Italian GP - Sunday - Race Report
Vettel again as Red Bull cracks Monza
Sebastian Vettel claimed his eighth win of 2011 and the 18th of his F1 career with a decisive victory in the Italian Grand Prix. Now 112 points clear of Fernando Alonso in the championship, he could clinch his second title at Singapore in a fortnight.
It was a special win for Red Bull because in recent seasons low downforce Monza has been the team's bogey track. This time, Vettel put the RB7 on pole by half a second and overcame a superb start from Alonso's Ferrari to dominate the race.
The only negative for Red Bull was losing its 100% finishing record in an unlucky 13th round of the championship when Mark Webber crashed out after four laps.
The Australian had lost his front wing in contact with Felipe Massa at the first chicane. It tucked under the car as Webber approached Parabolica, putting him into the barrier and out of the race.
At the start, all eyes were on last year's winner Alonso. The Ferrari made a superb getaway from fourth on the grid and, with Vettel moving right to defend against Hamilton's McLaren, Fernando kept coming. He just clipped the grass as he kept his boot hard in and snatched the lead into the first chicane, from Vettel, Hamilton and Schumacher's fast-starting Mercedes.
Behind, there was mayhem as Tonio Liuzzi, trying to avoid Kamui Kobayashi and Heikki Kovalainen, lost control of his HRT, got onto the grass and cannoned into Vitaly Petrov and Nico Rosberg, minding their own business in the middle of the chicane. All three were out on the spot and Rubens Barrichello also lost his front wing in contact with Rosberg.
Liuzzi earned himself a five place grid penalty in Singapore for his efforts, which is not going to make a lot of difference....
Out came the Safety Car and when the field formed up behind, the top 10 was: Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton, Schumacher, Massa, Webber, Di Resta, Maldonado, Perez and Alguersuari.
At this point there was a question mark over Vettel's prospects. His speed through the trap at the end of the pit straight in qualifying had been slowest of all, as Sebastian's side of the garage had taken shorter gearing and higher downforce, obviously confident of their qualifying pace and with an eye on Sunday afternoon. But now he was behind Alonso's Ferrari and had Hamilton right behind.
Lewis, however, was caught napping at the restart as he seemed to concern himself with Schumacher rather than the cars ahead. Vettel, meanwhile, was immediately on the attack, taking the lead from Alonso on the second lap of the restart around the outside of Curva Grande, with two wheels on the grass.
"He didn't give me much room there..." the champion smiled.
"We have nothing to lose in the battles with Sebastian," Alonso replied. "He is leading the championship by 100 points, so when we have to defend we will be a little harder with him. Sorry..."
Schumacher, meanwhile, took full advantage of the Mercedes top speed to take third from Hamilton on the pit straight. Webber passed Button and then had his problems trying to take fifth from Massa's Ferrari.
"Mark was going for it," said team boss Christian Horner. "The move with Felipe was 50/50, a racing accident that relied on Felipe being generous at the second part of the chicane." He wasn't.
Trulli became entangled with Massa and was forced to pit for a new nose, going over to a one-stop and ultimately coming home 14th, half a minute adrift of Lotus team mate Kovalainen, who he had outqualified for only the second time this year.
Bruno Senna was another early pit visitor during the Safety Car period to go onto the soft compound Pirellis. Alone among the top 10 qualifiers, Rosberg and Senna had elected to start on the medium 'prime' tyre.
For Rosberg it had been strategic. Bruno, knowing that Rosberg would start on primes because Nico used them in Q3, did not fancy getting trapped behind the superfast-in-a-straightline Mercedes with option tyres on his Renault, so mirrored Rosberg's choice.
But with the Safety Car out, Bruno ducked in to get a cut-price tyre change and run to the end on three sets of options. It paid dividends sufficiently to get him to the line ninth, putting the Senna name into the points for the first time since Ayrton took that era-concluding Adelaide win at the end of 1993 in his last race for McLaren.
Vettel immediately disappeared up the road at seven to eight tenths a lap and there was nothing Alonso could do. The Ferrari had Schumacher's Mercedes about two seconds further adrift, with Hamilton fretting behind it, obviously quicker but unable to get by.
Button had been the best part of 3.5s behind his team mate by the time Massa and Webber were out of his way and set about reducing the gap while his team mate was delayed. By the end of lap 13 Jenson was right there as Schumacher's Mercedes became ever wider.
There were times when it appeared that Michael had a somewhat imaginative interpretation of the one-move rule and it prompted a warning to the team from race control. Twice, Ross Brawn came on the radio to his man, reminding him to leave racing room at Ascari, which was the end of the first DRS zone, and to be aware of one move.
