If no Grand Prix victory is ever easy, Lewis Hamilton made this one seem so.
Amid continuing speculation about his future, he started the Italian Grand Prix from pole position, took the lead when the lights went out, and thereafter lost it only briefly – to Sergio Perez’s Sauber, no less – when he made his one and only pit stop shortly before half-distance.
Hamilton reckoned that, if anything, Ferrari had a slight edge on McLaren at Monza, but a roll-bar problem robbed Fernando Alonso of a probable pole position, and, starting only 10th – behind such as Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel – it was never a possibility that he would be able to threaten Hamilton. The spectators could only dream of the race there might have been between the two of them had they both started from the front row.
Still, it wasn’t a bad day for Ferrari, for Alonso finally finished third, with Massa fourth, his best result of the season so far. As far as his World Championship prospects are concerned, yes, Fernando dropped 10 points to Hamilton, but he increased his lead over all his other rivals. The Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber both went out with alternator failure, and Jenson Button’s McLaren retired with fuel feed problems. Kimi Räikkönen picked up more points for fifth place in his Lotus (and moved up to third in the standings), but, all in all, Alonso – after his qualifying tribulations – had good reason to be happy with the way things went at Monza.
The venerable Parco was at its best the whole weekend, hot and dry, with the long shadows of approaching autumn. Given the state of the economy in Italy, and the overwhelming cost of F1 grandstand tickets these days, it was perhaps not surprising that the huge stand opposite the pits was no more than half-full for qualifying, where once it would have been straining at the seams.
The passion, though, was undiluted, like nowhere else, and of course the focus of the tifosi lay squarely with Ferrari – and in particular the number 5 Ferrari of Alonso, the World Championship leader.
Fernando said he was absolutely none the worse for his scary accident at Spa the previous Sunday, when Romain Grosjean’s Renault flew across the top of his car at the first corner. “My shoulder was very sore after the accident,” he said, “but on the Monday morning I woke up feeling absolutely fine – and that was a relief because quite often when you have an accident you feel terrible the next day, from the where the belts have bruised you, and also in your spine – when you have been in the air, there is a big impact when the car hits the ground again. I was lucky, though – I had no pain at all. Very important, because here we are at Monza five days later – there would have been no time to recover…”
At the beginning of practice the big topic of conversation in the paddock was Hamilton’s future: the assumption has long been that common sense would dictate that he would re-sign with McLaren, but on the BBC website Eddie Jordan declared to the world that, no, Lewis was going to Mercedes – perhaps no contract had been signed yet, but terms had been agreed. McLaren folk wisely declined to get involved in the hysteria, quietly conceding that while Hamilton had not yet signed a new contract, their expectation was that ultimately he would. At the press conference on Thursday afternoon Lewis was playing it very po-faced, and said no, he didn’t know who he would be driving for in 2013. The only certainty is that, whichever team it is, the PR people will earn their money.
Although the Mercedes of Schumacher and Rosberg were well in the picture throughout practice and qualifying, as time went on the Italian Grand Prix began to look more and more like a two-horse race between McLaren and Ferrari. Although the Red Bulls of Vettel and Webber were improved by Saturday, they were off the absolute pace.
“If you look from us to the front,” said Vettel, “the gaps are too big. All weekend we just haven’t been quick enough – although I think we’ll be better in the race.”
“It’s Monza, so never say never,” mused Webber, “but I think we’ve got a bit of slog tomorrow…”
For most of the qualifying hour Alonso looked like the favourite for pole position. Fastest in Q1, fastest in Q2…but then everything went awry. “It’s not often you can say this,” Fernando said, “but I think today would have been an easy pole. I did 24.1 on hard tyres in Q1, then 24.0 on medium tyres in Q2 – and it was really a very easy lap. I went into Q3 with three or four tenths in my pocket, and the car still felt perfect on my out lap – but then, on the first lap I started to push, I immediately felt something was wrong, so I backed off, and came in…”
The mechanics found that a rear roll-bar mounting was broken – and they told Alonso there was no time to fix it. “I went out again, to do the best I could, but…” In the circumstances a lap in 1m 25.7s was a pretty remarkable effort, but it was good for only 10th on the grid. “It’s maybe 15 years since something like this has happened,” said Fernando, but… it has, and there’s no point in crying over it. At least it happened on Saturday, not Sunday.”
At McLaren they couldn’t believe their luck, of course, and now the way was clear for Hamilton and Button to scoop up the front row, which they duly did. Aerodynamic developments introduced the since the August break have worked extremely well, and both drivers declared themselves well pleased with their cars. In the end Lewis beat Jenson by a tenth, but not far behind them was Massa, well on the pace throughout, and now the man on whom Ferrari was depending in the early laps.
The fourth fastest qualifying was set by di Resta’s Force India, but a gearbox change dropped him five places, and lining up fourth instead was Schumacher’s Mercedes, with Vettel next, then Rosberg, then – perhaps further back than might have been expected – the Lotus of Räikkönen. Unluckiest of all was Hulkenberg, whose Force India lost drive at the very start of Q1, before he could put in even one quick lap.
Race day was hotter even than Saturday, and Alonso murmured that he might have been better off starting 11th, rather than 10th, for then he could have had free tyre choice – as at Spa, Pirelli had hard and medium on offer at Monza – and gone to the grid on the hard tyres. As it was, he was obliged to start on the mediums he had used in Q3 – but Perez, starting 12th, indeed opted to start on hard tyres, and this was to have a crucial effect on the outcome of the race.
