Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
- Vettel in a league of his own again
- Schumacher fighting on the ‘limit’
- It ain’t over ‘til it’s over, or is it?
It couldn’t have been a better day for Sebastian Vettel at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza during round 13 of the Formula One championship this weekend, but although the 24-year old Red Bull driver didn’t literally lead the race from start to finish, he surely slapped his rivals in the face by winning and completely controlling the Italian Grand Prix. A happy team principal Christian Horner commented, “A phenomenal race today. To win in Monza is a dream come true and it was a really dominant performance by Sebastian today. We had great pit work, strong strategy and Seb made a really brave overtaking move to retake the lead from Fernando after the safety car. Thereafter it was a very controlled and well executed race.”
And that about sums up the race, or as Julius Caesar said 2100 years ago: “Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered). Red Bull have been giving another demonstration of Vettel’s dominance, but it was not a prefect weekend for the Austrian team, as Mark Webber failed to score points and was out of the race after attempting to take fifth place from Felipe Massa.
A win, but not a perfect weekend
Vettel started from pole, but Fernando Alonso took him by surprise and squeezed his way past the German with a brilliant move, and the Ferrari driver was the first to enter the Variante del Rettifilo. “The start was not that good, Fernando was suddenly there and I didn't know where he was coming from - it took me a while to see we were three going into Turn 1,” Vettel admitted. After the safety car came out after Vitantonio Liuzzi had caused havoc midfield by T-boning Vitaly Petrov and Nico Rosberg, Vettel had some time to think about how to get his leading position back.
By the time the safety car entered the pit lane again, Vettel had positioned himself close behind the Ferrari and with an equally brilliant and daring move took back his leading position by overtaking the Spaniard at the Variante della Roggia. “I kept second place and then after the restart, I was able to pass Alonso. He didn't give me much room there, but it was just enough, so it was very enjoyable,” Vettel said. From then on it became business as usual for the 2010 champion, he started building a gap and a few laps later he was already five seconds ahead of Alonso.
As said not a perfect weekend for Red Bull, Webber who left from fifth place on the grid already lost two places as both Massa and Michael Schumacher had passed him on the first lap. “"I didn't get the best start, me and Jenson were together, so I lost a few spots there,” Webber said. And added, “Then there was the restart after the safety car; I got a good one that time and managed to pass Jenson straight away.” So far so good, but one lap later he made a mistake trying to overtake Massa halfway the first chicane. He maneuvered his Red Bull on the inside of Massa’s Ferrari, then realized he wasn’t really ahead of him but by then it was too late and when Massa turned in he ran over the front wing of Webber’s car, while the Brazilian himself ended up facing the track in the wrong direction.
“I was trying to get the inside line for Turn 2. I probably wasn't quite far enough to get completely inside, but when I tried to come out of the move the kerbing on the inside is obviously pretty high; as soon as I touched that I unfortunately made contact with Felipe and that was that,” Webber explained. On his way back to the pit lane the inevitable happened, what was left of his front wing got stuck under his car, “I couldn't turn the car or brake. I went straight out of Parabolica and that was the end of my race.”
Button takes the honors for McLaren
Again an excellent result for Button, who apparently was the only one who could match Vettel’s pace on race day, but he had a very bad start and lost a lot of time, and eventually had to settle for second place. Button about his poor start, “It's frustrating to have had a problem at the start with the clutch, because it cost me dearly. I dropped back to sixth, then, at the restart, I had no way of keeping Mark back, because his straight line speed was so strong, so I slipped back to seventh.”
He then lost another four or five seconds as he had to slow down at Turn 1 to find a way past Webber and Massa who had tangled in front of him. But when he got going again he didn’t waste much time when he arrived at the scene of the Schumacher/Hamilton fight. “I was able to get my head down and passed Lewis and Michael within the space of about five corners, which was really satisfying,” Button said.