It's at times like this that you wonder whether Hamilton, as exciting to watch as he undoubtedly is, might apply a fraction more grey matter.
You could understand the frustration. At Monza, a Mercedes without DRS was able to remain clear of a McLaren with its rear wing fully open. Lewis was close into Turn 1 a couple of times, and again at Ascari, but not close enough.
Having failed to get by Schumacher for 13 laps, Lewis had a look down the inside of the Mercedes going into Curva Grande, which was never on. Unsurprisingly, Michael needed no second invitation to usher the McLaren towards the grass.
In the words of the following Button, who had the best seat in the house, "I think Lewis went for a gap with Michael that wasn't there, and I got a run on him."
Lewis had to momentarily back out of it, Jenson hit his KERS button and zapped by. He then got a tremendous exit from the second Lesmo and immediately did to Schumacher what Hamilton had been unable to.
"I got him down the outside into Ascari which was pretty brave as Michael doesn't give much room," Jenson beamed. "I don't know how close we were. I didn't look in the mirror and I pretty much closed my eyes after I turned in. Probably one of my best passes. Very happy with that!"
Although self-inflicted, Hamilton must have been seething. The pit stops were imminent, which would surely have afforded him a decent chance to get rid of the Mercedes if only he'd waited. Now though, he'd lost track position to his team mate and would have to wait for Jenson to stop.
Schumacher could feel his rear tyres going off and as soon as he lost the place to Button, pitted at the end of that 16th lap. Jenson responded next time around and Lewis came in the lap after that. Jenson's in-lap was a good one and he managed to get back out still ahead of Schumacher while Hamilton, predictably, emerged behind Michael once again.
The same game recommenced, Schumacher admitted he was driving a car as wide as a truck. At half distance Lewis finally made it by on the run to Ascari.
It looked almost as if Michael had had enough, that he didn't want to have to drive like that for the rest of the afternoon. It had been a spirited enough defence for a man of 42 who has been around F1 for 20 years! Perhaps it had wearied him?
McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh didn't think so. "Having a very wide car like that is instinctive to Michael, so I don't think it wore him out..."
By now though, Button was gone, 8s further up the road and closing in on Alonso's second placed Ferrari. They were 1.5s apart when Button pitted for his Pirelli primes on lap 33. Alonso covered him next time around and pitted out still in front.
There was every chance that the McLaren would be superior on the harder primes and so it proved, Button getting a better exit from Turn 2 and passing Alonso on the run to Curva Grande on lap 36.
With 10 laps remaining Vettel led by 15.7s from Button, with Alonso a further 2s behind and Hamilton, now the quickest man on the track, closing in, a further 6.3s adrift.
On the penultimate lap, Hamilton set the race's best lap at 1:26.18 and Button went round in 1:26.20, the second quickest lap. Vettel, meanwhile, took the chequered flag 9.5s to the good, stroking it no doubt, with a fastest lap of 1:26.55 four from the end.
Whitmarsh was left to wonder what might have been.
"We hadn't figured on having to pass the Mercedes in the race," he admitted, "and without the delay behind Michael, I think we'd have been right there."
Horner was equally convinced that Red Bull would have had McLaren handled, come what may.
"In the latter part of the race Sebastian was managing his pace to what the guys behind were doing," he explained. "Once he had a 15s lead we turned the engine down and he still set the fastest lap at that stage.
"The set-up, obviously, was a bit of debate about gear ratios but I think we got it absolutely spot on. We felt that the hit was potentially in qualifying when you can use the DRS all the time. For the race we felt we were better placed and that ultimately proved to be the case. Even dropping behind Fernando, who we knew was pretty quick on the straight, Seb managed to make it work.
"A lot of effort went into this race. The set-ups were driver choice. Both engineering sides of the table had the information and the opportunity to go that route and in the end they went in different directions.
"From a team point of view it was impossible to say which was right and which was wrong. They both had pluses and minuses. Seb was adamant he could make his work, and did just that."
Behind the stubborn but admirable Schumacher and the delayed Massa, Jaime Alguersuari scored a career best seventh place from 18th on the grid, while Paul di Resta got home eighth for Force India, just ahead of a closing Bruno Senna, who was on a set of the quicker option Pirellis at the end. Sebastian Buemi made it a double celebration for Toro Rosso in their home race by claiming the final point.
Red Bull had really wanted this one. As a team they have performed superbly all season. In their moment of triumph, Christian Horner took had some quiet words.
"Earlier this week," he explained, "we lost a young woman, Erin Pezzella, who had worked for the team for five years in accounts. She was 31 and lost a very brave fight against cancer. It brings everything into perspective. We'd like to dedicate this to her."