“Area under the curve, Nico,” was the congratulatory remark to Nico Rosberg from his race engineer on the Monza victory lap. And in that comment is: a) the encapsulation of the dead hand of these tyres upon the racing and b) Rosberg’s whole approach to the battle for the championship against an inherently faster driver.
The challenge – of a one-stop race on Pirellis and also of trying to beat Lewis Hamilton to a title in the same car – is not about peaks of pace but finding the most efficient trade-off between pace and circumspection. Maximise the area beneath the curve rather than worry about how high you can make that curve at any given moment.
Hamilton showed in qualifying that he was around half-a-second per lap faster than Rosberg here. Nowhere was that superiority more evident than in the second part of Ascari, the building speed right-hander. Brilliant new FOM graphics showed how much earlier Hamilton came off the brakes, keeping enough momentum to stay in sixth gear where Rosberg was in fifth and then how much earlier he was on the throttle despite going through there faster.
Either through driver error or system inconsistency – even the team can’t define exactly why yet – Hamilton’s start was blown. It’s the seventh time this year it’s happened to a Mercedes driver. Too much torque delivered to the wheels, excessive wheelspin and in those milliseconds Hamilton lost the race. Four cars – the Ferraris of Vettel and Räikkönen, Bottas’ Williams and Ricciardo’s Red Bull – were between him and Rosberg even before he reached the first corner.
Yes, they were all much slower cars than his W07 around Monza but by the time he’d passed Ricciardo and Bottas and the Ferraris had pitted out of his way, Hamilton was 14.8s behind Rosberg. But there were still 35 laps to go. Half a second per lap for 35 laps would theoretically have been enough for him to have been contesting the victory with Rosberg. That’s how it would be on tyres that could be pushed throughout their life rather than driven to a pace several seconds off the pace that any driver on the grid could achieve in order to keep the dreaded thermal threshold from being crossed. In times past we might have seen a fantastic contest of the faster driver, having fallen behind, trying to make the near-impossible happen with it all reaching a crescendo near the end. Regardless of whether the chasing driver pulled it off or failed, it would have made for a compelling race. Such drives have been how many of the sport’s legends have been created but they are impossible in this era, with tyres conceived from a flawed brief.
With the limit defined by the set pace tolerated by the tyres, that 15s gap was still at 15s 35 laps later as they were each forced to drive to a near-enough identical slow pace. Hamilton had raged against it for a time – getting the gap down to 9.5s by lap 30. But under the terms dictated by the Pirellis – especially on a one-stop – those stolen seconds have to be paid back. Hamilton had gifted Rosberg 15s of area beneath the curve and that’s how it stayed. The Mercs were unchallenged, their natural performance advantage only amplified by the one-stop strategy their harder-tyred Q2 runs the day before had allowed them, the other top-10 qualifiers obliged to start on the less durable super-softs and thereby having to two-stop.
As Rosberg was taking the flag, the third and fourth placed Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen were somewhere around the Lesmos, while 5s behind Räikkönen was Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull after a sensational pass from a long way back late in the race on Valtteri Bottas’ Williams.
Further back, just out of the points, the soon-to-take-a-rest Jenson Button used a different tyre strategy to catch and pass McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso, after which – with just two laps to go – Alonso pitted again for a fresh set of tyres, with the intention of trying for the fastest lap of the race, a quest in which he was successful. For him, with nothing at stake, it didn’t matter that the tyres would be too hot and permanently fried afterwards. He wasn’t looking to maximise the area below the curve.
“I really don’t have an answer to that,” said Hamilton after securing pole by almost half a second over Rosberg and being asked why the gap was so big. “It’s probably more a question for Nico. I just try to turn up and perform my best.” But Hamilton was quicker under braking, maintained higher mid-corner speeds and came out faster. Through the few medium-high speed curves – the Lesmos, Ascari, Parabolica – he carried more momentum for longer.
Relieved of some of the tyre stresses that reduced the Mercedes advantage in Spa – the super-soft wasn’t quite so overworked here, restoring the silver cars their usual advantage – Hamilton’s pole over 0.8s faster than Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari in third.
It was a big enough advantage to allow Mercedes to again get through Q2 using only the soft tyre, thereby giving themselves a better race day strategy. Even on this tyre Hamilton was 0.7s faster than the super-soft-shod Ferrari. His first Q2 lap included a slight lock-up into the first chicane and so he went out again in an effort to improve it but failed to do so after a bit of a moment through Parabolica. He shrugged aside having to start on a tyre with a slight flat spot. “It was small. I didn’t really damage the tyre, the flat spot is minimal, can’t really feel it.”
