Sebastian Vettel placed one hand on his second world title in Monza on Sunday with a startling victory at the Italian Grand Prix.
The 24-year-old also went some way to quashing criticisms that he cannot overtake drivers thanks to a stunning fifth lap move around the outside of Tifosi favourite, Fernando Alonso.
Like in Spa two weeks earlier, Vettel found himself the victim of a sluggish start, fighting McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton off at the pair approached the Rettifilo chicane.
Neither saw the quick moving Alonso, who garnered a wheel on the grass as he powered his way into the lead down the inside of turn one.
Moments later, as the close-nit field poured through the tight right-left-right chicane, the action would grind to a halt amidst clouds of carbon fibre and pummelled machinery.
While challenging the Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen for position, HRT F1 pilot Vitantonio Liuzzi ran out of room, losing control on the grass lining the track. The resulting loss of grip sent the Italian into a sideways spin, short cutting across the gripless surface and towards a heavy smash with Renault’s Vitaly Petrov and Nico Rosberg (Mercedes).
As the three cars melted together, Rubens Barrichello ground to a halt beside Rosberg, only to find himself blocked in and going nowhere. In the melee behind, both Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber) and Bruno Senna (Renault) damaged their front wings as the pack closed together.
With lumps of destroyed cars littering the opening corners, the safety car made a quick appearance. It gave the race a breath of air for Senna, Kobayashi and Barrichello – all of who made their first stops while the field trundled around the Royal Park in an obedient line.
For his troubles, Liuzzi would be hit with a five-place grid penalty for the next Grand Prix in Singapore, although the Italian were less than pleased with that outcome.
“I had a good start getting past both Virgins, Lotuses and Daniel but then I went for another overtaking manoeuvre and got closed out. It was a shame and I apologise to Rosberg and Petrov but it wasn’t my fault because I got squeezed into the grass by Kovalainen. Once I was on the grass I lost completely the control of the car and that is why it happened and everything.”
The day also started poorly for the second HRT of Daniel Ricciardo. Having beaten his more experienced teammate in qualifying, the Australian’s Cosworth-powered machine, the HRT stood still with an engine and gearbox issue.
Despite spending several laps in the pits, Ricciardo returned to the race eventually, in order to garner much needed mileage.
It was also a poor start to the day for the Virgin squad. Rookie Jerome d’Ambrosio encountered a lost second gear on the warm up, rendering his car undriveable. The Belgian pulled in after two slow tours.
Good Getaways Amidst Poor Judgement
Out front, as the safety car pulled in on lap four, Alonso made a solid getaway from an ever Vettel; however Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher calmly stole 3rd from the sleeping Hamilton. Red Bull’s Mark Webber too advanced, albeit briefly. A poor start dropped the Australian to 7th, but a swift pass on Jenson button (McLaren) brought Webber into the top six. It would last only a lap.
An overly optimistic move on Ferrari’s Felipe Massa at the first corner resulted in a smash, destroying Webber’s front wing and leaving Massa pointing the wrong way. Luck played a favourable hand for the Ferrari man – the Brazilian only fell as far as 10th, while those that did pass missed him completely.
Webber, on the other hand, slowly lapped back to the pits, only to be foiled by the remnants of the shattered wing folding underneath his RB7. With a thud, the Australian hit the barrier in the Parabolica and was out.
“I was lining up Felipe, breaking around the outside for turn 1, trying to get the inside line for turn two. 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.”
Meanwhile, Vettel – in the leading Red Bull – forced the lead away from Alonso at Curve Grande – even with two wheels on the grass…
Forcing the Issue… Repeatedly
Indeed, Alonso briefly held off the advancing Schumacher and Hamilton battle, before even he broke away into a solid 2nd place. As for the Mercedes and McLaren pair, their fight was only just beginning.
Hamilton – seeing Alonso escape – pressed Schumacher hard, yet the veteran used the width of his Mercedes (and more) to keep the feisty Englishman at bay, but this was always going to be a difficult prospect for Hamilton.
With his MP4-26 running a short top gear, the McLaren pilot had little with which the overpower Schumacher on speed alone and where Hamilton used as much of his guile to try and force a way by lap-after-lap, Schumacher was doing the same to keep the McLaren behind. Indeed, Schumacher probably went overboard in his defence of 3rd place.