Perhaps no circuit has a more potentially chaotic first corner than Spa, but if it is less problematic than La Source, Monza’s tight right-left chicane invariably leads to problems on the first lap. This time though, there were none to speak of, although Hamilton and Massa almost touched as they scrapped over the lead. Lewis got the better of it, but Felipe – starting higher than for a long time, and with Italy depending on him – was clearly in a mood to go racing, and at least splitting the McLarens was a very good beginning.
Alonso too started well, and by the end of lap one was up to seventh (from his 10th starting position), and hassling Räikkönen, with whom he dispensed on the second lap. Now immediately ahead of him were Vettel and Schumacher, who changed places on lap four. Fernando quickly closed on Michael, but an attempt to pass him on the long pit straight – even with DRS – failed to come off, so he would have to try something else.
Twelve months ago, it will be remembered, Hamilton spent countless laps trapped behind Schumacher, and Alonso clearly couldn’t afford a repetition of that. As it was, he passed the Mercedes out of Parabolica, getting off the corner faster, and pulling early out of Schumacher’s slipstream.
Vettel was less easy, though. Alonso caught him quickly enough, but getting past was a different matter. The pair of them pitted at the same time, at the end of lap 20, but both stops were well executed, and so they left at the same time too, proceeding down pit lane almost side by side.
The McLarens, running 1-2, pitted on laps 23 and 24, Button first, putting Perez into the lead. On his hard tyres Sergio had kept up an impressive pace, and although Hamilton quickly closed on him, he didn’t give up the lead until lap 29, when he made his tyre stop.
By now all the front runners had exchanged the medium tyres on which they had started for hard Pirellis, but Perez, of course, was doing it the other way round. He had started on the hard tyres (which enabled him to run a much longer first stint than the rest), and was now going to the mediums, which were not only faster, but of course – by virtue of that late stop – considerably younger. It wouldn’t be long before the Sauber began lapping at a different sort of speed from any other car, Hamilton’s McLaren included.
Lewis now led comfortably again, with his team mate also looking secure in second place, but behind the McLarens Alonso was still doing everything possible to separate Vettel from third place. On lap 25 he went to the outside of the Red Bull at the exit of Curva Grande, and found himself being ushered off the road.
Twelve months ago their roles were reversed. On that occasion Fernando was in front, with Seb right behind, and at Parabolica he placed the Ferrari in the middle of the track, leaving his rival a choice between going left or going right. Vettel chose the outside, put two wheels on the grass, and made it through into the lead. Afterwards he was plainly a bit miffed with Alonso, but really there was no need to complain: in the best traditions of Grand Prix racing it had been hard, but it had also been fair. Fernando never deviated from his line, never closed the gap into which Sebastian took himself.
So was this payback? Many saw it that way, but in fact it was rather more than that, for Vettel took up all the road at the exit of the corner, and Alonso, travelling way faster, had no option but to take – with all four wheels – to the grass. Fernando is not one to scream and shout, but he was plainly unamused by this, not least because inevitably there was some damage to the floor of his car: “This is almost bound to happen,” he drily suggested, “when you are bouncing in the gravel at 300…”
Four laps later he finally did find a path around the Red Bull, and at the same time it was announced that their ‘incident’ was under investigation. Soon afterwards the stewards decided that Vettel should have a ‘drive through’ penalty, which he duly served on lap 34, dropping from fourth to ninth as a consequence.
Not that it much mattered in the end, actually, because on lap 48 – only five from the flag – Vettel pulled off with alternator failure, just as he suffered when leading conclusively at Valencia. And two laps later, soon after spinning luridly at Ascari, Mark Webber’s sister car retired with an identical problem. Bad day for Red Bull.
After dealing finally with Vettel, Alonso was up to fourth which became third when he passed team mate Massa, and then second when the unfortunate Button pulled off with fuel feed problems, leaving Hamilton to go it alone. As Fernando advanced two places, the tifosi went nuts, but they should have kept a weather eye on Perez, who was simply flying along, lapping more than a second faster than anyone else in the race. Younger, softer tyres will do that for you.
By lap 43 Sergio was past Massa for third place, and the rate at which he then closed on Alonso was astonishing. There was absolutely no point, after all his efforts earlier in the race, in Fernando’s putting up a fight that was bound ultimately to be fruitless, and on lap 46 the Sauber went by the Ferrari with ridiculous ease. “It was great to be in that situation,” Perez said, “to be the hunter, in a car that was so much faster…”
The laps were running out now, and there was obviously no possibility of his troubling Hamilton, but even that gap began swiftly to reduce, at the rate of one second, sometimes two a lap. “I had a 14-second lead,” said Lewis, “so I was cruising – but then this guy started catching me, so I had to speed up, just to be sure…” At the flag the gap was just 4.3 seconds.
“It’s absolutely fantastic to win here,” Hamilton said afterwards. “I’ve loved everything about Italy for a long time – I’ve spent a lot of time here over the years, right back to when I was 13, and karting. I had absolutely no trouble with either the car or the tyres…”
“In qualifying,” said Perez, “I don’t think we had the one-lap pure pace necessary – mainly we were lacking straight line speed. I also didn’t do a great job myself in qualifying, and looking ahead to the race I thought a top 10 finish was possible, but not more than that. As it was, our tyre strategy was perfect, and it worked out better than I could have hoped…”
In some ways, though, the most contented man afterwards may have been Alonso, whose day did not start well – 10th on the grid – but who made it to the podium, and extended his World Championship lead over all his serious rivals, save Hamilton.
“Obviously the win was out of reach, after the qualifying problem yesterday, but if you cannot win, the podium is the next target – and in all the simulations and predictions we had, it was never going to be a podium finish today, so basically this is much better than expected. In the circumstances, it’s a perfect Sunday…”