“My laps were good,” said a nonplussed Rosberg, “but clearly not fast enough. My only problem was that Lewis had his best qualifying in a long time.”
Carrying the final three-token engine upgrade allowed for this year, Ferrari was in reasonable shape. A usefully potent engine together with an efficient low downforce aero package meant the red cars were not really challenged as the second fastest. Giving some indication of the downforce comparison with Mercedes, the best Ferrari exited Parabolica 6kph lower than Hamilton but was only 1kph down by the time they reached the speed trap just before the braking zone for the first chicane, having gained 34kph in that distance. Fastest through that trap was Felipe Massa’s Williams-Mercedes at 357.6kph (222.2mph) which is still around 10mph down on what was being seen during the V10 era.
Vettel pipped team-mate Räikkönen to third despite a moment through Parabolica on his final attempt, but they were generally very closely matched throughout the weekend. “I wasn’t happy with my first Q3 lap,” explained Vettel. “I sort of lost the rhythm but I was able to get it back on the next run.” Although his Parabolica moment took him all four wheels beyond the white line, it actually cost him time, delaying him getting back full on the throttle.
Red Bull, with its shortfall of top end power, was trimmed out even more than Ferrari and were only the 13th and 15th fastest cars out of Parabolica and not even third quickest car – pipped to that status by the Williams-Mercedes, which Valtteri Bottas qualified in a good fifth place, around 0.4s off Ferrari. “I think that was one of my best qualifying laps ever,” said the delighted Finn. On his final appearance as an F1 driver at Monza, team-mate Felipe Massa failed to make it into Q3, only 11th fastest in Q2 after getting caught in traffic on his out lap and not getting his tyres fully up to temperature as a result.
Red Bull clearly chose not to devote too much of its development time into a low downforce aero package – its rear wing was actually identical to that used here last year – just taking the hit while pressing on with conventional development. It attempted to get through Q2 using only the soft tyres, as per Mercedes, but in reality they weren’t quick enough to be safely through doing this and both Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen had to make second Q3 runs on super-softs. Once into Q3 they went sixth and seventh fastest, Ricciardo a tenth ahead.
Force India was 0.4s down on Bottas’ identically-powered Williams but both Sergio Pérez and Nico Hülkenberg made it through to Q3, Hulk needing to use an extra set of super-softs to get there. Their Q3 laps were within a couple of hundredths of each other.
Haas made it through to Q3 for the first time – courtesy of Esteban Gutiérrez. The team had invested quite a lot of time in devising a low downforce package, the Monza wing being particularly distinctive. It also received the upgraded Ferrari motor and the combined effect moved it up a few places from its habitual upper Q2 level. Gutiérrez was predictably delighted. Romain Grosjean, 0.15s off in the sister car and back in 12th, was less so. He’d spun at Ascari that morning because of a gearbox glitch and could take no further part. He’d also be taking a five-place hit for a replacement ‘box and would therefore start 17th.
McLaren had been in the same sort of ballpark as Force India and Haas through the practices but opted to trim rear wing levels even further, accepting the hit in qualifying for a more raceable race day. That in turn allowed a more flexible tyre strategy based around the ideal one-stop. This would have been more difficult to achieve starting the race on the used super-softs they’d be obliged to fit to clear Q2. So Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button went 13th and 15th with no particular complaints.
McLaren’s trimmed wing combined with full Mercedes horsepower was enough to allow Pascal Wehrlein’s Manor to split the Honda-powered cars after getting through to Q2 for the third time this year. This is a track the Manor team targeted as a real opportunity and consequently devoted plenty of effort into maximising the efficiency of its low-downforce package. Team-mate Esteban Ocon unfortunately didn’t even complete a lap as the engine cut out into turn one, stranding him on track.
Carlos Sainz was again the only Toro Rosso to make it through to Q2, the team effectively writing the power track off. Daniil Kvyat was only 0.15s slower, but that left him failing to make the Q2 cut and lining up one place behind. The recently developed Saubers were 18th and 19th, Felipe Nasr marginally quicker than Marcus Ericsson, both quicker than the Renaults of Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen. The Renault engine still lacks top end power and the car carries quite high drag – the worst possible Monza combination. Magnussen had a big moment exiting Ascari that left him behind Palmer.
A week after Spa and it was another Indian summer day, another capacity crowd at another legendary and historic venue stretching back to not much after the sport’s dawn. Bernie Ecclestone had taken part in a press conference on Friday – in the middle of a practice session! – to confirm that a new three-year deal was imminent, (though hadn’t yet been signed).