Several times, the veteran clearly move across the racing line at least twice; however the situation came to a head on the sixteenth lap, when Schumacher forced Hamilton onto the grass while running through Curve Grande. None of which the race stewards apparently saw.
Whereas the battling pair fell behind Alonso, Button drew to the rear of Hamilton, getting by his teammate as he recovered from his grass excursion, before taking Schumacher on the approach to Ascari half-a-lap later.
It all seemed so easy for Button – realistically, the McLaren driver simply waited for the right moment. The move on Hamilton (recovering from a near accident) was easy, before breezing passed a tyre-shot Schumacher.
Yet with Button five seconds shy of Alonso and fifteen off of Vettel, making further positions would be tough.
Stopping on Time
It certainly wasn’t going to happen for Button at the first round of stops. Stung by worn Pirelli rubber, Schumacher pitted on immediately after losing 3rd, with Button stopping a lap later. Over the next three tours, Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel all made for new tyres – soft tyres being the choice across the board.
The quintet emerged from the Monza pitlane in the same order they entered – with Vettel leading handsomely from Alonso, Button, Schumacher and Hamilton.
Behind this group, the recovering Massa made good use of his first set of tyres. Having been punted early, the Brazilian passed the stricken Webber for 9th, before moving swiftly by Jaime Alguersuari (Toro Rosso) and Paul di Resta (Force India) on the seventh tour.
Passes on Sauber’s Sergio Perez on the following lap and Pastor Maldonado (Williams) on lap ten, brought the Ferrari pilot back into the top six, becoming 2nd when he finally pitted a second set of softs on lap 21.
With the Schumacher / Hamilton fight far in the distance and no realistic threat from behind, Massa would settle for 6th.
Massa wasn’t the only driver fighting through the field. While avoiding the opening lap melee, Force India’s Adrian Sutil dropped to 17th – it would have been worse had he not had the foresight to remove himself from the action.
Having started on the medium compound Pirelli’s, the German took time to get up to speed before climbing up the order. Sadly for the 28-year-old, 14th place was all he could manage before a hydraulic failure on the tent tour ultimately robbed Sutil of his power steering and gear selection.
Both Kobayashi and Senna had made their way to the edge of the top ten by the first round stops, despite having fallen to 17th and 18th respectively following their early services.
However, whereas Senna fed his way to 10th (thanks to a reconfigured strategy and plenty of patience), Kobayashi removed himself from the fight on the twenty-fourth lap with a gearbox problem. It made for a poor day for the Swiss squad – several laps later, Perez also pulled off with a gearbox failure, leaving the Swiss team dejected at the tail of the European tour.
Making (a) Point(s)
Nearer the back, Barrichello’s recovery drive was less than spectacular. The popular Brazilian emerged from the first lap mess in 19th; climbing two places by lap ten.
Barrichello, hamstrung by an uncooperative Williams machine, struggled over the first half of the race to shake off the Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen – both of whom set comparable times – as the FW33 once again displayed its high fuel weaknesses.
Not for the first time this season, Barrichello was being shown up by his much-unfancied teammate, Maldonado. Having started on the seventh row, Maldonado jumped to 9th off the start, before climbing to 6th following the safety car period.
Like Barrichello, Maldonado’s Williams began to show its deficiencies soon after, with the Venezuelan dropping to 11th once the stops had completed their course.
Another rookie, Di Resta too spent the Grand Prix making a point to the Force India management. Qualifying left the Scot on the sixth row (ahead of his more experienced teammate, Sutil), becoming 8th after the first lap incident.
Battles with Maldonado, Perez and Alguersuari kept di Resta in check until a thirteenth lap stop for new softs saw the Force India pilot emerge in 15th. Di Resta reclaimed 8th place once everyone else had changed their Pirelli’s – although this would become 7th once Perez fell out of the race.
The Toro Rosso’s were also bedding themselves quite nicely in the Grand Prix. After qualifying a lowly 16th and 18th respectively, both Sebastien Buemi and Alguersuari took advantage of the early mayhem to climb to 10th (Alguersuari) and 12th (Buemi) when the field sorted itself out.
