Italian GP 2008
SEPTEMBER 15, 2008
Race Report - Vettel blows them away
You have to laugh sometimes in Grand Prix racing. Pretty much everyone was delighted to see Sebastian Vettel win the Italian GP. It is always nice to have a new winner and Vettel is a popular guy. He's naturally funny and not in the least bit precious. Perhaps that will come with fame and fortune (it often does) but for the time being he is grounded, amusing and obviously very talented. And he's lucky.
The best thing a driver can be in F1 is to be lucky and there is no question that Vettel was born when the planets were all aligned correctly. The conditions at Monza were perfect for his situation and he delivered. One felt desperate for poor Sebastien Bourdais. He's had a pretty bad year with the team but when things finally went well for him and he was sitting fourth on the grid, it was a bitter blow that the car stalled on the grid. Despite that he drove a super race, with no hope at all of getting even close to the points. He ended the afternoon leaving the paddock with little fanfare, but he set the second fastest lap of the race, which compared rather well to Vettel's, who was the author of only the 14th fastest lap.
The nicest thing about Vettel's victory was that most of the crew were men who served their time in the old Minardi days. They are a passionate lot. You have to love the sport a great deal to stay in it for years when you never win - and never have a chance to win.
What has made the difference? Part of it is obviously down to the machinery but racing cars depend to a large extent on the people who engineer them. And one must say that Giorgio Ascanelli is a man who must take a fair bit of the credit for what happened at the weekend. Giorgio has been around for a very long time, starting out as Gerhard Berger's race engineer at Ferrari back in the mid-1980s. He went with Berger to McLaren was poached by Benetton to work with Nelson Piquet and then went back to McLaren to work with the great Ayrton Senna. People may have forgotten, but Giorgio was the man who was behind some of Senna's most famous wins in 1993. Shoved aside by the Schumacher regime in the late 1990s, he ended up at Maserati and would have stayed there had Berger not plucked him out of his exile and brought him back to F1. No doubt Giorgio would have enjoyed beating Scuderia Ferrari at home.
One felt almost sorry for Red Bull Racing boss Dietrich Mateschitz, who looked a little bemused at the end of the race. The Austrian drinks magnate has poured vast sums into his team and done everything possible to make it more competitive. He even dumped Ferrari engines a couple of years ago because the team wanted Renaults. And now the team he wants to sell has beaten its parent, and the ultimate irony is that it did it with the Red Bull car.
The race was great entertainment with a magnificent charge from Lewis Hamilton, which made great TV and it was the perfect result for the Italian fans. If a Ferrari cannot win what better result than a win for a Ferrari-engined crew, which used to be called Minardi.
We will have to see if the win in Italy raises money for the team or finds it a new owner, but there is no question it will help. Perhaps it will be enough to rid F1 of the curse of customer cars. How many teams are going to agree to run customer operations if they know that they may end up being humiliated by them?
Vettel was helped by not having to worry about the start. A Safety Car start is the ultimate damp squib in F1 but if those involved think that it is unsafe to unleash the beasts until things are warmed up then we must put up with that. In the early laps Vettel was the only driver that could see where he was going so had a fairly easy time building up a lead of more than 10 seconds. Vettel pitted on lap 18 and for a while the others had the chance to shine but as the strategies unfolded it was clear that Vettel had the race sewn up. When the track dried and drivers needed to switch to intermediate tyres, the timing was perfect for the team as it coincided with his second pit stop. That took care of Lewis Hamilton's challenge. After that Vettel had nothing to worry about.
I'm speechless," he said, rather overwhelmed by it all. "It's great. It's fantastic. We thought it would be dry and did not touch the set-up. The car was very fast and having no visibility problems was the key. I could make a gap straight away. I was pushing very hard and it was very difficult in the beginning but when there were was no more standing water it was better. In the last stint I was in a very good position.
"Winning is much better than you might think," he said. "It's unbelievable. We had a poor start to the season and we got better and better. This was the perfect weekend. I don't know what to say. I was thinking all the time 'There is P1 on my board. How can that be?' but I just kept it together, I was extremely focused, especially towards the end of the race when there was a dry line and it was very crucial to stick to it."
By winning Vettel became the youngest race winner in Formula 1 history. Aged just 21 years and 74 days, he took almost a year off the record, which had previously belonged to Fernando Alonso.
But what of the rest? Why did Red Bull or Ferrari not win? Why did Heikki Kovalainen not attack when Lewis Hamilton was able to carve through the field as he did? These were all key points in a very curious race. Kovalainen was really disappointing, if the truth be told. He finished 12secs behind the winner but never looked like he would mount a challenge. His two-stop strategy worked with the changing weather but he complained that he could not keep temperature in his brakes.
"I thought it would improve after a few laps, but it didn't," he said. "Only at the end was I able to match the lap times of Sebastian Vettel in front of me. In today's conditions he was just too fast for me."
He was happy to have scored eight points, but given what Hamilton achieved he should have done better.
