2014 Italian GP report

by Mark Hughes on 7th September 2014

In the fever of controversy the conspiracy theories fester. Forget them, forget the overheated nonsense. For an explanation of why Nico Rosberg lost the lead to Lewis Hamilton by locking up into the Retifilio chicane on lap 29, you need to know only the smallest bit of background – and it has nothing whatsoever to do with any mythical internal Mercedes punishment agreed to by Rosberg for what happened at Spa.

That background was the source of Hamilton’s advantage over Rosberg at Monza throughout the weekend: the speed he was able to carry into the corners. His minimum speeds through the two Lesmos amazed those inside the team. They are the perfect big radius, but quick corners for Lewis. This was the key to a consistent sector two advantage over his team-mate in the order of two tenths.

Through the chicane-punctuated long straights of sectors one and three there was little difference in their speed – but it was derived in a different way. Hamilton as usual was able to carry slightly more speed into and through the turns and therefore there was less accelerating to do out of them.

Rosberg boosted the shortfall by using a map that delivered more of his electrical power – and that of course meant Hamilton could use a map that made more boost available at other parts of the track. Such as punching him out of Lesmo 1 harder than Rosberg. Furthermore, as usual Hamilton’s ease with a lively rear on turn in meant he was comfortable with a more rearwards brake bias than Rosberg, allowing more effective braking energy harvest – and better fuel consumption.

“Nico was trying to protect his rear tyres and put the brake balance forwards,” explained Toto Wolff, “and then simply stood too hard on the pedal.”

“It was pretty simple,” said Rosberg. “Lewis was coming from behind very fast and I made a mistake.” Twice, in fact. The first time Rosberg went straight on, on lap nine, lost him 1.8s of the 3.7s advantage he’d had. The second one lost him the lead. Hamilton’s speed advantage had played its part, most of the rest was accounted for by how he’d got that advantage. Perhaps a little came from Rosberg’s frame of mind – which we can obviously only guess at – in the wake of him being made by Mercedes to publically apologise for Spa.

He still does not fully agree with the team’s assessment of his proportion of blame for lap two at Les Combes two weeks ago – but coming into the Monza weekend he’d resolved to move on, accepting that he couldn’t risk isolating himself from them when he’s fighting for the World Championship. But it would be a resilient soul indeed that would not take some sort of a confidence knock.

Rosberg had only been in the lead because of Hamilton’s race start mode failure. Having to make a start without the help of computerised clutch bite points and engine maps – like everyone once did – had left Lewis sinking from pole to fourth. Time spent fighting his way past Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren and Felipe Massa’s Williams allowed Rosberg to pull out over four seconds on him. But even before Hamilton passed a fairly compliant Massa at the end of the DRS zone and around the outside of the first part of Retifilio, Rosberg had already gone straight on there for the first time. By the time Hamilton finally got up to second on lap 10, Rosberg was only a couple of seconds up the road. Game on.

Just as the crowd at that first chicane was shouting in celebration at Hamilton assuming the lead – Rosberg was later booed on the podium again – so it was silenced by Fernando Alonso pulling his Ferrari off, engine silent, from seventh place. Williams took third and fourth with Massa and Valtteri Bottas but over 20s adrift of the Mercs. Daniel Ricciardo drove another great race to pip team-mate Sebastian Vettel to fifth, the best a Red Bull could feasibly hope to be on an extreme low-drag power circuit.

And that was the story. Not any pre-race agreement or further Rosberg punishment. These theories are as silly as the earlier ones that Mercedes was favouring the German driver.

Qualifying

With the competitive stakes so high and the fall out from Spa still fizzing, things were a little nervy at Mercedes as Hamilton and Rosberg suffered car failures that saw them not running in P2 and P3 respectively. But it all held together when it mattered, the two W05s sewing up the front row even on this outlier of a circuit with its super-low-drag demands. Hamilton was consistently mighty through the middle sector thanks to his Lesmos speed. His pole time was a chunky 0.274s faster than his team-mate could manage and came on the first of his two Q3 runs. Rosberg improved on his second run, but a snap oversteer moment through Ascari was enough to finally extinguish any chance of his fifth consecutive pole.

Predictably, on a track placing such emphasis on raw horsepower, Mercedes-powered cars filled the first three rows. The Williams – a car with particularly low drag – was clearly the second fastest machine, but even with a lap that Valtteri Bottas reckoned was very close to perfect, it was still over half-a-second adrift of Hamilton’s Merc. Felipe Massa was not as comfortable as Bottas with the FW36 through Ascari – where the torque of this generation of cars makes them a delightful-looking handful – and was a couple of tenths slower, in fourth.

