2011 Italian Grand Prix reportby Nigel Roebuck on 11th September 2011
Red Bull people insisted afterwards that they had not gone to Monza with the highest expectations, for the cars had struggled there in 2009 and '10, and again they had suspected that the track's characteristics would not favour them.
If they truly meant what they said, a pleasant surprise awaited them at Monza, for Sebastian Vettel not only conclusively outpaced everyone in qualifying, but also left them behind on race day, too. After one of his stupendous starts, Fernando Alonso thrilled the fans by leading briefly in his Ferrari, but it was only a matter of time before Vettel went by, and soon the Red Bull disappeared into a race of its own. The Italian Grand Prix victory was Sebastian’s eighth of the season. No one else has won more than two.
McLaren fancied their chances in Italy, and indeed both Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton featured prominently, but they had no answer for Vettel, and in fact were split – second and fourth – by Alonso’s Ferrari.
Fifth, after a fine drive at one of his favourite hunting grounds, was Michael Schumacher, who made the very most of his Mercedes’ spectacular top speed, and had a long scrap with Hamilton which, for many, was the highlight of the afternoon. And this was an afternoon with many highlights, a Grand Prix to remember.
Monza, as we said, was not, according to Red Bull people, a track which played to the strengths of their car: “Not that many corners where we’re quick,” commented Mark Webber, “and plenty of long straights where we’re not...”
There again, before Spa they said much the same: it wasn't a ‘Red Bull circuit’. Result: Vettel first, Webber second...
And so to qualifying at Monza. “Clearly we’re very competitive here,” said Hamilton, “but... Sebastian was mega-quick today. It looked like Jenson and I would be in with a chance of the pole, but Seb’s final lap... he was just untouchable...”
Indeed he was. The pole at Monza is normally won by hundredths, sometimes thousandths, but Vettel was all but half a second faster than Hamilton and Button, with Alonso – who started from pole last year and went on to win the race – fourth.
“I have good memories of Monza,” said Sebastian, “because I won my first race here. I also like the track, although it’s not one of our best – I just feel I got everything out of the car today. My confidence is quite high – certainly more than it was at Spa.” Where he won, of course.
“Fortunately,” commented Button, “pole isn’t as important here as it was in previous years, because now we’ve got DRS. I don’t think Red Bull are going to have it all in their favour – I think we’re definitely in the mix, and I also think it could be a very good race...”
Part of the reason for cautious optimism among Red Bull’s leading rivals was that Vettel was clearly running a short top gear. Fine for a banzai qualifying lap – but Seb’s car was actually slowest of all through the speed trap before the first chicane, and could clearly be heard ‘running on the limiter’ for several hundred yards.
The thinking was, therefore, that Vettel needed a bullet start, then several blistering laps to get himself out of range when DRS came into operation after three laps. If he got mired in traffic, well, he might be in trouble...
That was the theory, anyway. Alonso, though, said he suspected it wouldn’t be as crucial as that. “If qualifying was any guide,” he said, “Sebastian’s car is a lot quicker than anything else – maybe McLaren are able to do something, but I don’t think Ferrari can compete with Red Bull. I'll try, of course – the first thing I need to do is make up some places at the start...”
It was again blazing hot on race day, which was good news for Ferrari, given the problems they have had through this cool, damp summer in getting their tyres up to temperature. “Yes, that’s good,” Fernando agreed, “but what we need is to be competitive on all types of tyre – we’re always quick on the soft compound, but we lose a lot of time on hard or medium.” The compounds on offer from Pirelli at Monza were soft and medium.
Nico Rosberg qualified only ninth, which was a surprise until one appreciated that he had set his best time on the medium compound tyres, and would therefore go to the grid equipped differently from any of the other front runners.
That raised an intriguing prospect, but we were never to know if Rosberg’s tactic had been inspired or not, for his Mercedes – together with Petrov’s Renault – was wiped out at the chicane immediately after the start when Tonio Liuzzi made a novice’s mistake under braking, slithered across the grass and into the pack, causing mayhem. Others cars, too, were damaged – including Barrichello's Williams – but all save Petrov, Rosberg – and, of course, Liuzzi – were able to continue after treatment.
The start had been spectacular indeed, with Hamilton alongside poleman Vettel, running to his right – and then Alonso, from fourth on the grid, running to the right of Lewis!
“I was,” Vettel said, “taken by surprise by Fernando at the start – I didn’t know where he came from, and it took me a while to realise we were actually three abreast as we went towards the first turn...”
To the delight of the tifosi Alonso had momentum on both his rivals, and led cleanly into the chicane. “We definitely were not competitive with Red Bull and McLaren this weekend,” he said, “and I knew it wouldn’t last, but still it was important to do it...”
