There was none of the first corner chaos of a week ago at Spa, but it was an action packed Italian grand prix nonetheless. We saw some outstanding drives from a number of drivers, with Lewis Hamilton taking a brilliant third victory of the season to reassert himself in the world drivers’ championship. Much of the attention, rightly so, was focussed on an outstanding drive from Sergio Perez, who finished second, while Fernando Alonso also drove an excellent race to finish on the podium. We also saw a huge performance improvement from Felipe Massa, too, as he finished fourth in Ferrari’s home race.
It would be unfair not to start with Lewis Hamilton, though. It’s easy to forget amid the storm of criticism surrounding Hamilton after Spa, where he qualified poorly, by his own high standards, and crashed out at the first corner, that Hamilton still led his team-mate in the world drivers’ championship by 16 points. Such was the shift in momentum, though, that it would have been easy for him to have buckled under the pressure.
Hamilton responded in exactly the right way, however, answering his critics with a pole position on Saturday, followed up with a brilliantly controlled drive to take victory on Sunday, despite the mounting speculation about where he will be driving in 2013. Indeed, perhaps critically, Hamilton managed to turn the tide back in his favour at McLaren, reasserting himself in the team and re-establishing his post-Hungarian grand prix 41 point lead over his team-mate, Jenson Button, who failed to finish, retiring with a fuel pick-up issue on lap 33.
Indeed, it was a complete reversal of fortunes for the McLaren team-mates. At Monza it was Hamilton who was in control in qualifying, taking pole by just over one tenth of a second ahead of Button, despite being caught up in traffic on his fastest lap. Fernando Alonso pointed out that he felt he would have easily managed to take pole position had he not suffered a rear anti-roll bar failure in Q3 stating “I think it would have been the easiest pole position of the year for us”. We’ll never know whether that would have been the case given that Hamilton felt that he could have gone faster himself.
As we all know, though, no points are scored on Saturdays and it’s the race result that really matters. Just like Button in Belgium, Hamilton dominated the race in Italy, while his team-mate failed to score. Hamilton almost managed to take the same lights to flag victory as Button in Belgium, but was denied by Sergio Perez who led for five laps, ahead of his pit-stop, on his way to an outstanding second place.
Perez’s performance was all the more impressive given that he had qualified in 12th position, immediately behind two of the world drivers’ championship contenders, Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber. Yet again, the Mexican made a different strategy work to superb effect, on this occasion starting on the prime tyres and running a long first stint before switching to the options for the final part of the race. This enabled Perez to storm his way past both Ferrari’s with fresh tyres after his pit stop in a manner reminiscent of Lewis Hamilton’s drive to victory in Canada.
Despite setting lap times that were, at one stage, some 1.5 seconds a lap faster than the leaders, the gap to Lewis Hamilton was just too large to bridge. Hamilton had been conserving the tyres and upped his pace enough after Perez had passed Alonso to ensure that he wouldn’t be caught. As a result, victory eluded the young Mexican, but he still managed to take his third podium of an increasingly impressive season, equalling his result in Malaysia.
It can only be a matter of time before Perez tastes victory in Formula 1. It may well not be with Sauber, though, as the manner of his performance at Monza has reignited the speculation that Perez might be the man to partner Fernando Alonso at Ferrari in 2013. When asked whether he thought that this performance would increase his chances of securing a drive with the Italian team, Perez responded by saying “I don’t know. I am sure not at all. I am fighting for my team and I will always fight for the team I am in, I will always give my maximum”. While Perez won’t admit it I’m sure that his drive in Italy, in front of the tifosi, will have done exactly that.
The previous quotes from Ferrari that Perez needed “more experience” to drive for Ferrari (Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo) and that he was “too aggressive” (Ferrari Driver Academy head Luca Baldisserri) look a little silly after the Mexican’s performance at Monza. It was a performance full of controlled aggression, including a couple of brilliant overtaking manoeuvres on Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen, and maturity befitting a driver of more experience. It will certainly do his reputation no harm whatsoever, and it can only enhance his chances of driving at Ferrari in 2013.
Let’s not forget, though, that Perez will have plenty of competition for that drive. I’ve written previously about the reasons why Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen would be a good option for Ferrari in 2013, but after a much improved showing perhaps it’s still a little too early to discount the current incumbent, Felipe Massa, altogether.
It’s not unfair to say that the Brazilian’s season so far has been lacklustre, to say the least. His performance at Monza did, though, suggest that he might still stand a chance of retaining his seat. After qualifying an excellent third, under a quarter of a second behind pole man Lewis Hamilton, and driving a very strong race, Massa can count himself unlucky not to have taken his first podium finish of the season, eventually finishing fourth after living up to his promise to support Fernando Alonso, by allowing his team-mate to pass him for third position.
It was unquestionably Massa’s strongest performance of the season, with fourth place equalling his result at Silverstone and meaning that he has more than quadrupled his number of world championship points in the last five races, after scoring just 11 points in the first eight rounds of the season. Will this improved performance level be enough for him to hang on to his seat alongside Alonso in 2013? Massa certainly thought so, stating after the race “For sure my own personal race was very important, but also helping Fernando as well to be in the condition to fight for the championship, which we know is very important for the team. I think both came together during the race”. Certainly Ferrari are not ruling out the possibility that Massa will stay with the team, but I still suspect that the decision has already been made and he’ll find himself elsewhere in 2013.
Alonso, though, will have been glad of the Brazilian’s help at Monza. With third place, Alonso declared the race “the perfect Sunday”, and the result means that he has managed to extend his world drivers’ championship lead once again. After Spa, Sebastian Vettel had closed to just 24 point behind Alonso, but with the German’s alternator failure meaning that he failed to score, he had dropped to fourth place in the championship some 39 points behind the Spaniard. Lewis Hamilton has moved into second in the championship after his third win of the season – matching Alonso’s total – 37 points adrift, with Kimi Raikkonen, despite not managing to record a victory this season, in third in the championship, a point behind Hamilton.
There still seems to be no single driver that is managing to put themselves consistently in position to challenge Alonso’s dominant championship position, however. Hamilton will certainly fancy his chances of becoming that driver in a McLaren car that has now won the last three races, but we can surely rule out Jenson Button now. Yes, the 2009 world drivers’ champion is 10 points closer to Alonso than he was before the mid-season summer break, but there are now only seven races to go. The 78 point gap – more than three race wins – just looks too big to bridge.
Will Button now play second fiddle to Hamilton and support his team-mate’s bid for the world drivers’ championship? He has said that he wouldn’t expect the team to ask him to do that until it becomes mathematically impossible for him to win the championship – and with 175 points still left to play for it’s not yet that – so I suspect that Button won’t be playing a supporting role just yet. Indeed, Button acknowledged after the race that winning the championship “is going to be very very difficult” for him, but refused to give up on his chances of the title at this stage of the season. However, with it being clearer than ever that Massa is playing a supporting role to Alonso at Ferrari, McLaren may well regret not asking Button to support Hamilton now – it could make the all important difference come the end of the season.