The McLarens could be hustled along within 0.5s of the Williams cars, but not for very long before greater tyre degradation began to slow them. This was of little consequence in qualifying though where Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button were within hundredths of each other, Magnussen leapfrogging ahead on the final run as Button got a little ragged through the Lesmos.

Fernando Alonso reckoned that even with 100 sets of tyres he could not have improved on the lap that placed his Ferrari seventh, within half-a-tenth of Button, this six-thousandths quicker than the Red Bull of his old Monza nemesis Sebastian Vettel. Seb has always had a particular affinity with this place and was consistently quicker than team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, who lined up ninth almost 0.3s slower.

Sergio Pérez did a particularly nice lap to graduate his Force India through to Q3. Kimi Räikkönen failed to get the second Ferrari through, struggling with front locking. Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso became the first car of the season to incur a 10-place grid penalty for taking a sixth engine. It was important he qualify as high up as possible; if all 10 penalty places could not be taken here, the remainder would carry through to Singapore.

He qualified 11th fastest of Q2 and so could be satisfied. Team-mate Jean-Eric Vergne was 0.1s adrift but ahead of Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India and the Saubers. Neither of the brake-locking, diffuser-stalling Lotuses could be manhandled out of Q1 where they were barely any quicker than the Caterhams and Marussias.

Race

Hamilton seemed to be in a very good place this weekend. Maybe it was the outcome of the post-Spa talks, perhaps because he seems to thrive on controversy, but when on the dummy start his car refused to engage race start mode he remained calm. “I thought, ‘hopefully it will be OK at the proper start,’ but it still wasn’t there. Basically the rpm was all over the place and I just floored it and hoped for the best and concentrated on minimising the damage.”

Race results

1. L Hamilton Mercedes 1h19m10.236s
2 N Rosberg Mercedes 3.175s
3 F Massa Williams 25.026s
4 V Bottas Williams 40.786s
5 D Ricciardo Red Bull 50.309s
6 S Vettel Red Bull 59.965s
7 S Pérez Force India 1m02.518s
8 J Button McLaren 1m03.063s
9 K Räikkönen Ferrari 1m03.535s
10 K Magnussen McLaren 1m06.171s
11 D Kvyat Toro Rosso 1m11.184s
12 N Hulkenberg Force India 1m12.606s
13 J-E Vergne Toro Rosso 1m13.093s
14 P Maldonado Lotus 1 Lap
15 A Sutil Sauber 1 Lap
16 R Grosjean Lotus 1 Lap
17 K Kobayashi Caterham 1 Lap
18 J Bianchi Marussia 1 Lap
19 M Ericsson Caterham 2 Laps
20 E Gutiérrez Sauber 2 Laps
- F Alonso Ferrari Power Unit
- M Chilton Marussia Accident

With a wild flurry of wheelspin he was easy meat for Rosberg, Massa and Magnussen. But Bottas’ getaway in the Williams had been even worse than Hamilton’s and as the pack was delayed swerving around the Williams, so it afforded Lewis a vital bit of breathing space, allowing him to hang onto fourth. He managed to get into the Retifilio chicane ahead of Vettel’s Red Bull and the chasing pack.

Considering the nature of the handicap, fourth place with just a couple of slower cars between him and Rosberg was good damage limitation. His radio messages back to the team about the nature of the problem, his reporting of the RS (race start) light still being on, was calm as they raced up through Curva Grande on this beautiful late summer day and his team successfully worked out how he could unscramble his electronics.

The pack alternately compressed and stretched out as it wound its way through the elongated straights and tight chicanes of the ancient park and its overhanging trees. An afternoon of slipstreaming, late braking and games of nerve was underway, all set to be punctuated only once by the pit stops.

One-stopping was calculated as being quicker than two by around 12s, and unlike a couple of years ago when the compounds were softer, there was no great advantage to be had by starting on the prime hard tyre rather than the medium option. Although the hard is designed for the sort of high track temperatures we had here (around 39deg C), it is a very conservatively stiff compound and the medium was far from overwhelmed, comfortably able to do 20-plus laps, leaving the hard to do the remainder to the end of lap 53. Six drivers further back on the grid, with nothing to lose, threw the dice by starting on the hard, but there was no great advantage either then or later when they switched to the softer tyre as everyone else was on the hard.