Hamilton, one of only three men to have sat on the Monza pole five times, waited for a long time for the grid to form, having nailed a hard pace on his formation lap, anxious to bring up the temperatures of his soft tyres. The challenge was going to be fending off the Ferraris – on grippier super-softs and generally faster off the line anyway. Furthermore, the long run down to the Rettifilo chicane meant that respective drag levels would play a significant part and Ferrari was running significantly less than Mercedes (see qualifying explanation).
The single clutch paddle and manual starts were introduced this year to bring variability to the starts and they’ve achieved this. “In the past we were told of the clutch temperature and what the target was,” said Hamilton. “Now we can’t be told.” Getting the appropriate bite point involves a bit of educated guesswork on part of the driver, who can only practice his start at the end of the pitlane, on a surface that may be very different to that of his grid slot. The Mercedes driveline is evidently not as slick as that of Ferrari, nor as consistent. “As far as we can see the process was correct. I don’t know if it was me or an inconsistency in the system,” shrugged Lewis.
Both Mercedes drivers have fallen foul of that this year and so it was again here, as Lewis got an over-engagement of the clutch, the wheels spun up – and Rosberg was into an immediate lead. Vettel swerved around Hamilton to sit it out with Rosberg down to Rettifilo but couldn’t quite get ahead. Räikkönen and Bottas also flew past Hamilton, while Ricciardo was able to get down his inside. First to fifth in the opening seconds, Hamilton’s race had just been defined. Behind him were Pérez, Massa, Hülkenberg, Alonso, Verstappen (whose anti-stall had been triggered), Wehrlein, Grosjean and the rest.
Gutiérrez had made a halting getaway and was down near the back, Massa a wild one that forced Alonso to take evasive action, while Button was forced to take the escape road and then fighting with the Saubers through the first Lesmo had to take a run through the gravel trap, emerging out of it in a solid last place. Kvyat got involved in a traffic squeeze skirmish that damaged his floor and later caused his retirement. Through the second Lesmo Massa jumped a kerb and made slight contact with Hülkenberg, pushing the Force India out wide, allowing Alonso to nip by.
Vettel had taken another look at Rosberg’s lead between the Roggia chicane and the first Lesmo but thereafter Nico was able to stretch the Merc’s legs to pull away, out of DRS range by the end of the opening lap.
Hamilton got good traction out of the first chicane into the second lap, allowing him to run around Ricciardo’s outside through Curva Grande to take fourth, with Bottas next in his sights but a tougher prospect to pass on account of the greater straightline speed. For every lap Hamilton was stuck behind the Williams, so Rosberg’s gap over him extended by big chunks. The cars between Rosberg and Hamilton were, on account of their two-stop strategies, always going to be pitting before Hamilton, but Lewis wasn’t up for waiting until then, anxious at the gap Nico would be building.
Palmer and Nasr clashed on the second lap at Rettifiio after the Sauber got out of shape and was collected by the Renault. It would ultimately put them both out. They would later be joined in retirement by Wehrlein (lack of oil pressure). Verstappen was soon on the move after his compromised start, putting DRS passes on Hülkenberg and Alonso and setting chase for Massa.
As Rosberg and the Ferraris each ran to the pace dictated by their tyres, the leading Mercedes opened up a gap over Vettel of around 4.5s by the 10th lap. Hamilton was still searching for a way by Bottas at this point and was already trailing 11s behind Rosberg. He eventually made it past the Williams with a DRS move down the straight into the Rettifilo to begin the 11th lap. Räikkönen’s Ferrari was 4s up the road.
The Williams is not as kind on its rear rubber as the Red Bull and as this first stint went on Ricciardo was soon edging up into undercut range of Bottas, while three places further back Massa was being similarly challenged by Verstappen. In between this double Williams-Red Bull duel ran Pérez. Giving some idea of the performance spread, the Massa/Verstappen duel was being conducted 23s behind Rosberg by the 12th lap.
First to break the tension of those involved in undercut battles was Williams, bringing Bottas in on the 13th lap to defend against Ricciardo and being fitted with a set of softs. His new tyre pace was better than Ricciardo could manage on his old rubber in the remaining three laps of his stint. The plan at Red Bull then became to run Ricciardo long enough to the second stops that he could use super-softs for the last stint.
Because Massa couldn’t be brought in to defend from the undercut as Bottas took priority, Red Bull took advantage by bringing in Verstappen. Massa ran for an extra three laps – the plan now being to try for a one-stop – and emerged behind Verstappen. Max then set chase for the just-pitted Pérez.
