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Sunday, 18 September 2011

Formula 1 - Italian Grand Prix 2011

Autodromo Nazionale Monza track map (including disused oval)
The Race In A Nutshell:
- Liuzzi's HRT fishtails off and slides into turn 1, wiping out Rosberg and Petrov while causing chaos and bringing out the SC. Meanwhile, Alonso went from 4th to 1st from the start to the end of turn 1.
- Vettel overtakes around the outside of Curva Grande (no DRS) and into Della Roggia, first sign that he can actually overtake people on merit.
- Webber hits Massa off at Rettifilio, loses front wing and slides off at Parabolica, retiring.
- Hamilton gets stuck behind Schumacher for many laps, Schumi told off for illegal defending and Button catches and passes them both.
- Button takes 2nd from Alonso, Hamilton finishes 0.5s behind the Ferrari.

Top 5 Finishers: Vettel, Button, Alonso, Hamilton, Schumacher

Autodromo Nazionale Monza is the home of Italian motorsport, and of course the venue for Ferrari's home race each F1 season (there's even an old Ferrari 348 medical car that you can see behind the grid at the start of the race). Scuderia Ferrari are effectively Italy's national team, and there's an article of some kind in Italian newspapers about them every day, so it's a race they're keen to win, and did win last year thanks to Fernando Alonso. Going from Spa-Francorchamps to Monza, with its old and abandoned banked oval from over 40 years ago, you really appreciate the history that Formula 1 has, and these classic tracks are good things to keep on the calendar. As more and more new tracks in increasingly richer places provide slightly lacklustre racing, the old guard remind us that F1 isn't just a financially-driven parade, it's a sport. A sport for brave, talented speed freaks. Not many of said speed freaks would last the entire 53 laps and 308km at this year's Italian Grand Prix, however...

Liuzzi's HRT about to cause a whole lot of trouble.
Chaotic Start: Fernando Alonso demonstrated to his famous team's home crowd that he has a knack for fast starts, as he got his Ferrari "150º Italia" to bite immediately and just launch itself at the back of Lewis Hamilton's McLaren MP4-26, having to take briefly to the grass in order to get alongside and past the Brit, and overtake Sebastian Vettel into turn 1 for the race lead. This leap from 4th to 1st caused a massive reaction from the Tifosi (Italian Ferrari fans), until the attention was drawn to Vitantonio Liuzzi, whose Hispania went a bit wobbly as he tried to overtake a Sauber and got two wheels on the grass. This caused his car to fishtail and eventually spin straight off into the infield and (as you can hopefully see in the picture) glide across the infield before slamming into the side of Vitaly Petrov and Nico Rosberg, wiping them out and resulting in three retirements after just one corner. As everyone behind scrabbled to avoid the wreckage, Rubens Barrichello got caught up behind Rosberg's immobilised Mercedes GP car and had to wait for it to be moved backwards before resuming.

Having sufficiently mixed up the mid-field, the Safety Car (still the usual Mercedes at this race) kept things under control while the cars were cleared, and on lap 4 the race resumed, as Michael Schumacher took 3rd place away from Lewis Hamilton in the first chicane and Vettel was determined to get his lead back. With his shorter gear ratios (improving acceleration while slightly hindering top speed) and the Red Bull RB7's high traction, he was getting a better run out of turn 1/2 and through Curva Grande than Alonso's Ferrari, and tried more than one move down the outside.

Red Bull versus Ferrari: Lap 5 was when it all kicked off between the Austrian drinks company and the Italian race team, as behind the leaders in 5th, Mark Webber was side-by-side with Felipe Massa through part one of the first chicane, but on the outside, so when they then turned left, he caught his front wing on Massa's rear wheel and twirled him around, breaking his own wing in so doing. Massa was able to recover and continue further down the grid. Immediately after this happened, Vettel used his extra drive off the corner to go all the way around the outside of Alonso through Curva Grande (literally meaning "big corner"), getting alongside the Spañard on the exit and even keeping his foot in it when two wheels hit the grass, as Alonso tried to squeeze him out (not maliciously, just to try getting him to back off). As they too were side-by-side, Vettel was on the left heading for a right-handed corner, so after he braked in the right place, the corner was his, and he retook the lead of the race. Their squabbling had caused Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton to catch right up to them, however. Meanwhile, Webber's complete lack of front downforce combined with the front wing being caught under the front of his car, and he slid off into the soft barrier at Parabolica after traversing a long gravel trap (as you can see on the map, Parabolica is after one of the three long straights, so entry speeds are probably over 200mph and a big gravel trap is thus necessary for this type of problem). So, in a manner of speaking, since Massa was still running and Vettel had passed Alonso, it was Red bull 1-1 Ferrari going into lap 6, when the DRS was finally enabled in both zones (from Lesmo 2 to Ascari and down the pit straight).