Rosberg had been gifted a present by the start and wasn’t slow in taking full advantage. Not only were there a couple of slower cars between him and his only rival, but initially they were dicing with each other too. Magnussen had gone clean around Massa’s outside as they’d approached the chicane for the first time, Felipe had tried a wheel-locking late-braking pass there at the end of the lap – by which time Rosberg was already 1.4s clear. By the second lap he was rounding Curva Grande before the squabbling McLaren and Williams – with Hamilton tight in their wake – bobbled out of Retifilio.

They in turn had pulled themselves clear of the squabble between Vettel, Button, Alonso and Perez. Sergio had out-accelerated the Ferrari off the grid, Fernando had immediately retaliated around the outside of Curva Grande – familiar territory for him.

Rivalling Bottas for the worst start had been Ricciardo’s Red Bull – “I dropped the clutch and just didn’t get the traction” – and the pair were back in 11th and 12th and about to lose further time fighting their way by Räikkönen and Hulkenberg, neither of whom had a great deal of pace.

Drivers' Championship

1 Nico Rosberg 238
2 Lewis Hamilton 216
3 Daniel Ricciardo 166
4 Valtteri Bottas 122
5 Fernando Alonso 121
6 Sebastian Vettel 106
7 Jenson Button 72
8 Nico Hulkenberg 70
9 Felipe Massa 55
10 Kimi Räikkönen 41
11 Sergio Pérez 39
12 Kevin Magnussen 38
13 Jean-Eric Vergne 11
14 Romain Grosjean 8
15 Daniil Kvyat 8
16 Jules Bianchi 2
17 Adrian Sutil 0
18 Marcus Ericsson 0
19 Pastor Maldonado 0
20 Esteban Gutiérrez 0
21 Max Chilton 0
22 Kamui Kobayashi 0

As ever, Magnussen was very defensive – but in going deep into the first chicane to begin lap five to keep Massa at bay he was simply giving Felipe an alternative way to pass him. On a compromised line out of there, he was unable to get on the power as early as the Williams and Felipe was able to gain hard through Curva Grande, this grinding him up to second place as they approached the Roggia chicane.

Entering that curve off line meant Kevin was slow out of it – allowing Hamilton to out-accelerate him before they reached the first Lesmo. Massa and Hamilton dropped Magnussen by around one second per lap as the Vettel/Button/Alonso/Pérez train began to draw itself up to the fourth-place McLaren.

Rosberg’s lead over Massa/Hamilton was almost four seconds by the end of the sixth lap, comfortable enough to allow Nico and his crew to begin thinking about the long game. “The other car is reporting degradation of the rears,” advised Tony Ross. Thus alerted, Rosberg moved his brake bias forwards – a crucial change as it turned out – and just maintained the gap back to the Williams. As Massa upped his pace, so did Rosberg and on the ninth lap he stood just a little too late on the left pedal from 206mph. It’s the biggest stop of the season – with the lowest downforce.

It’s desperately important not to lock-up as the resultant flat-spot at that speed will be massive and will effectively consign you to that much slower two-stop strategy. Braking that late with his more forward bias, he immediately felt he wasn’t going to make the turn without locking up – and so took the safe option of the escape road and its coned slalom course. He emerged still leading – but only by a couple of seconds.

A lap later Hamilton put an easy DRS pass on Massa into the chicane, Felipe quite compliant. It wasn’t so much about not fighting Williams’ own engine supplier, but simply recognising that fighting the inevitable was only going to slow him. That said, Williams needs the permission of Mercedes whenever it wishes to use the ‘overtake button’ and that permission tends to come more readily when the fight is with a Red Bull or a Ferrari than when it’s a Mercedes… Massa’s engine wasn’t in overtake mode at that moment, Hamilton’s was.

After all the early drama, here was Hamilton within a just couple of seconds of Rosberg’s lead – and chasing it down. In successive laps his deficit went from 2.2s to 2.1s, 1.9s, 1.6s and, by lap 15, just 1.4s. How to play it now? In the post-Spa Mercedes environment they are still allowed to race but some sort of stipulation about the gap over third place is believed to have been agreed. Hamilton would need a few laps yet to pull out the necessary margin over Massa and so he didn’t at this stage attempt to make any further inroads into Rosberg, just stayed out of his slipstream, looked after his tyres, minimised his fuel usage.