Hamilton ended up in seventh position, which was a good effort when one starts from 15th and has to have a second unplanned pit stop.
"I felt I drove a really good race and was moving through the field very quickly when the circuit was at its wettest," he said. "If it had kept on raining, I feel pretty confident I probably could have even won but, as the circuit dried out, my tyres overcooked and I had to defend my position from Mark Webber."
Hamilton said that he was happy with two points because the weekend had been about damage control.
"I came away with some points and kept my lead in the World Championship," he said.
And he did not get any penalties.
Robert Kubica came up in third place in his BMW Sauber and with Nick Heidfeld fifth it was a good day for the team, with 10 points in the World Championship. This was largely due to the fact that when the first stops came the two drivers were able to go to intermediates without falling off.
"The only advantage of missing out on the top 10 in qualifying was that I could choose my race strategy," he said. "We decided to go for just one stop with a very long first stint. At the start the visibility was really bad. When the Safety Car went in after two laps, I overtook Nick before the first chicane without even seeing him. It was really dangerous. Then I was able to drive at my own pace. Towards the end of my first stint I was having problems with the tyres, obviously because the car had been very heavy. We were lucky with our pit stop, because it was just the right time to change to intermediate tyres. From then on I was easily able to control my position on the track."
Heidfeld reckoned that the secret of his success was to avoid mistakes and keep the car on the track and he did that well and took home more points.
Kubica is now a solid third in the Drivers' Championship, seven points clear of Kimi Raikkonen and the team is only 12 points behind McLaren in the Constructors' title.
Fernando Alonso was fourth for Renault and that was definitely a good result as the team had not been looking forward to Monza. The five points scored meant that Renault is now equal to Toyota in the World Championship.
"It is a big source of inspiration," Fernando said.
The same could not be said for his team-mate Nelson Piquet who finished 10th.
One can imagine that down at Maranello there will be a lively debriefing session on Monday - and rightly so because the team was trounced by a customer. Felipe Massa ended the day in fourth place and Kimi Raikkonen failed to score.
"We're definitely not satisfied with this result," said team boss Stefano Domenicali, "but considering the circumstances in which the race was run, it could have actually been much worse. Once again today, we had confirmation that, in certain track conditions and temperature range, our car is not quick enough. Then, it only needs a slight change for the performance to return to being very competitive."
"In normal conditions I think we could have made it to the podium," said Massa, "but I was struggling because there was not much grip."
At one point Felipe overtook Nico Rosberg but ran over the chicane and had to give back the place. After his first stop on lap 22 Massa found himself in traffic and then had to switch to intermediates.
"The drivers who opted to do just one stop definitely had the advantage," he said.
Kimi Raikkonen complained that he could not keep temperature in his tyres.
"I could do nothing but try to stay on the track and hope that the conditions would change," he said. "When they did it was too late to aim for a points finish. The car worked well but without grip, you're not going anywhere."
The final point went to Mark Webber, driving the same car as the winner, only powered by a Renault engine.
Before the first pit stops Webber looked strong, but he dropped behind Kubica and Alonso during the stops. He then lost a lot of time with the new tyres, struggling to get heat into the tyres.
"The last section wasn't too bad," he said. "We did give some points away today, but it's hard to get everything right on days like this."
David Coulthard ended up 13th, which was pretty much in keeping with his weekend. He was hit by Fisichella early on and then later by Nakajima, but he soldiered on to the finish.
Toyota looked good in the middle of the race and were going for one stop but they switched to extreme wets and so had to go back to the pits towards the end to switch to intermediates. Timo Glock came home 11th and Jarno Trulli ended up 13th
"It was not our day today," said the Italian.
It was a bad day too for Williams with Nakajima finishing 12th and Rosberg 14th. The team blamed the weather.
"In the first stint I thought I should be able to maintain a good pace, but I really struggled with tyre degradation and I lost time to those in front of me," he said. "But what was really decisive today was the tyre decision for my stop, which really destroyed the possibility of a good finish in the points. Everyone else was staying on full wets, so we thought we were in a good position to do the same and to keep risk to a minimum. In any case, at that point there wasn't a dry line to see. Ultimately it proved to be the wrong choice."
He was not helped by trouble with his refuelling.
Nakajima gained time by switching to intermediates at the right time and so was able to outrun his team-mate.
The two Hondas came in with Jenson Button 15th and Rubens Barrichello 17th, a pretty desperate state of affairs.
The team chose to make set-up changes to Button's car and so he started from the pits. Early in the race Barrichello went on to wet tyres and then drove a very long middle stint which helped him up the order. Button also switched early but Barrichello fell back when he took the risk of going to dry tyres on his second stop.
"We had nothing to lose," said Barrichello. "I tried my best but it was definitely too wet. We could have finished higher up by sticking to the wets but it was worth trying something different."
At the back was Adrian Sutil and with Giancarlo Fisichella the only retirement, going off after damaging his front wing on the back of Coulthard, it was another bad day for Force India.
And that was it. An amazing and rather odd motor race, but we certainly won't forget it.