He then turned his attention to his next victim: Alonso. He had closed in on the Ferrari but Alonso was still quick on his soft tyres and only after both had changed to the medium compound, Button was able to overtake Alonso in a very daring move while both were exiting the first chicane. Button kept his foot down in the Curva Grande and stayed ahead and began reeling in Vettel, but although he was faster, he simply ran out of time. Button about the last part of the race, “On the whole, the team's done a great job this weekend, but it's the little problems that are frustrating: if you have one of those, then you're not going to beat Red Bull and Vettel.”
For Hamilton the race was less satisfying, he lost places at the start, and after the safety car came back in he wasn’t paying attention and was overtaken by Schumacher, a costly mistake as it took the 2008 champion almost 20 laps to find his way past the German. About his scrap with Schumacher he was rather diplomatic, “It was interesting being behind him, we were a little bit slow on the straight today, which meant it was hard to get past Michael, who was faster along the straight even when I had my DRS activated. I had to really fight Schumacher, but the fact that I finished ahead of him meant everything was okay. That's racing.”
Button, however, had witnessed Schumacher’s weaving to keep Hamilton at bay, and was less flattering in his comments, “Fair enough, he was coming out of a corner on to the straight but why didn’t he keep to the left? He always went to the right, then left and back to the right. Not exactly what we agree is one move. Maybe he has just lost his memory.”
Schumacher fighting on the ‘limit’
When Schumacher announced his return to Formula One ahead of the 2010 season, Hamilton was the one who immediately welcomed the German’s return, because he as a little boy always had been dreaming of an one-to-one fight with the seven-times World Champion. He since then only got a few opportunities to do so, but at Monza he got what he had dreamt about so often.
Schumacher had rocketed to a fourth place during the start, taking Webber, Massa and Button by surprise. At the restart he caught Hamilton, who later admitted he was ‘napping’ and was then in third place. From lap five onwards, a battle for third place unfolded, at the time Schumacher was third, Hamilton fourth and later as a result of the Webber/Massa incident Button was in fifth. Schumacher was very fast on the long straights of Monza, and even without using his DRS was faster than Hamilton who used his KERS and DRS, but was nevertheless not able to overtake the German.
A frustrated Hamilton shared his frustrations with his team over the radio when he asked himself aloud: “Are we that slow on the straight?” And indeed, the McLaren, powered by the same engine was a lot slower than the Mercedes. Hamilton was right behind the Mercedes, but time after time Schumacher showed him why he is a seven-time world champion, and defended his race line and the inside of the corners to fend off the Briton’s attempts to overtake him. Certainly the first part of the battle was worthy of a world champion, Hamilton tried and tried again and had to wait lap after lap before he finally saw an opportunity to get a good slipstream on the start finish straight and overtook the Mercedes.
But he didn’t enjoy his victory for long, as a cunning Schumacher took back his third place after going side-by-side through the Curva Grande and just braking a little bit later than Hamilton. By then, Button was right behind Hamilton and the three battled in true Formula Ford style for many laps. But when Hamilton again tried to pass Schumacher and the latter forced him with two wheels on the grass, both cars lost momentum and Button was right there and used the opportunity to overtake both Hamilton and Schumacher, again one of those master moves this year’s Italian Grand Prix had to offer.
The fight cooled down a bit during the first round of pit stops, but when Hamilton had pitted he rejoined the race in fifth, again behind Schumacher and the second part of the battle commenced. Schumacher then blocked Hamilton twice, and as the regulations do not permit this, McLaren reported this to race control, hoping Schumacher would get a drive-through penalty. Team principal Ross Brawn asked Schumacher ‘to leave room for the other car at Ascari’ and the battle ended when he did give Hamilton more room and the Briton finally took fourth place.
Schumacher finished in fifth place and was delighted with the result. “It was an exciting race today, both for me and I think for all of our fans, and that is why I am happy. The fighting against Lewis was big fun, and my mirrors seemed to be very small at times,” he smiled. He wasn’t all too worried about his critics, “We are both known for driving on the limit, and that is what we did. I had to make my car as wide as a truck, and had to stretch the possible as much as I could, but in the end, as expected, he was still faster.”