And of course it didn’t last. After a couple of laps behind the safety car (following the Liuzzi fracas) they were sent on their way again, and at once Vettel was all over the Ferrari. Alonso defended well, but into the Curva Grande on lap five the Red Bull was right on him, Vettel initially undecided which side to go. Ultimately he chose to try then move on the outside, which was risky, and afterwards he said that Alonso had not given him much room. No surprise there, for Fernando was not about to make it easy for him – and anyway needed a lot of road himself. Neither man lifted and Sebastian came out of the corner ahead – but at the moment of overtaking had two wheels on the grass. It was breathless stuff.
Once in front, the Red Bull pulled effortlessly away, at close to a second a lap, and sometimes more. Barring a mechanical problem, it was game over, and indeed no one got near the World Champion again.
Gone from the proceedings in the meantime was his team-mate. On lap five Webber had a coming-together at the first chicane with Massa’s Ferrari, which removed the Red Bull’s nose. Mark continued on round, heading for the pits, but went into Parabolica at a speed which required more front downforce than his car now possessed. At some speed the Red Bull skittered over the gravel trap and into the tyre barrier. Webber, second in the World Championship at the beginning of the day, would drop to fourth by the end of it.
While Vettel tore away in the lead, Alonso looked likely to come under threat from Schumacher and Hamilton, duelling away behind him.
No question about it, Michael is driving more like his old self at the moment. No one suggests that he will ever again be the driver he was, but his famously combative spirit is alive and well, and in a Mercedes prodigiously quick in a straight line he was making the most of an excellent start, and clearly savouring his first hand-to-hand battle with Lewis.
The pair circulated as one for lap after lap, and although it was apparent that the McLaren was quicker, getting it past Schumacher was a different matter. Michael used all his experience, plus some of the weaving for which he is notorious, and Lewis seemed stuck.
The most remarkable aspect of the scrap was the McLaren – even with DRS deployed – was unable to get on terms with the Mercedes, be it on the approach to the Ascari chicane or on the long pit straight.
It was clear, though, that Hamilton was getting held up, and before long had team-mate Button – who made a poor start – right behind him. On lap 16 he took a run at Schumacher into the Curva Grande, but the door was swiftly shut, and Lewis – half on the grass – was obliged to back off. Having lost momentum he was then passed by Jenson, who, to add insult to injury, proceeded to pass Schumacher into the Ascari chicane at the first attempt!
It was a brave move, you could say that, and Button acknowledged as much. “It was probably one of the best passes I’ve ever made. Michael doesn't... give you much room, and I was overtaking him round the outside. I pretty much closed my eyes as I turned in...”
One wondered why, with the first round of pitstops imminent, Hamilton had put himself into a situation like that. As the leading McLaren driver, after all, he would have been the first to pit, and there was every likelihood that he would leapfrog Schumacher in the course of the stops. As it was, while Button raced away, he was obliged to sit behind the Mercedes for many more laps.
Essentially this compromised his entire afternoon. Schumacher pitted on lap 16, Hamilton two laps later – but when he rejoined the race, once again it was immediately behind Michael. Not until lap 27 – the halfway point – did he finally get by, but by then his team-mate was nine seconds up the road.
By this stage Button had been putting Alonso under severe pressure for some time, but Fernando continued to drive to his car’s limit, and it wasn’t until lap 36 that Jenson was able to find a way past.
“Once we’d made our final stops, and had to put on the harder tyres,” he said, “I could see that Fernando was having grip problems. We had a great fight, and I really enjoyed it – just a pity it wasn’t for the lead...”
Overtaken by Button, Alonso’s next concern was Hamilton. The Ferrari, as we have said, was hobbled on the harder Pirellis, whereas the McLaren was emphatically not. Setting a succession of new fastest laps, Lewis began to close very swiftly, and it looked as if he might have just enough laps to get himself on to the podium: four to the flag, three seconds behind...
In the event, though, Alonso predictably kept his cool – and his third place, half a second clear of Hamilton. “Another two or three laps, and he would have passed me,” Fernando said. “We were lucky today that he lost so much time behind Schumacher...”
Michael had fallen some way back by this time, but still he finished fifth, and said he had enjoyed the race – particularly the intense battle with Hamilton. Had Lewis viewed it the same way? “Mmm, it was motor racing...” he said.
The ‘classic’ portion of the season is not yet done – Suzuka and Interlagos are among the six races still to be run – but in the space of two weeks we have had two immensely satisfying Grands Prix, at Spa and Monza, motor racing theatres of the purest kind.
If the races have been exhilarating, for the other drivers they have been a touch demoralising, too, for Sebastian Vettel has conclusively won both of them, burying any mid-season hopes that perhaps he and Red Bull were beginning to lose a little of their magic. These two circuits, remember, were among those at which the team had previously not excelled.
Wins seven and eight in 2011 have taken Vettel’s points total to 284, his lead a staggering 112. Next in line sit Alonso (172), Button and Webber (167) and Hamilton (158). As Niki Lauda put it, “Without Sebastian, you know, this would be a hell of a close championship...”