Ferrari had brought Räikkönen in from third on the 15th lap and Vettel a lap later. Both were fitted with another set of super-softs. This finally moved Hamilton up to second place, the Mercs still with plenty of laps left to run in this first stint on account of having started on the soft. But Hamilton was 14.8s adrift of the leader and had used up much of his rubber life in getting through. “When they told me I was 15s down I knew I wasn’t going to be able to catch Nico,” he explained. “Maybe if the gap had been 6s, but 15? No way. Even if I had closed the gap there’s no way I’d have had the tyres to pass. If we had better grip, yes I could have done qualifying laps lap after lap. That would be great. But it hasn’t been like that for a long time.”
Rosberg pitted from the lead on the 24th lap and was fitted with the most durable of the three tyre compounds here, the medium, on which he would run through to the end. Hamilton was given the same when he stopped a lap later, rejoining behind the Ferraris again. “Just match their times,” Hamilton was told, “as they need to stop again.” But Lewis was still intent on trying to close the gap to Rosberg, even if he did strongly suspect it was futile. It came down to 9.5s by the 30th lap but that was as close as he’d ever get. He’d eaten into his margins doing that, had to back off to bring the rear temperatures down before they fried. Rosberg began easing out the margin once more.
Most of the rest of the field were two-stopping, Pérez in seventh coming in as early as lap 28 in order to defend the undercut from the closely following Verstappen. It retained him track position over the Red Bull but there’d be a price to pay with the longer final stint. Williams brought in Bottas from fifth on lap 30 to defend again from the Ricciardo undercut threat – but just as with Pérez, this implied a gripless struggle against a fresher-tyred Red Bull towards the end of the race.
Button had been making a great recovery from the back, quickly slicing through the tail-enders, aided by having started on the initially faster super-soft (as had team-mate Alonso) in contrast to most of the others starting outside the top 10. He was 10s behind Alonso as they each made their first stops and had their softs fitted. During this middle stint, even though he took 4s out of that deficit to the other McLaren (around 1.5s of that being due to a traffic light problem at Fernando’s stop), Button looked after his tyres more effectively than Alonso, the plan being to run long enough that he could get onto the faster super-soft again for the final stint, something that Alonso didn’t manage. It was a classic Button drive, the pity of it being that it wasn’t happening towards the front. Alonso came in for his softs on the 33rd lap as Button kept going for an extra five laps, the crucial difference that allowed Jenson his super-softs. With these, he quickly closed down the gap to the sister car and sliced by under braking for the first chicane with eight laps to go. This was for 12th place, a few seconds behind Grosjean who in turn was a few seconds off Hülkenberg.
After the Ferraris made their second stops on lap 33 and 34, Hamilton was back up to second, but driving to the tyres and making no inroads. “I could barely see Nico. He was most of the back straight ahead.” This really was one of the most straightforward victory drives Rosberg has ever enjoyed, the pace super-consistent, the tyres remaining unstressed.
With the Ferraris holding station, Vettel always a few seconds clear of Räikkönen but each driving to the tyres, the only uncertainty surrounded what the Red Bull pair might be able to do with the fresher tyres they’d given themselves by their late second stops. Ricciardo’s was late enough that he could get out on super-softs as he chased down Bottas’ fifth place. Verstappen made do with softs as he chased after Pérez’s seventh. Massa had baled out of the one-stop plan and was running ahead of Hülkenberg on a set of super-softs.
The Red Bull moves came on the 47th and 48th laps. Ricciardo used DRS and full ers deployment down the pit straight but even that wasn’t enough to get him tight behind Bottas’ Williams and Valtteri surely thought he was safe as he braked for the chicane. But Daniel came from several car lengths back to nail an exquisite move, no locked wheels, just total but calm commitment. It may just have been the pass of the season. A lap later Verstappen slipstreamed Pérez up to the Roggia chicane, moved to the inside and claimed the place. Sergio sat it out very late, but forced to concede, took to the escape road and rejoined after missing out the second part of the chicane, now eighth. Massa on super-softs nine laps newer than Pérez’s softs was now catching, but Sergio had him covered.
Two laps from the end Alonso did a familiar trick. Out of the points, he asked if he could come in and have a fresh set of tyres fitted. This lost him a place but with a set of super-softs he could abuse and a close to empty fuel tank, he set the race’s fastest lap. Just for the hell of it.
As the chequer fell on another Italian Grand Prix against a still strong late afternoon sun, Rosberg – big gap – Hamilton, Vettel, Räikkönen, Ricciardo, Bottas, Verstappen, Pérez, Massa and Hülkenberg added to their scores. Behind them, Grosjean, Button, Gutiérrez, Alonso, Sainz, Ericsson, Magnussen and Sainz did not.
“It was all down to the start,” said the victor as the white and red ticker tape blew over the track-invading tifosi. His and Hamilton’s starts. Not forgetting heat-degrading tyres that make it all about the area beneath the curve.