Many things have been said about Schumacher squeezing Hamilton onto the grass, but one has to ask the question if it could have been the other way around if Hamilton would have had the chance. He did the same with Kamui Kobayashi at Spa two weeks ago, but the Japanese driver stayed where he was and Hamilton ultimately forced himself out of contention. In this case Schumacher stayed where he was while Hamilton tried his luck on the inside, but ran out of room and was, deliberately or not, forced onto the grass.
One could say Hamilton was perhaps a bit too optimistic thinking Schumacher would give him enough room to ‘allow’ him to overtake him, on the other hand one could also say Schumacher should have given him more room to do so, but he didn’t as he was defending his third position at the time, the best position he had in a race this year. Asked whether his fight had been clean and fair, Schumacher had no doubts, “I think so. As far as I was concerned there was no request to see the stewards, so I guess all is in order.”
Brawn added to the discussion, “Michael drove a fantastic race, we know we haven't got the fastest car but we have seen everything we know about Michael Schumacher.” Asked by the BBC what exactly had been discussed with the FIA during the race he replied: “The FIA were watching it and asking us to be careful. It is a balance between racing and not overstepping the mark. They asked us to be careful, which we were. It was great racing - and great for Formula One.”
Mercedes motorsport boss Norbert Haug summed up the afternoon in Monza, “A thrilling drive from Michael again today - the first half of the race delivered probably one of the best television shows of the year and I am sure lots of people at home were standing rather than sitting in front of their televisions, which was the case for us on several occasions today.”
And there is no way anyone can deny that, if it wasn’t for the battle between Schumacher and Hamilton that lasted twenty laps, the Italian GP would probably have been boring.
Maximum result for Ferrari
Third and sixth place for Alonso and Massa was all Ferrari could achieve during their home Grand Prix. Alonso gave the Italian tifosi at least a podium place and something to cheer about, but at the Ferrari headquarters in Maranello they have by now accepted Ferrari is more or less out of contention for this year’s title. During qualifying Alonso took fourth and Massa sixth place, also the best they could do, but it was technical director Pat Fry who found the right words to express how Ferrari felt ahead of the race, “If you work for Ferrari, you cannot be pleased with a fourth and a sixth place in qualifying, but we also need to be realistic about what we are currently capable of doing.”
Nevertheless Alonso earned the respect of the tens of thousands of tifosi by snatching the lead from Vettel at the first turn. “The start was really a magical moment, like in Barcelona, although we knew this was not our true position and that sooner or later we would have been passed,” Alonso later stated. “However, it was still very nice to see our fans cheering during those laps at reduced speed behind the safety car. There was nothing we could do about Vettel, he was much quicker than us and passed me easily.” It didn’t take Vettel very long to get away from the Ferrari to build up an advantage he would never give away again.
But because of the fights going on behind Alonso, he could relatively easy hold on to second position, but as soon as both McLarens finally managed to get past Schumacher, they began to gain on him and after the second and final round of pit stops the inevitable happened and Alonso lost his second place to a charging Button. Also the medium tyres played an important role, as they don’t suit the Ferrari very well, and Alonso knew he was in trouble, “With the softs, we could defend well, but on the mediums they [McLaren] still have a significant advantage and I think that if the race had gone on a few more laps, I would have been off the podium,” Alonso explained.
Massa’s race was seriously hampered by Webber who with a somewhat clumsy move hit his Ferrari and spun it around, Massa couldn’t really do anything about it, but by the time he had pointed his car in the right direction again, had lost four places and was all of a sudden tenth. Massa, who had hoped for a podium place, explained what happened at the Variante del Rettifilo, “I braked slightly late, taking the inside line and, going round the outside, he would never have got past. He hit my wheels and that pushed me into a spin when we were at the second corner.” And he added, “That meant I had to pass so many drivers to try and catch up to the leaders again, but by then it was anyway too late.”
After his first pit stop Massa was in sixth place again, but he got stuck behind Schumacher. During the second round of stops Schumacher had pitted earlier, and Massa had hoped to get ahead of the German during his stop, but as he exited the pit lane he was once again behind the Mercedes. He wasn’t able to catch his old team mate, and crossed the finish line in sixth position, almost ten seconds behind Schumacher, and 42 seconds behind leader Vettel.
