Racing instinct delivers victory for Hamilton in Italy

After the drama of the Belgian grand prix the focus of the Formula 1 world was very much on the Mercedes team and their two world drivers’ championship protagonists, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. The pressure was on both drivers to deliver a clean race and a positive result for the team. The big question was, which of the two drivers would handle the pressure and intense scrutiny the best?

The answer to that question, at least at Monza, appeared to be very much Hamilton. That might be somewhat of a surprise to some given that it’s Rosberg who is supposedly the mentally stronger of the two drivers, but he simply had no answer to Hamilton in Italy.

Both drivers had experienced some reliability issues through free practice, with Hamilton missing an hour of free practice two with an electrical issue, while Rosberg failed to set a time in free practice three after experiencing his own reliability issues. Going in to qualifying it was pretty even in the reliability stakes, but not so in terms of pace.

Hamilton celebrates pole position ahead of Rosberg and Bottas

Hamilton celebrates pole position
ahead of Rosberg and Bottas

Hamilton had the edge throughout all three segments of qualifying, and in Q3 he really stamped his authority on proceedings with a first effort that was just under half a second quicker than his Mercedes team-mate. Rosberg closed the gap on his second run, but he still qualified over a quarter of a second behind Hamilton on the front row of the grid.

Rosberg led at the start while Hamilton was swallowed up by the field

Rosberg led at the start while Hamilton
was swallowed up by the field

Hamilton’s stunning qualifying performance counted for nothing on race day, however. The Briton got an awful start, through no fault of his own (car related software glitch), which dropped him down to fourth position and handed Rosberg the lead.

Hamilton had to make his way ahead of Kevin Magnussen in the McLaren and Felipe Massa’s Williams, both of whom had passed him at the start, before being able to set about Rosberg, who had pulled well clear in the lead of the race. He started to make his move on lap five, taking advantage of Massa’s move on Magnussen to make his own move on the Danish driver.

Hamilton passes Massa for second position

Hamilton passes Massa for second position

Massa and Hamilton then started to close the gap to Rosberg, who made a mistake on lap nine, running straight on at turn one and losing nearly two seconds to the pursuing duo. That was all the encouragement that Hamilton needed, pulling off a great move on Massa in the same place as Rosberg’s error just a lap later, before setting about closing down his team-mate.

Although Hamilton was able to get close to Rosberg – closing to within 1.1 seconds at some stage – he was unable to get to within DRS range on the first stint on the medium tyres. Rosberg got the advantage of the “undercut”, pitting first for fresh tyres on lap 25, briefly handing the lead to Hamilton before the 2008 world drivers’ champion pitted just a lap later and returned the lead to his championship rival.

Rosberg, under pressure from Hamilton, goes straight on at turn one

Rosberg, under pressure from
Hamilton, goes straight on at turn one

As battle resumed between the two Silver Arrows Hamilton’s race engineer suggested that his driver might want to hang back a little and preserve his tyres for attack in the closing laps of the race. Hamilton had other ideas. He decided that the time to make his move was there and then and started to eat in to Rosberg’s lead at an incredible rate of knots. On lap 28 he had closed to within 0.7 seconds of his team-mate and with the pressure very much on Rosberg cracked, making an identical error to the one he made on lap nine, going straight on at turn one, losing time and handing Hamilton the lead of the race.

Having taken the lead, Hamilton pulls away from Rosberg

Having taken the lead, Hamilton
pulls away from Rosberg

It was a lead that Hamilton never looked like relinquishing, pulling relentlessly away from his team-mate and building a comfortable 4.5 second gap. While there were some fierce battles, and great racing, behind the two Silver Arrows, Rosberg could never get close to Hamilton out front. Despite his own lock up at turn one in the closing stages, Hamilton had everything under control and took what was a comfortable victory in the end, with Rosberg completing a Mercedes one, two and Massa and team-mate Valtteri Bottas bring the two Williams cars home in third and fourth.

Rosberg’s championship lead is now down to 22 points – still a big margin – but the psychological impact of the events of Spa and Monza might be more significant to the outcome of the 2014 world drivers’ championship than the loss of seven points to Hamilton in Italy. Will we see more mistakes start to creep in to Rosberg’s driving? Is the knowledge that he would be at risk of being completely vilified should he make contact with Hamilton again affecting him?

It’s too early to answer those questions, but what is clear is that Hamilton’s racing instinct won him the race at Monza. He knew when to push, when to apply pressure and when to attack. He recovered brilliantly from the technical problems that caused him to lose the lead of the race at the start to win. Irrespective of the psychological impact on Rosberg, events in Italy will certainly give Hamilton a lift.

Has the momentum swung in his direction? I can’t wait to find out in Singapore.

Vettel takes victory in Italy while Hamilton leaves disappointed

After being strong through free practice and having put in a commanding qualifying performance, we feared the writing was on the wall for the rest as Sebastian Vettel started the Italian grand prix from pole position. With two of the four championship contenders, Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus, starting outside of the top 10, a Vettel victory at Monza could have spelled the end to the championship challenges of those two drivers, also.