Meanwhile Felipe was having a serene day at the office, Magnussen dropping ever-further back and forming a very effective blockage to the squabbling bunch behind. With an end-of-straight speed of 208mph, the McLaren was 8mph faster than Vettel even with the Red Bull’s DRS flap open at this stage of the race. Bottas however had no such problem.

It had taken a couple of laps to get the Williams’ tyres up to temperature – partly explaining his poor start – but thereafter he began slicing through the pack; past Räikkönen on the ninth lap, Pérez on the 13th, Alonso on the 16th, Button lap 18 – all of them into the first chicane.

Red Bull, with Vettel still trapped behind Magnussen and next on Bottas’ radar, reckoned bringing Seb in aggressively early, undercutting him past the McLaren, was a better bet than wasting time dicing with Bottas. Sebastian came in at the end of lap 18, triggering Force India into responding with Pérez next lap. It would successfully get Vettel past Magnussen, who stayed out until lap 21. But there would be a price to pay later when his tyres would be older than those around them.

“We were forced into it really,” explained Christian Horner. “Conversely, with Daniel he was racing on his own at this point [still back in 11th] with no-one to undercut. So we thought we’d leave him out as long as possible, until his tyres hit the cliff. That way, on newer tyres he’d be in good shape late in the race.”

This scrap just made things easier for Massa and the two Mercedes up front, Felipe staying out until lap 23, followed in on successive laps by Rosberg and Hamilton. Each of their stops were routinely quick, at sub-three seconds, Hamilton’s a mite quicker than Rosberg’s but not by enough to overcome Rosberg’s advantage of pitting first.

Lewis rejoined 1.8s behind his team-mate and in the mood to launch an attack. “This race is probably going to be decided near the end,” advised his race engineer Pete Bonnington. “Probably best conserve tyres until then.” Lewis had other ideas. “Bonno is a brilliant race engineer but these sort of communications aren’t orders, they are just trying to guide you. Sometimes your own experience tells you differently and you don’t have to follow that advice. I knew from experience earlier in the season that if you’re going to pass it’s better to do it when the tyre grip is still there. It can be very difficult to get close enough through the previous turn to pass when the tyres are too old.” He let rip with the fastest lap of the race so far – over 0.4s faster than Rosberg’s at this time. This triggered discussion along the Mercedes pit wall.

“Yes initially we had said that the second driver would only be allowed to try to pass late in the stint,” explained Toto Wolff, in reference to the requirement of building the necessary gap over third place. But with Massa now over 12s behind and Hamilton clearly in attack mode, Hamilton was cleared – through Bonnington – to try early.

Furthermore, Rosberg’s front brake temperatures were now rising beyond their optimum. In trying to conserve his rear tyres by moving the braking bias forwards, he was beginning to compromise the brakes instead. Hamilton’s pace was placing an impossible set of demands upon Rosberg and the particular limitations he faced here.

At the end of lap 28 the two Mercs flashed past the line just 0.7s apart, and Hamilton’s DRS flap was open. Rosberg stood on the brakes and… it happened again, the Merc prone to locking its fronts at that brake setting and without FRICS to help stabilise the loads. “Lewis was coming so quick that I needed to up my pace and I just made a mistake as a result,” he said.

“It’s low downforce, the highest speed of the year, very heavy braking. That’s not an excuse, just the way it is. It’s one of the challenges of this weekend. Unfortunately I got it wrong. Twice.” Up through that escape road he headed again, down through the gears for the slalom – and Hamilton was in the lead, pulling away.

Constructors' Championship

1 Mercedes 454
2 Red Bull/Renault 272
3 Williams/Mercedes 177
4 Ferrari 162
5 McLaren/Mercedes 110
6 Force India/Mercedes 109
7 Toro Rosso/Renault 19
8 Lotus/Renault 8
9 Marussia/Ferrari 2
10 Sauber/Ferrari 0
11 Caterham/Renault 0

Meanwhile, Ricciardo had stayed out until lap 26 and after the dicing group that had been bottled up behind Magnussen had all pitted and rejoined they were in the order of: Vettel, Magnussen, Bottas, Pérez, Button and Alonso – with Räikkönen and Ricciardo still a little way adrift. But Daniel was on the move. “I was much happier on the prime tyre,” he reported, and as he was encountering those on older rubber, so he was back in familiar knife-through-butter territory, a reward for his quiet but long opening stint.