Ferrari had been beaten on home soil, but all the same team principal Stefano Domenicali put on his bravest face when he spoke with the media. “Honestly, this result is the best we could have hoped for, given our current technical situation. The fact Fernando is second in the Drivers' Championship is amazing and I think it highlights the stuff our driver is made of.” He was especially happy with Alonso’s race, “Once again today, he delivered a majestic performance, either attacking, as he did at the start, or defending as in the closing stages.” Indeed, both Alonso and Massa did a great job, but it wasn’t enough and the title now seems further away than ever for the Italian team.
Liuzzi eliminates Petrov, Rosberg, Barrichello and himself
At Spa Bruno Senna was the one who caused problems after he had braked too late for the first corner after the start, at Monza it was an Italian who gave another demonstration of how to start a race and cause havoc at the first turn. HRT’s Liuzzi had been looking forward to his home Grand Prix, but probably never thought he would become the center of attention, albeit for all the wrong reasons.
Liuzzi had a clean start, but was way too optimistic after having overtaken a few cars, hit the grass on the right side and lost control, spun and slid through the grass straight into the path of Petrov and Rosberg, who didn’t even see the Italian coming their way. Rosberg was certainly disappointed his race ended prematurely, “I had a difficult start on my prime tyres but still managed to gain a place at the first corner, so it was quite good. Then Liuzzi flew like a torpedo over the grass and put me out of the race. It's a pity because I had a strong strategy and, as Michael's good result showed, our car was very strong this afternoon.”
Petrov was completely taken by surprise when he was hit by the HRT. “Vitantonio's HRT came from nowhere and hit me big time, which brought my race to an end. There's nothing I could have done to avoid this,” the Russian said. “I'm happy not to be injured, as the impact was quite strong and it could have been a nasty accident,” he added. Also unwillingly caught in the accident was Rubens Barrichello, who was not hit by Liuzzi, but sustained damage after Rosberg tried to get away. “I was lucky he didn't hit me but I was then in the middle of the action and so had to stop the car. I didn't hit anyone, but when Rosberg started to move he hit my nose, it was a difficult situation,” Barrichello said. He had to get back to the pit lane to pick up a new nose and a new set of tyres as well, but his race was over. “It's a shame I got caught in that, as with the pace and the strategy I could have scored some points for the team today,” the Brazilian rued.
The man who caused all this was also out of the race, but was convinced he hadn’t done anything wrong, “I had a good start getting past both Virgins, Lotuses and Daniel but then I went for another overtaking maneuver and got closed out.” It soon became apparent what he meant by ‘closed out’, as he later stated he had been forced onto the grass by Heikki Kovalainen, which is strange, as he had stated he had overtaken both Lotuses. The FIA didn’t agree with Liuzzi’s explanation either, and have rewarded him with a five-place grid penalty for the Singapore Grand Prix, which means he will be starting from the position he always starts a race: the back of the grid.
The best of the rest
Liuzzi’s team mate Daniel Ricciardo had problems as well, as he didn’t even get away from his start position. “For some reason the car went into anti-stall, jammed in third gear and then the engine switched off,” the Australian rookie reported after the race. He was pushed back to the pit lane where his mechanics started his engine and he got back onto the track, but was called back in after his team found a cooling problem. That cost him again several minutes and Ricciardo wasn’t even classified in the end result, as he finished 14 laps behind Vettel.
Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi also became a victim of the crash, “I made a very good start, but then when an HRT triggered a big accident, I took a knock at the back of my car and it was definitely damaged in some way, as it did not work at its maximum potential from then on.” While Buemi had to settle for tenth place, his Spanish team colleague Jaime Alguersuari again delivered an excellent result by finishing in seventh place, and was therefore ‘best of the rest’ this weekend. “I think I would like to start even further back on the grid for the next one, because it seems that whenever I have a poor grid position, I finish in the points!” Alguersuari jokingly said.