Vettel celebrates victory in is customary style

Vettel celebrates victory in is customary style

As expected Vettel took a pretty straightforward win in Italy and despite an outstanding recovery drive from Hamilton to take ninth, both he and Raikkonen will now consider themselves out of the hunt for the world drivers’ championship. Indeed, Hamilton said as much when interviewed after the race calling the event “a disaster” for him, going on to say “That’s it for the championship”.

It’s hard to disagree. After the race in Monza he stands third in the world drivers’ championship, a huge 81 points behind championship leader Vettel. Raikkonen is a further seven points back after failing to collect any points in Italy after finishing in 11th place. With 175 points still on the table, mathematically speaking it’s not over for either driver, but realistically Fernando Alonso, himself 53 points behind Vettel after finishing second in Monza, is the only driver who can stop Vettel taking a fourth consecutive driver’s crown.

A disappointed Lewis Hamilton after Saturday qualifying at Monza

A disappointed Lewis Hamilton
after Saturday qualifying at Monza

While Hamilton’s analysis of his championship chances looks fairly balanced, the same cannot be said of his analysis of his performance in Monza. Hamilton said after the race that he was “very disappointed with myself”, claiming that he “didn’t deliver this weekend”. That was, I think, a very harsh self-assessment. The 2008 world drivers’ champion was clearly disappointed after qualifying on Saturday. He failed to get a representative lap time on the board in Q2, meaning that he failed to make the last part of qualifying and, for the first time this season, couldn’t compete for a place in the top 10 or, indeed, pole position.

Hamilton said that he “drove like an idiot” in qualifying, but he still might have made Q3 had he not been impeded by Adrian Sutil on his final attempt (the German received a three place grid penalty for the incident). While Hamilton was clearly disappointed with his performance in qualifying, he shouldn’t be so downbeat about his performance on race day.

The Englishman, starting down in 12th place on the harder of the two available tyre compounds, drove an outstanding race for the scant reward of only two world championship points for his ninth place finish. Moving from 12th to ninth in the race doesn’t sound like a particularly stunning performance given the relative pace of the Mercedes, but that, of course, doesn’t tell the whole story.

Hamilton had to stop early for fresh tyres after suffering a slow puncture

Hamilton had to stop early for fresh
tyres after suffering a slow puncture

Hamilton was expecting to stop just once in Italy, and would have been expecting to stop later than the cars that started ahead of him on the grid given he was starting on the prime tyre, while all the cars ahead of him, with the exception of Raikkonen, started on options. As things turned out, Hamilton was in the pits on lap 13 after the team detected a slow puncture. This forced the Mercedes driver onto a two stop strategy.

If this wasn’t bad enough, Hamilton also had to contend with a broken radio throughout the race. Indeed, Hamilton would have stopped even earlier if he’d heard his team calling him into the pits on lap 11. Hamilton said that the absence of his team radio was “almost like driving blind”, going on to elaborate by saying “you just don’t know where people are, when to pit, when you’ve got to push, when you’ve got to save tyres… you’ve just got to manage it yourself and hope for the best”.

Despite this handicap, though, he drove a brilliant race, pulling off a number of outstanding passes, including a couple of brilliant passes through Curva Grande, including one on Kimi Raikkonen to take 11th place on lap 49. Another couple of laps and he might have been able to negotiate his way ahead of the second Lotus of Romain Grosjean and the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo, who finished just 0.4 and 1.2 seconds ahead of the Englishman respectively.

Had it not been for Hamilton’s exciting charge back from around 17th place after his first pit stop, we would probably have had a dull and disappointing race. The rain that threatened ahead of the start never materialised and neither did any sort of challenge to Sebastian Vettel who, despite some concerns about his gearbox and that of his team-mate Mark Webber, took a customarily dominant victory.

Alonso and Webber battling it out for third place early in the race

Alonso and Webber battling it out
for third place early in the race

Alonso drove a solid race to take second place, providing some excitement himself along the way with a brilliant pass on Webber on lap three, but he was never in a position to challenge Vettel. Unless there’s a big change-a-round in fortunes, it’s looking like it could be a similar story in the hunt for the world drivers’ championship. Vettel’s position seems to strengthen by the race and while Alonso does all he can to challenge the Ferrari just doesn’t look to be able to compete with the Red Bull as things currently stand.

Ferrari can though, take comfort in the fact that they have reclaimed second place in the world constructors’ championship from Mercedes with Alonso’s second place being complimented by a fourth place finish for his Brazilian team-mate Felipe Massa, while Mercedes could only manage sixth for Nico Rosberg and Hamilton’s ninth place finish.

This will be scant consolation for Alonso, though. With seven races to go the championship it’s looking like we’re likely to see the Prancing Horse beaten by the rampaging Red Bull yet again.

Hamilton triumphs as the Ferrari auditions continue at Monza

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.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-27,
Malaysia, 23 March 2012
By Morio (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Sergio Perez, Sauber C31,
Australia, 16 March 2012
By parepinvr4 via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Felipe Massa, Ferrari F2012,
Malaysia, 24 March 2012
By Morio (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari F2012
Bahrain, 22 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona via Wikimedia Commons

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.