Tuesday 4 September 2018

Italian GP Report - Come together

After Spa last week we thought things would be different. But in its back yard the chief theme of 2018 reasserted - that Ferrari for all its stunning speed isn't beginning to make good on it where it really matters. That something insists on coming along to trip it up. Sometimes of its own doing.

Lewis Hamilton against all expectations
defeated Ferrari to win
Photo: Octane Photography
Matters in the Italian Grand Prix weekend started just as expected though. Continuing the Spa pattern Ferrari on Monza's rapid circuit had a clear pace advantage, including on its title foe targets Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton. After qualifying the grid's front row was all red. But a day later things were scarcely recognisable. Hamilton had won and left Ferrari's homeland with an extended 30 point lead in the championship table over the Scuderia's Sebastian Vettel.

And with the talk of big themes this shift was not down to just one thing. Rather a lot of - often ostensibly minor - things came together. Lenin reminded us that everything is connected to everything else. It's especially the case in F1.

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. The acorns that grew into the mighty oak of Ferrari's defeat were planted the day before the race, in that very same qualifying session. There was one fly in Vettel's Saturday ointment, that his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen took pole position ahead of him. The Finn was aided by that he ran behind Vettel on track and thus got the benefit of his slipstream on Monza's many lengthy straights. Vettel meanwhile had been fed out by his team a little late and therefore didn't really benefit from the car ahead in the same way (Hamilton's, as it happened).

Vettel clearly wasn't happy afterwards, mainly on the grounds apparently of the delay rather than due to not running behind Raikkonen - indeed he noted in public that the Ferrari pair takes turns to go ahead and it was Kimi's turn this time.

The Ferraris led at the start - though not for long
Photo: Octane Photography
Perhaps though the acorns were sown even sooner, with it reckoned that Raikkonen knows he's out at Ferrari next year for fledgling Charles Leclerc. Also, apparently, Raikkonen has some kind of contract clause saying team orders can't be imposed if he starts on pole. Whatever, the Finn seemed in no mood for championship-minded cooperation.

All together the difference is not to be underestimated - Vettel on pole, with Raikkonen providing a buffer behind, would have been set fair to make a vast points gain and ratchet up the pressure and title momentum on Hamilton. For Vettel starting second things weren't nearly so simple. And Hamilton could be guaranteed to attack him early.

And so it transpired. When the race started Vettel jousted at Raikkonen immediately - the clear implication being that Seb expected no stage management later in the race to swap them around - and the Finn defended robustly, leaving Vettel a little compromised on the run to the second chicane.

And Hamilton, sensing an opportunity that likely wouldn't come again, got on the outside of Vettel at the claustrophobic left-right. The pair touched and almost defying the laws of physics it was Vettel on the inside who spun while Hamilton sailed off serenely in second place. A piece of Ferrari detached for good measure. Vettel continued in 18th. The weekend in a blink was upturned.

The race became a matter of Hamilton chasing Raikkonen
Photo: Octane Photography
It was the sort of prang that was rather one of those things rather than one for recrimination, and race director Charlie Whiting agreed as much. Still the accumulative impact of Vettel's several incidents this year costing points, particularly at pressure moments, continues. And looks less and less good.

From then on it was a case of Hamilton chasing Raikkonen for the win, after they'd quickly swapped and un-swapped the lead after an early safety car period. Raikkonen made his sole stop first, reacting to Mercedes's plan to pit Hamilton. But Mercedes had resolved to do whatever Raikkonen didn't and Hamilton instead pressed on.

But the early stop was not what lost Raikkonen the race, rather it was that Raikkonen then pushed more than was necessary on his new tyres which had to be got to the chequered flag. It earned him a six second-plus advantage over Hamilton after the Englishman pitted but not only was it more than necessary also the other Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas's, was ahead having not stopped yet and was about to render the advantage nought by holding Raikkonen up.

That provided the final factor that combined for our outcome - that Mercedes, and not least Hamilton, played a blinder.

