Lewis tagged by stealth bomber
Lewis Hamilton has often been suspect in the brain-management stakes but the 2008 World champion put his Belgian woes - Twittered sensitive data to his millions of followers - and the furore over his contractual future aside, putting in a blistering drive to win the 2012 Italian GP by five seconds from Sergio Perez, who put in a typically stealthy drive for Sauber from 12th on the grid.
But the real story of the day was the fate of the two double World champions on the grid, lying 1-2 in the championship as they left Belgium behind them to face the last European GP of this gruelling season.
Points leader Fernando Alonso (164), the Ferrari driver at last with a car to match his speed, and Sebastian Vettel, on 140 points via a Red Bull bafflingly not quite up to his quest for a third consecutive crown and title of youngest triple champion – from Alonso), arrived at the classic Monza circuit determined to put one over the other.
In the end only the former managed the feat…
Although Michael Schumacher initially proved fastest on Friday, the mantle was taken up by Hamilton, who ended the third practice session just 0.001sec up on Alonso. Thus the scene was set for a thrilling showdown between red and silver – in the heartland of the former. Alas, it was not to be – although Fernando was later adamant he had a pole-winning car, a defective rear anti-roll bar scuppered his Q3 run, enabling Lewis to take pole with a “half-decent lap” as Alonso was left unable to set a competitive time, gridding 10th.
Vettel? Sixth after just scrapping through into Q3, his Red Bull having earlier in the day stopped – as it did while in the lead in Valencia – when its alternator packed in. Jenson Button, in the second McLaren, proved his win in Belgium was no flash in the pan by locking out the front row for his British team, with Felipe Massa coming good for Ferrari with third.
Thus the big question was whether Massa could split the McLarens at the start - or even usurp them - as team mate Alonso made up for lost ground. The lights provided the answer: Hamilton sped away, Button wheelspun, enabling Massa to force his way through going into the first chicane, thereafter doing a superb hold-up job for 19 laps as Lewis sped on his merry way.
However Button’s spirited attack proved in vain: on lap 32 (of 53) his McLaren was out, victim of an unspecified fuel-pressure issue.
Pirelli had brought its Mediums and Hards – as specified in Malaysia and Belgium – but had slightly shaved them at the edges to prevent heat build-u, and their concerns were twofold: the right fronts would wear unevenly and that some teams would eke out one-stopper when two would be more prudent.
In the end, tyre management proved critical to the outcome with Mark Webber, eight points behind team mate Vettel in third place on the log, destroying his tyres to the point of no return in the closing stages, heavily denting the Australian’s title chances after he spun two laps from the end.
By contrast Perez, who scored a sensational second to Alonso with the same compound combination in April in Malaysia, nursed his as he shrugged off the early disadvantage of being one of three drivers to start on the harder option.
DOCKED A DRIVE-THROUGH
“I didn’t have an easy first stint with the hard tyres but it was certainly the right strategy,” grinned the 22-year-old afterwards. “I was frequently in contact with the team on the radio because I was worried the tyres would suddenly drop and we would have to change our strategy.
“Also we were not quite sure how quickly they would warm up. However, it worked out fine.”
However, by then, though, it was all over for Vettel: having first been docked a drive-through for forcing Alonso off track during their bitter fight as the Spaniard sped on and upwards, then his (replacement) alternator shut down due to overheating on lap 47, causing the blue car to coast to a silent halt.
Red Bull and Renault urgent need to get to the bottom of the recurring issue.
Although Vettel and team boss Christian Horner post-race hit out at the stewards over the penalty, citing the identical incident last year when Alonso put Vettel on the grass at the same Turn 3 at the same speed (300km/h), they seemed to have overlooked that the rules had been “clarified” earlier this season, to wit after the Bahrain GP - where Nico Rosberg forced a number of challengers wide, albeit on asphalt.
During the British GP weekend the FIA race director decreed that a competitor was obliged to leave at least a car width while being overtaken, or when “a significant portion, i.e. a front wing, of a challenger is alongside”.
Although cynics suggested Alonso had benefited from the “Ferrari advantage in Italy”, video replays showed Vettel to have been in the wrong. In addition, the stewards for the first time had access to live data images from all cars and were thus able to ascertain precisely how Vettel handled the situation. A bitter, if academic, lesson for Sebastian.
Add together Alonso’s dogged style, an obliging team mate in Massa, retirements for Vettel and Button, a pair of Mercedes drivers whose cars proved unable to one-stop, and an ultra-fast track with two DRS zones, and no wonder the championship leader was able to move up from 10th to second at three-quarter distance as Hamilton sped away unchallenged at the sharp end, capitalising on the cushion created by Massa’s early hold-up job.
But suddenly a string of purple times – signifying fastest laps – popped up beside Perez’s car number (15) on the timing monitors and Malaysia sprang immediately to mind. After the Mexican, long on Ferrari’s radar as replacement for the long-in-the-tooth Massa, dispensed with Massa, the question was whether he would defer to Alonso and his prospective employers, or go for it.
The answer was not long in coming: with seven laps to go he DRS’d Alonso, the Mediums on the Ferrari unable to dish up the requisite defence. The difference in tyre strategies among the top four proved illuminating: Hamilton went for Medium Used/Hard New, stopping on lap 23; Perez chose HN/MN (29), Alonso and Massa both went for MU/HN, stopping on laps 20/19 respectively.
Raikkonen, who drove an unspectacular race in his Lotus to fifth, in the process moving himself up to third in the championship chase in his comeback year, chose the same strategy as did the winner and Ferrari drivers, while Schumacher and team mate Rosberg (both MU, HN, HN) were the only two-stopping points scorers, finishing sixth and seventh.
Paul di Resta (Force India), who had made a sterling job in qualifying to record fourth-fastest only for a gearbox penalty to drop him to ninth, made up a place in the order, with Perez’s team mate Kamui Kobayashi providing Sauber with a further fillip by finishing ninth from Bruno Senna (Williams).
Intriguingly, the Brazilian’s team mate Pastor Maldonado, starting from the back row after being been hit by two penalties during his hooligan Belgian weekend, chose the same strategy as Perez, making up 12 places overall to finish 11th. He would have started 12th but for his antics in Spain…
NEXT STOP SINGAPORE
Thus F1 leaves Europe with Alonso not only having salvaged a podium place from 10th but coming off statistically best, for not only did his two major title challengers ahead of this race (Red Bull’s duo) non-score, but he took his lead to 179 points, 37 up on Hamilton, who has moved into second after taking two wins in three races. Raikkonen is a further digit back, with Red Bull’s drivers remaining on 140 and 132.
Button is practically out of it.
The question is, though, whether Ferrari is truly back, putting an end to McLaren’s three-in a-row streak. Can Red Bull simultaneously sort its speed and reliability? Singapore, at the other side of the world, on a track with totally different characteristics, is but a fortnight away; then follow three sets of back-to-backs…
One thing is sure: Lewis proved the strongest man in Italy.