Cruise-control victory at Monza
The most remarkable aspect of Sebastian Vettel’s win in Monza was not the utterly dominant performance posted by the 24-year-old defending champion on Ferrari’s home track, but that the German took a cruise-controlled victory in the Red Bull.
At first thought that seems a bizarre remark, for the RB7 has taken eight wins in the 13 races to date – significantly all posted by him, with team mate Mark Webber nary leading a lap despite having an identical car. But history records that the performance characteristics of Adrian Newey’s cars are such that, while they win virtually everywhere else, Monza’s combination of high speeds, long straights and stop-start chicanes seldom comes to them. In short, prior to the 53-lap race, Red Bull had never won in Monza.
However, one should never say "never" in advance, and Vettel’s win, which puts him virtually out of reach for the second consecutive championship needed to complete his full house of ‘youngest-ever’ accolades by depriving Fernando Alonso of the youngest-ever double champion title, proved that if there are such rules in F1, they exist to be broken.
True, Seb took his maiden win in Monza in a Toro Rosso in 2008, and that car was effectively a Newey-designed Red Bull with Ferrari power in place of Renault, but it was a freakish win which came about via a mix of spooky conditions, a superb pole on Saturday scored under capricious skies, impeccable race strategy and an utterly committed driver.
The car had less to do with it.
Thus in the build-up to the Italian Grand Prix, speculation was that Vettel and Red Bull would find themselves trounced, with last year’s winner Alonso being the likely victor; if not the Spaniard, then probably McLaren’s Jenson Button or Lewis Hamilton. Of the Silver Bears, the former was deemed the likelier on account of having his head more together - both this season and here last year, when he narrowly lost a mesmerising cat-and-mouse game to Alonso.
RED BULL DOUBTS
Not only was Monza Red Bull’s bogey track, but what if Pirelli’s camber guidelines hampered the blue cars more than the rest? After all, they argued, Newey’s designs generally rely on maximum negative front wheel camber to ‘lean’ into high speed corners – which Monza numerically has more of than chicanes.
However, F1 is “IF” spelt backwards, and no matter how many ifs and buts were trotted out by the opposition during the race weekend, the fact remains that apart from free practice session when the track is green, drivers are experimenting with fuel loads and tyre choices, and engineers with aero settings and gear ratios – the latter crucial at a track with such speed extremes. Vettel topped the times sheets in every single session, whether F2/3, Qualifying or Race.
Not even a scintillating start by Alonso, who leapt from fourth to first in one easy move in the run down to Turn One in a repeat of his Spanish Grand Prix manoeuvre, detracted from Vettel’s glory. If anything, his pass on the red car on Lap Five once the Safety Car deployed in the wake of a first corner incident had peeled in, underscored his full skills set.
Ferrari’s matador is nothing if not robust, and proved this point by forcing Vettel on to the grass at 250 km/h. Did SebVet flinch? Not a bit – he stayed foot flat, rode the instability and took a lead he was not to lose. The move had been "hard", admitted Fernando afterwards, adding in mitigation: "He [Vettel] is leading the championship by 100 points, so when we have to defend we will be a little bit harder with him..."
To be fair, Alonso gave Sebastian enough room but will have to try even harder next time...
Thereafter Alonso fell into the clutches of Button, who again proved his strategic savvy by hanging back as Hamilton and Michael Schumacher, another who made a storming start, fell over each other. As they scurried every which way as MS proved the Mercedes’s top end prowess, JB waited for the correct moment before pouncing both cleanly. From then on a place on the podium was not in doubt, with the only question being whether he could catch Alonso, who had edged away from this three-way tussle.
Jenson jumped Fernando shortly after their second stops, and an eventual second, 13 seconds adrift of the Red Bull, was his as Alonso rued yet another disappointing day with the Ferrari 150º. In fact, Alonso was fortunate the race was not a lap longer, for once Hamilton DRS’d past Schumacher he set about catching the red car in third, failing to take the final podium place by just half a second.
Schumacher placed fifth after a strong showing, with Felipe Massa sixth, having been tapped into a spin by Webber, who promptly crashed. This drops the Australian to third on the log behind Alonso, in turn 112 points shy of Vettel’s 284. Button and Hamilton complete the top five point scorers, but both are out of the reckoning, with only Alonso and Webber having the (most slender of) chances of beating Vettel to the title.
The top ten was completed by Jaime Alguersuari (Toro Rosso), Force India’s Paul di Resta, Bruno Senna in the Lotus Renault, and Sébastien Buemi in the second Toro Rosso.
The Italian Grand Prix brought to an end the European portion of the calendar, and now the circus heads for Singapore before taking in a double-header in Japan/Korea. Then it is India in late October, followed by Abu Dhabi and Sao Paulo in mid- and end-November respectively – so still six rounds (fully one third of the season) to go despite it already being mid-September.
It is only a matter of time before Seb is crowned; the only open question is: ‘At which Asian race?’