Alguersuari finished ahead of Paul di Resta’s Force India who had started from 11th on the grid. His four points meant Force India moved up to sixth place in the Constructor’s Championship. He also had to take avoiding action during the melee Liuzzi caused and took a short-cut through the first chicane. “After that we went aggressive with the tyre strategy and I think we extracted as much as we could because our ultimate lap time in race trim was not quite there today. So it's great to pick up four more points, which helps us move up a place in the championship,” the Scot commented. For his colleague Adrian Sutil the race lasted nine laps, and had to park his car with a steering problem.
Despite his earlier problems, Barrichello finished in 12th position, while his Venezuelan team colleague took 11th place, just missing out on the points. “The pace at the beginning was quite strong, but in the second stint we started to lose time and it was difficult to maintain that good rhythm. At the end of the race we had a consistent pace but unfortunately it just wasn't quick enough,” declared Maldonado.
Both Saubers retired after Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez experienced gearbox problems. Kobayashi also was involved in the start crash, when the car ahead of him braked hard he lost his front wing and had make an unscheduled pit stop to replace his wing and later couldn’t select any gears and had to give up after 21 laps. Perez experienced the same problem, he first lost third gear and not much later had to give up as well with a gearbox failure.
The last three to finish the race were Kovalainen, Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock, they finished in 13th, 14th and 15th place respectively. Kovalainen, unaware of the fact Liuzzi accused him of forcing him onto the grass, “I had a great start, passing Jarno and then seeing the HRT coming into Turn 1 in a pretty hardcore style so I avoided that and was then up into a good position early on.” Trulli also avoided damage at the first corner, but later damaged his front wing and also had to make an extra pit stop.
And finally, Belgian Marussia Virgin driver Jerome d’Ambrosio was another one who didn’t make it to the finish line, he had to retire after one lap with a gearbox failure. “I was really looking forward to the race and then during the formation lap I realized that I had no second gear. I started the race but the car was undriveable, so I had to come back into the garage and retire.”
It ain’t over ‘til it’s over, or is it?
The title of a famous Lenny Kravitz song, but also appropriate to describe the current status quo in Formula One. It seems the eternal question whether the race for the 2011 title has already been run is about to be answered during the Singapore Grand Prix. Again, mathematically speaking the top five in the championship ranking are still candidates for this year’s title, but it is also clear Vettel’s victory at Monza was almost the final blow, and moral under Vettel’s pursuers has sunk to an all-time low.
Webber was the runner-up in the championship before the race at Monza, but as a result of his did-not-finish this weekend has now tumbled from second to fourth place, which he shares with Button, both drivers have gathered 167 points. The Australian scored 28 points during the last three races, while Vettel scored 68 points. “I think we're all battling for second now,” Webber told the BBC after the race. “I think Seb needs to have a very, very incredibly disappointing finish to the season for anyone to take the championship off him at this point. He's in a great position. He's done a great job. And clearly the car was good today, so it was a missed opportunity for me,” a disappointed Webber said.
Button has boosted his chances significantly by finishing on the podium during the last three races, while Hamilton recorded two fourth places during the last three races, despite the fact he left the start grid from second position on all three occasions. He scored 24 points the last three races, Button scored 58 points. “Yes, it [the title]is gone and it has been for a few races, Button said. Hamilton added, “I doubt it's still possible to beat Sebastian for the title, but we'll keep pushing.”
Alonso also reckons the race for the title is over, “There are six races to go so the championship is impossible - not mathematically, but we are no longer in contention. We will now simply try to enjoy every race, to go for individual victories and fight for second place in the championship.” Massa agrees the title will go to Vettel this year, “I think he will just lose the championship if he stops racing now, and spends months at home - only then maybe he could lose the championship. But racing, I think it is very, very difficult for him to lose.”
Schumacher is also convinced Vettel is almost home, “I don't see many ways that he can lose, but you still have to bring it to the end.”
Vettel himself seems to be somewhat superstitious, as he doesn’t want to discuss his huge points lead with reporters, and has maintained the principal of ‘it ain’t over ‘til it’s over’. “It is wrong to plan to spend $1million if you win the lottery so I won’t plan anything before it is won, I allow myself to say we are in a great position but it is not over,” the almost 2011 champion stated.
Vettel can clinch the title in Singapore if he wins the race and Alonso is fourth or lower.