"Lewis did a phenomenal job," said an observing Nico Rosberg, "one of his best drives. He just did everything right and Ferrari again did so much wrong."

Hamilton and his team played a blinder to win
Photo: Octane Photography
Raikkonen was thus left him on very second hand tyres, a big chunk indeed had detached from his left rear, and Hamilton right behind with the scent of a win. Sure enough he got by at the first chicane to lead with 10 laps left.

Hamilton therefore eased to a worthy win, likely one even of his finest, and to maximum points from a weekend he started minded mainly of damage limitation.

"I definitely didn't expect it," Hamilton said later. "I started third on the grid, looking at pace of last race and pace here, I didn't know where we would be here.

"I had to stay within 1.5s [of Raikkonen], I thought 'this will be a serious uphill battle', and throughout the weekend there was so much pressure on us all to deliver.

"I was trying to figure out how aggressive you can be, because my race is not with Kimi - it is with Sebastian. I was trying to get past Kimi at the same time. I was just telling him he did a fantastic race, he drove incredibly fairly and I respect him so much. I really enjoyed racing with him.

"But getting past Seb at the beginning was clearly a massive turning point."

Sebastian Vettel recovered to finish fourth
Photo: Octane Photography
Damage limitation instead ended up Vettel's task and he salvaged fourth place aided by another 2018 season's chief theme, Max Verstappen's petulance, getting the Dutchman a five second penalty. Bottas was attacking him for third place late on at the first chicane and Verstappen simply swiped into his path, and the cars touched forcing Bottas down the escape road. Verstappen insisted on his radio he'd left space; we needed a Ron Howard narration to point out that he didn't.

And worse Verstappen gaudily defended his place from Bottas for the rest of the way even though he knew the resultant time lost would drop him behind the recovering Vettel too. Exactly that came to pass.

"For sure I'm down at the moment but mostly for the people [here]," said Vettel afterwards. "Their support has been incredible. Unfortunately, we didn't deliver.

"It could have been a good race, but it wasn't. It was still very entertaining, probably more entertaining that way, but not very satisfying."

Vettel looked on the bright side from the title angle though. "I'm not too worried," he added. "I think we have the pace. The points sound a lot but actually it doesn't take a long time to get them down."

Williams took the last two points-scoring places
Photo: Octane Photography
There was acrimony behind as well. Romain Grosjean's Haas finished sixth on the road but was thrown out post hoc after the Renault team protested that the Haas's floor was illegal, and the stewards agreed. There was a technical clarification sent to teams before the summer break though Haas had argued that it needed until the Singapore round to make the required change, what with its unusual outsourcing set-up. It's appealed the decision. Haas also had sneaked ahead of Renault in the table pre-disqualification which no doubt concentrated minds.

Racing Point Force India therefore took sixth and seventh with Esteban Ocon ahead, which means now after two races the 'new' team has already leapfrogged three rivals in the standings. Carlos Sainz's Renault got eighth.

Williams - one, like Force India, which traditionally goes well here - got some respite from its difficult times by taking the final two points-paying places, with Sergey Sirotkin in 10th getting his first ever F1 score and with it ensuring the entire 20 driver F1 field has got on the board this season.

Adding to Ferrari's regret is that Singapore is next which has long been a Mercedes bogey track and there's a good chance too that there the Red Bulls will get between the red cars and the silver ones. In other words with a straightforward Monza run it would likely have been poised to seize the championship lead there.

But it's still a good place to start clawing back some of the deficit - and there remains still seven rounds and therefore 175 points. Then again we've said all this sort of stuff about Ferrari plenty before in 2018. And it was at the same Singapore track 12 months ago that it started its clumsy ways.

In a year wherein only Ferrari can beat itself, a conclusion is starting to creep up that it will do just that.

1 comment:

  1. José Lopes da Silva6 September 2018 at 11:57

    We could have noted that Verstappen had brilliant pace, covering for a Mercedes for more than half of the race. But the swinging on the finish straight was wrong, and the penalty totally deserved.