Around half a minute after the lead had changed hands at Retifilio, Alonso pulled his Ferrari over to the side there, an ERS failure having triggered a total electrical shutdown. The 2010 race winner waved to the adoring but disappointed tifosi as he drudged back to the pits.

No sooner had that happened than Ricciardo demoted the other Ferrari, going by Räikkönen into that same chicane and leaving it smartly behind, Button next in Danny’s sights. The Red Bull caught the McLaren quickly, helped by JB being engaged in a long hard dice for seventh with Pérez. As he gained upon them, so Magnussen in the other McLaren was being caught in fifth by Bottas.

With 18 laps to go Hamilton in the lead had used 63.9kg of his 100kg allowance, Rosberg 65kg, Massa 63.5kg, Vettel 65kg, Magnussen 65.8kg, Bottas 61.3kg, Perez 62.9kg, Button 62.7kg, Ricciardo 65.3kg. It was again notable – as it has been virtually every race this year – that Hamilton uses less fuel than Rosberg and that the Williams is the most economical of all.

The FW36’s short ratios, with long ‘overdrive’ top mean that the engine is at high revs for less of the time than more conventionally geared cars. The power ‘hole’ between the sort lower ratios and long top is plugged by a momentary ERS boost. That and a very low drag shape make it supremely raceable – but especially so at Monza.

Bottas went ahead of Magnussen on the outside as they approached the first chicane on lap 37 but Kevin is absolutely resolute in defence and came back on the inside. At this point Bottas took to the inner kerb to avoid contact – and it was this that earned Magnussen a five-second penalty to be added onto his time at the end. It seemed harsh for what was just a bit of hard wheel-to-wheel dicing and not in keeping with the FIA’s recent ‘hands off’ stewarding. Bottas got ahead cleanly next time and set chase for Vettel and his old tyres.

At much the same time Button got by Pérez into Retifilio, Sergio retaliating through Curva Grande and into Roggia, with Ricciardo now right behind them. Button and Pérez went in side-by-side, with the Force India forced over the kerb and still behind, but into the Lesmo the tenacious Pérez got back ahead.

Into the 40th lap Bottas made a relatively easy pass at the first chicane to deprive Vettel of fourth while just behind Ricciardo passed Button. Next in Daniel’s sights: Pérez – passed into Roggia next lap. This left Pérez prey to Button again into the first chicane, Jenson this time staying ahead up to Roggia but locking up on the way in, bringing him out wide and allowing Pérez ahead again. Button came back at him around the outside of Lesmo one, Pérez edging him out wide to take the place properly.  There was a lot of carbon dust from the Force India’s brakes, but Sergio was driving a typically combative race at a track where he always shines.

Ricciardo was not finished yet, taking sixth from Magnussen beginning the 44th lap – and setting off after Vettel, on tyres eight laps older than Daniel’s, the penalty for that early stop. Three laps later Daniel was upon him at the first turn, Seb locking up in defence and just staying ahead.

The two Red Bulls accelerated as one, up through Curva Grande, Ricciardo appearing as if preparing to go for the outside approach up to Roggia then veering across late and sharp to the inside – and past; a beautifully incisive dummy that Vettel didn’t have the grip to defend. Fifth place was absolutely as high as a Red Bull could have got at Monza – and, as ever, Ricciardo had achieved the maximum result.

Hamilton meanwhile nursed a five-second gap over Rosberg and cruised to the flag notwithstanding a late lock-up, with Massa over 20s behind in a lonely third, team-mate Bottas too far back to challenge. Ricciardo consolidated his fifth place as Vettel defended the last few laps from a resurgent Magnussen ahead of Pérez and Button. Räikkönen's 10th place was under threat in the late stages from Kvyat but with two laps to go the Toro Rosso suffered brake failure into the first chicane.

Daniil steered left to miss the Ferrari, got partly on the grass and performed one of the most amazing pieces of car control you’re ever likely to see, a beautifully caught opposite-lock moment at something not far short of 200mph, without hitting a thing. He continued brakeless to the end, in 11th. Magnussen’s penalty dropped him from sixth to 10th.

“I’m grateful today I didn’t lose it,” said Hamilton in an unintentionally revealing comment of his reaction to his startline drama. “I didn’t end up crashing at the first corner, didn’t touch anyone, didn’t lock. I kept my composure.” And closed the gap – through sheer performance and virtuosity.

 

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