Sunday 4 September 2016

Monza Qualifying - Lewis's full beam

Lewis Hamilton bounced into the Monza press conference room, only to rather stop on his heels, confronted by a flat screen TV. It was showing onboard footage of his pole position lap for the Italian Grand Prix. Every perfect, and late, braking point. Every chicane negotiated with elan rather like the Mercedes was a yo-yo being expertly controlled on the end of its string.

Lewis Hamilton took pole position
and positively beamed about it
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis stood aside and turned to the room of assembled hacks pointing at the screen with the broadest of grins and a satisfied nod of his head. The message was clear - did you see what I just did? Good, wasn't it? It was Lewis. It was.

Respective second and third-placed men Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel even with this sideshow trudged in what seemed a while later. It felt appropriate on a few levels.

Yep, if the Mercs this weekend at ultra-fast Monza were in Vettel's words "in a world of their own", similar could be said about Lewis in relation to his team mate. He's simply been on another level to everyone from around the mid-point of Friday, and if anything has seemed to stretch his advantage ever wider since.

The headline times, while crude measures, back the impression up. In first Friday practice Lewis was two tenths down on Nico. In second practice Lewis was two tenths up. Saturday morning he was almost four tenths up. Come qualifying he was near enough half a second up. The sort of gap we almost never see between team mates in the modern sport, let alone between Nico and Lewis.

Lewis's words afterwards suggested he'd experienced something similar in the cockpit. "It felt great," he said. "Through qualifying the laps were just getting better and better.

Hamilton has been on another level for most of this weekend
Photo: Octane Photography
"Then the last two laps were just fantastic. The first one was a great banker, was up on my delta - but I felt that there was just a little bit more in it.

"Honestly, the last lap was super-clean. Didn't have any lock-ups, aced... I came out of turn one already a tenth up and just maintained that generally through the lap. I think I pulled a little bit more out of turns eight, nine and ten and the last corner, I did that definitely the best I've done it all weekend.

"Parabolica was... I mean it's such an amazing corner. The speed we hit that corner and the grip that's there that allows us to carry speed through is phenomenal. Because you've got a big straight going in, a big straight coming out, trying to find the right balance and not braking too much, not carrying too much in, not losing too much on the mid-part to make sure you get the exit... it's probably one of the most difficult balances to get."

If Lewis's jaw has been known to hit the floor if he feels he's let himself down, the opposite is true too. If he feels he's done well such as in Monza's qualifying his is a beam that could light up cities.

What we appeared to have this time is Lewis the showman - extending his advantage not so much that it'll help ensure a win, but almost because he can. Because it'll entertain us. Because it'll underline who's on top.

Nico Rosberg was downbeat - but didn't make excuses
Photo: Octane Photography
It's clearly a track that suits him too, what with it being his third pole on the spin at Monza, a circuit that he's also won at three of the last four visits.

"I don't really have a great answer for that," he added when asked about why he seems to go particularly well here. "It is obviously a heavy braking circuit, it's a bit more like a go-kart circuit where you have to throw the car around, in the lower speed, I would say.

"I just try to turn up and perform my best wherever I am. I love being here in Italy and for some reason Italy's been good to me."

While all this was going on Nico mainly sat impassive and stared ahead. To his credit though. although offered a rope to grab to suggest he had technical problems that would explain the gap to his team mate, he eschewed it. His only problem was Lewis's pace.

"No problem, no" he said when asked. "The problem was that I think he [Hamilton] had his best qualifying in a long time and that's it.

"I've had a decent weekend until now and got some good laps in today but just not quick enough."

Ferrari filled the second row, but it felt bittersweet
Photo: Octane Photography
It was rather incongruous with Monza's usual fervour that much of the grid seemed entirely predictable in advance. This included Ferrari which throughout had been a clear best-of-the-rest. Still the recent sense of foreboding around the Scuderia wasn't lifted by the outcome, particularly as on this circuit that was supposed to suit them the pair was the thick end of a second off Lewis's pace.

With an upgraded engine - the consensus for which was that it was good but not that good - the feeling remained also that its rise to second best car here was largely track-specific. Vettel spoke in the press conference mentioned of there being much to do still, as well as that perhaps Ferrari hadn't maximised things in qualifying. As ever it remains unclear the extent that the pronouncements of Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne are helping.

There was some intrigue provided by the intra-Ferrari battle though and indeed Kimi Raikkonen's first Q3 effort was three tenths up on Vettel's. Kimi didn't improve on his final run though and Seb did, though some thought he might have taken liberties with the Parabolica's track limits. Seb batted the suggestion away though. "I had two wheels out, I think but I think I was just fine" he said. "I lost a little bit, if anything. I was already up quite a long way compared to the lap of Q2. The last corner was a match. Was not really an improvement."

Valtteri Bottas was very proud of his effort to bag fifth
Photo: Octane Photography
The Red Bulls - Merc's closest irritants in recent times - weren't even next up. Instead fifth place was taken by Valtteri Bottas. Armed with a sweet Mercedes engine and at a track on which the Williams tends to go well, Bottas felt too that he'd fully kept up his end of the bargain.

"It was the best lap of the weekend and, to be honest, the whole qualifying must have been one of my best," he said later.

"I've felt very confident in the car today and all weekend really - I just enjoyed it."

Only then did we find the Red Bulls, simply lacking the horses that one requires on Monza long stretches. Daniel Ricciardo was ahead of Max Verstappen, them in P6 and P7 respectively and both more than 1.2 seconds off the pole time. Ricciardo promised the Bulls would return to the thick end come Singapore.

It gets even better for the Mercs as they'll be able to start the race on the soft tyre rather than the supersoft, as their advantage was such that they got through Q2 on the more durable compound. This should let them one-stop comfortably. Rather underlining the state of play Red Bull tried to get through then on the soft but had to abandon the plan, while Ferrari didn't even go there.

There was in this the most minor of faltering for Lewis though, as he locked up and managed to flat spot one of his soft tyres he's due to start the race on, and it bothered him sufficiently for him to have a go at bettering his time on another set so to hopefully start on them instead. Trouble is he got Parabolica wrong that time and thus couldn't beat his own mark.

Red Bull, as expected, struggled at Monza
Photo: Octane Photography
He insisted though that it wasn't a concern. "Ultimately for the race tomorrow you want everything to be perfect...The flat spot is minimal; you can't really feel it, so I don't think it will be a problem."

Of course, nothing is handed out on a Saturday. We've learned that before, as well as that matters can look very different after this game's standing start and first turn shake out. And the the run to turn one here is a long one, neither Merc's starts have been stick-on this season and both Ferraris behind are known to have a good launch (plus start on the supersoft tyre which will help them at that point at least). And if Lewis does lose his lead here then matters will look very different. He mentioned needing a second per lap advantage to be able to pass - somehow Monza with its long straights doesn't offer great hope for overtaking.

But if Lewis leads out of the first chicane surely he will run away.

In a weekend that has a lot of the changing of the guard about it - Felipe Massa stepping down and Jenson Button stepping back - some things remain resolute. The order at the front. And the man on top.

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