Not that any of this mattered to Vettel. Indeed the reigning champion was so far ahead of the midfield by the halfway point in the race; he was actually closer to lapping them.
Alonso, on the other hand, had plenty to worry about. For the second race in a row, Button was drawing himself closer to the rear of the Ferrari and nothing Alonso could do would shake him off. Where Alonso was making the best of the situation, Button went about setting the fastest lap of the race.
The opposite applied to Hamilton. Unable to clear Schumacher after the opening stops, the 2008 World Champion went about pressing the Mercedes veteran once again.
As before, Schumacher was… forceful in his defence – so much so, that Mercedes Team Principal Ross Brawn delivered several coded messages to the seven-time champion. It was clear at this stage that the stewards were beginning to take not of Schumacher’s actions.
Meanwhile, Hamilton continued to lose over one second per lap to the leading trio, cementing his best potential finish to 4th. Indeed, Hamilton finally did make the decisive move on lap 27, taking Schumacher – rather easily into Ascari – however Button had long since disappeared into the distance.
The distance between Button and Alonso, however, was rather less. As the pair crossed the thirty lap barrier, only tenth’s of-a-second separated them, but like the Hamilton / Schumacher fight, this would not be easy.
McLaren attempted strategy to try and bolster Button’s chances, bringing him in lap 33. Crucially, the Briton found himself blocked by a slow Barrichello at the pitlane entrance – when Alonso stopped one tour later, the Spaniard emerged ahead… just, but not for too much longer.
Split by half-a-second across the start / finish line on lap 36, Button placed his MP4-26 on the tail of Alonso as the swept through Curve Grande, stealing 2nd place as the approached the della Roggia chicane. In a few brief moments, thousands of soaring Italian hearts drew shallow breaths; their man, Alonso, relegated to 3rd by the silver enemy.
Soon Alonso and Ferrari would have to watch their mirrors once more. With one McLaren gone, another was growing larger in the distance…
Charging Ahead, Almost Unnoticed
Amongst all the noise and action, a calm Red Bull team changed Sebastian Vettel onto the Pirelli medium tyres on lap 35 in a cool 2.9 seconds – apparently the quickest pitstop in Formula 1 history. The service completed, Vettel re-emerged on track to a clear space ahead – and behind.
With seemingly little urgency, the reigning champion powered on, extending his lead to over 15 seconds, before cooling his Renault engine a degree or two.
As the Austrian crossed the line to another victory, the gap stood at 9.59 seconds – nothing was ever going to worry this Red Bull driver. Everything was – and is – in hand.
Vettel’s lead, now 112 points, is becoming more oppressive with each Grand Prix and with only six races remaining; the title could be wrapped up as early as Singapore.
“The car was amazing in qualifying yesterday and in the race today it was even better. 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. 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.”
A Fighting Second (Third and Fourth)
Jenson Button brought his McLaren to a slightly unexpected 2nd place, several seconds ahead of Alonso. Admittedly, once ahead of the Ferrari, there was little for Button to do, but bring his McLaren home to the delight of the Woking ensemble.
“It’s nice to have fought my way back through to second. I dropped back to sixth, then, at the restart, I had no way of keeping Mark [Webber] back, because his straight-line speed was so strong, so I slipped to seventh (…) and was delayed by a further four or five seconds when Mark and Felipe [Massa] tangled in front of me at Turn One.
After that, I was able to get my head down and passed Lewis and Michael [Schumacher]… after that, I set about closing down Fernando [Alonso], it was great to be able to secure second because we got some good points for the team.”
It is a result that brings Button close to the fight for Formula 1’s runner up spot – a four-way battle with Alonso, Webber and Hamilton.
For Fernando Alonso – hamstrung on ill-handling medium tyres – the Spaniard watched as Hamilton closed up in the final laps. From an eight second deficit, the McLaren pilot closed to less than-a-second at the flag; however Hamilton ran out of time. It was a close call, but in this instance, the final podium placed belonged to the Ferrari, although a clear sense of relief ran down Alonso’s features.
