Sunday 9 September 2012

Italian GP Report: Lewis shows his worth

We can say that there was only ever going to be one winner today.  Lewis Hamilton, aside from strategy, led all the way in today's Italian Grand Prix at Monza, smoothly moved clear of the chasing pack lap after lap, and looked absolutely in control for the duration.  Even Sergio Perez doing his seen-before defying the laws of physics in tyre-life run, which everyone else ceded to, barely caused Lewis any agitation.  The win was indeed his, making it three in a row for the McLaren team (on three pretty different tracks), and consistent competitiveness ever since the Hockenheim upgrade reversed its mini-slump.  A championship charge for driver and team looks yet more credible.

Lewis Hamilton was in control all race
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Yes, Fernando Alonso's qualifying technical maladies gave Lewis something of an open goal, but he kicked the ball hard and true and there was never any doubt that it was heading straight for the back of the net.  There has been the odd off-track ripple for Lewis in recent times, what with his Twitter misjudgement and the vexed issue of the identity of his 2013 employers.  But on the evidence of the Monza weekend, indeed of most weekends in 2012, it is absolutely not having a negative impact on his driving.  I reckon the probability remains that Lewis will stay at McLaren for next year (you'd have thought that Mercedes is too much of a risk on competitiveness).  But today's race was a reminder that, whatever the actualité of the Lewis/McLaren contract negotiations, at some level McLaren must be playing with fire.   If this all does result in Lewis leaving Woking it cannot be considered as anything other than a major blow to the team.  Drivers of Lewis's quality don't hang around on every street corner.

I guess you could also call today's result an example of yin and yang, the Chinese philosophy how seemingly contrary forces are interconnected.  All three Monza podium finishers were among those wiped out through no culpability of their own by Romain Grosjean at the first corner in Spa a week ago.

Sergio Perez again defied the laws of physics on his tyres
in fighting through to second place
Credit: Morio / CC
As mentioned we saw a tour de force from Sergio Perez today, an almost carbon copy of his run at Montreal, by starting on hard tyres, running longer than most others, and simply flying towards the end of the race.  This time he was rewarded with second place.  Further, just as in Montreal he did it on a day that his team mate was nowhere, showing that even with the C31's characteristics Perez is definitely bringing a lot to the party in such runs.

And it was championship leader Fernando Alonso who fought his way up to third having started down in tenth (not many foresaw Perez and Alonso on the podium in advance of today's race).   Had Alonso qualified at the front as he should have done the Alonso/ Hamilton tête-à-tête will no doubt have been spectacular.  Alonso will no doubt see the result as some sort of save, given everything, though one suspects that he's seen Lewis as his main drivers' championship rival for a while now, and he conceded 10 points to him today. Indeed, after today's result the title battle just might be beginning to more explicitly boil down to a Alonso/Hamilton scrap.  That should be something to savour: a face-off of probably the two drivers of the age, and their encounters never fail to have an edge that no other modern F1 match-ups parallel.

Yin and yang today worked in the opposite way too: in that many of those who were able to take advantage at Spa came away from Monza with nothing.  Spa winner Jenson Button for the most part today ran in Lewis's increasingly distant exhaust fumes, but was forced out just after half distance with what was thought to be a fuel pressure problem.   All of a sudden after last week's increased optimism Jenson's championship chances now look as good as over, being more than three clear wins shy of the top of the table, with seven rounds left and five guys ahead of him (meaning even if Alonso stumbles others will be better placed to take advantage).  That was always going to be the problem for Jenson in making up the championship deficit: he couldn't really afford even a single serious setback and he got one today.

Sebastian Vettel had a difficult day
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
It was yin and yang for Sebastian Vettel today too.  He ran with the leaders, as expected his race day pace was better than in qualifying, but in the second half of the race things unravelled for him.   First off he ushered Alonso off the road as the Spaniard tried to pass on the outside of Curva Grande (in a spooky role reversal compared with the same spot last year).  Alonso eventually made it through, but Vettel was rewarded with a drive-through penalty which dropped him back, and then he stopped with six laps left thanks to an alternator problem that his pitwall had been fretting about for some time (Monza seemed to be living up to its old reputation as car-breaker).   Unlike with Button, it's not the end for Vettel in the title stakes, and the Monza track has rarely been happy hunting ground for that team. But it may be of increasing concern to the Bulls that it hasn't set the pace for a while now.  Not since the famous engine mapping loophole was closed, indeed.

There was some comparisons drawn between this and the 'boot on the other foot' case between the same two drivers at the same corner last year, which Alonso wasn't penalised for.  It isn't a perfect comparison in my view though, for one thing Alonso gave a bit more space then than Vettel did today, for another the rules and their implementation on giving other cars space at the side of the track have got a bit stricter since then (though we could have a totally separate discussion on whether F1's on-track battles are over-policed generally).

It was generally a bad day for Red Bull, as the team left a race pointless for the first time in close to two years.  Mark Webber also retired late on, stopping with two laps left after a spin flat spotted his tyres.

Felipe Massa put in a worthy drive to fourth, which may help to save his Ferrari seat, and he was followed home by the ever-consistent Kimi Raikkonen.  Kimi remains in the championship mix, and if the double DRS ever sees the light of day and is indeed a magic bullet as some have predicted then he may yet be a championship dark horse.

But if today taught us anything, it was not for the first time that no one can say with any certainty what lays ahead.  Just as in Spa a week ago, things look very different following 90 minutes of racing this afternoon.  And no doubt there will be plenty more unforeseen twists before the season is out.  That's the beauty of this sport.  That's why we love it.

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