovalainen minimised the damage to McLaren by coming home in second, some twelve seconds adrift of the STR, and Robert Kubica completed the podium after a sterling effort from eleventh on the grid. Fernando Alonso managed to claim fourth and some decent points for Renault while Nick Heidfeld crossed the line in fifth. Felipe Massa somewhat embarrassingly took sixth, ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber. Kimi Raikkonen even more embarrassingly took ninth, although he was 15s ahead of Nelson Piquet Jr. Sebastien Bourdais in the second STR crawled home in eighteenth, managing to get himself ahead of Adrian Sutil, but failing to recover his lost lap. Giancarlo Fisichella was, quite surprisingly, the only retiree.
Vettel becomes the first German driver to win a race since Michael Schumacher retired, and to hear the Italian national anthem on the podium for the winning constructor, but not see any Ferrari driver present – it was something special. Not in a cruel way, just in a different way. Formula One needed a hero today, it needed spirits lifting and it needed someone to shake things up in a really positive way. Sebastian did that and totally deserved his win.