“We knew we needed to get a great start and we managed it, partly down to a great preparation job done with the engineers over the past two days. There was nothing we could about Vettel, he was much quicker than us and passed me easily. The situation was better up against the McLaren’s: with the softs, we could defend well, but on the Mediums they 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.”
Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, accepted another solid points finish, but realistically, his chance of a podium was lost behind Schumacher.
“At the restart, Michael was on my outside; I was looking at him in my mirrors, then, all of a sudden, the guys ahead had gone, so I missed an opportunity to slipstream Sebastian [Vettel]. So they caught me napping. 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.”
For Michael Schumacher, Monza brought much encouragement with another 5th place finish. The Mercedes veteran has shown improved form of late, although with the top three teams proving harder to crack, results haven’t always reflected performances.
Felipe Massa, on the other hand, displayed much disappointment with his 6th place, but realistically, there was little he could do to catch the top five once Webber spun him around.
Jaime Alguersuari was the first of the lapped cars, coming home 7th. In fact it was a double points finish for the Toro Rosso team with Sebastien Buemi taking a credible 10th spot. Alguersuari had spent much of the race battling with di Resta to some degree of another, although part of that came as they measured each other’s pace on different pit strategies.
Paul di Resta gave Alguersuari a close run, missing the Spaniard by 3.93 seconds at the flag, but it was a mountainous compared to how much di Resta pipped Senna at the flag.
An excellent resurgent drive by Bruno Senna bring his Renault home 9th, despite taking three stops – indeed Senna may well have taken di Resta had he not been held up by Buemi in the dying laps. A 45th lap pass on the Swiss pilot left the Brazilian with a five second gap to make up with only four tours remaining – it would prove to be too much.
Beyond the points
It can hardly get worse. As the race wore on, Pastor Maldonado’s Williams’ fell away, while Rubens Barrichello never looked on song – the Grove-based drivers finished a distant 11th and 12th.
Barrichello was not too far ahead of a pair of Lotus’, headed by occasionally impressive Finn, Heikki Kovalainen (13th). Kovalainen showed solid pace in the early laps, although Jarno Trulli (14th) was hampered slightly by niggling mechanical issues.
Timo Glock took 15th in his Virgin Racing machine, two laps shy of the leaders on a quiet day for the German.
The European leg is now complete, but there is little that can truly be done about Sebastian Vettel. A 112-point advantage with 150 available is just too impossible to lose – especially on his current form.
How is 2012 looking, then..? Singapore runs from September 23rd-25th.
Race Rating: 3.5 out of 5
2011 Italian Grand Prix (Rd 13, September 11th) Pos Driver Team Time 1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h20:46.172 (53 laps) 2. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 9.590 3. Alonso Ferrari + 16.909 4. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 17.471 5. Schumacher Mercedes + 32.677 6. Massa Ferrari + 42.993 7. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap 8. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1 lap 9. Senna Renault + 1 lap 10. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap 11. Maldonado Williams-Cosworth + 1 lap 12. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 1 lap 13. Kovalainen Lotus-Renault + 1 lap 14. Trulli Lotus-Renault + 2 laps 15. Glock Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps Fastest lap: Hamilton, 1:26.187 Not classified/retirements: Driver Team On lap Ricciardo HRT-Cosworth 40 Perez Sauber-Ferrari 34 Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 23 Sutil Force India-Mercedes 11 Webber Red Bull-Renault 6 D'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth 3 Petrov Renault 1 Rosberg Mercedes 1 Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth 1 World Championship standings (Round 13); Drivers: 1. Vettel 284 2. Alonso 172 3. Webber 167 4. Button 167 5. Hamilton 158 6. Massa 82 7. Rosberg 56 8. Schumacher 52 9. Petrov 34 10. Heidfeld 34 11. Kobayashi 27 12. Sutil 24 13. Alguersuari 16 14. Buemi 13 15. Di Resta 12 16. Perez 8 17. Barrichello 4 18. Senna 2 19. Maldonado 1 World Championship standings (Round 13); Constructors: 1. Red Bull-Renault 451 2. McLaren-Mercedes 325 3. Ferrari 254 4. Mercedes 108 5. Renault 70 6. Force India-Mercedes 36 7. Sauber-Ferrari 35 8. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 29 9. Williams-Cosworth 5