Hamilton versus Schumacher: With the DRS enabled later than usual thanks to the Safety Car, Lewis Hamilton now had a tool he could use to help him overtake Michael Schumacher (former Ferrari hero, of course, and still respected by the Tifosi for his achievements), alas it proved to be insufficient, when it eventually opened, thanks to a combination of the Mercedes's higher top speed and Schumacher's rigorous defending. In fact, the Mercedes GP was around 12km/h faster than the McLaren-Mercedes, and the DRS adds around 15km/h, so all it really did was undo the deficit, rather than help Hamilton catch right up and make a move. It took until lap 13 for him to get past, finally doing so into the chicane at turn 1, but just because he's ahead, doesn't mean that Schumacher's car is any slower than before, and he swept round the outside of Curva Grande to pull a cleaner, easier version of Vettel's move on Alonso and retake 3rd place. By this point, Jenson Button had caught up to the duelling pair and wasn't just going to sit back and watch. After three laps of being a secondary challenger, Button seized an opportunity after Hamilton tried going up the inside of Schumacher at the flat-out Curva Grande and got squeezed out of it rather forcefully, which meant that he lost speed and Button simply drove past him. To add insult to injury, he proceeded to overtake Schumacher on his first attempt into the faster Ascari chicane, where Hamilton had been trying to pass for 6 or 7 laps. Just when Hamilton could then try to pass Schumacher again, the German pitted in for new tyres, denying him the satisfaction of overtaking and dealing with his worn rear Options at the same time.

Button managed to pit in later and get out ahead of Michael Schumacher, but Hamilton was not so lucky. Poor guy. He left the pits on lap 19 just as the faster Mercedes was heading towards Rettifilio (turn 1), and battle resumed once again, with Schumacher repeatedly bending the rules. There's a rule that states you can only make one defensive move before a corner and/or can't move back over again once you've defended, yet he did move back across a number of times. Lewis Hamilton knows this rule intimately, as his early F1 career saw quite a bit of erratic defending against Ferrari, McLaren's arch nemesis of sorts. His penalties and appeals are actually what made the FIA clarify that rule, if I remember rightly, so as he was losing a second a lap compared to Jenson Button in 3rd, he was right to tell his team about it, to which they replied "Understood Lewis, the FIA are aware". Apparently though, Schumacher wasn't - well, he did retire at the end of 2006, just before Hamilton and this rule clarification - and his own team boss Ross Brawn had to tell him more than once to give Lewis enough space. At last, on lap 27, Hamilton got him into Ascari, almost too easily considering his lower top speed and that he passed him before the braking zone. Maybe Schumacher decided enough is enough? Maybe he doesn't want to reinforce his reputation for bending the rules in his second coming? Who knows, the fact is that Hamilton had finally ended a battle that lasted for about 20 laps out of 53. Button, meanwhile, was now challenging Fernando Alonso for 2nd place.

Schumacher didn't receive a penalty, although one steward thinks he should have.

The Rest Of The Race: Sergio Perez's Sauber-Ferrari called it quits on lap 34. This race is one of the hardest on the engine, as 85% of the lap is at full throttle, and there have been many a blown engine over the years, so despite 2011 being one of F1's most reliable years, it's not entirely surprising. Perez has actually been testing with Scuderia Ferrari recently, so maybe he's lining up to replace Massa in a couple of years (not next year though, as contracts are already signed). Lap 35 saw Fernando Alonso pit - after a gap had opened up between him and Jenson Button - as they were growingly concerned about Alonso keeping his 2nd place. Button ended up less than a second behind Alonso, who was miles behind Vettel by now. On lap 36, Button went up the inside of Curva Grande, and because the Ferrari seemed to have worse traction on the Prime tyres, Alonso didn't defend like Schumacher did, and it was a little more straightforward, although he did bite back in the second chicane, to no avail.

That more or less sums up the action, although Lewis Hamilton was really pushing Alonso for 3rd in the closing stages, but in the end he was a lap or two short of knocking the Ferrari off the podium, finishing just half a second behind. I suspect the crowd are pleased that he didn't because the end of the race looked like the end of Le Mans, with the entire grandstand crowd flooding onto the pit straight once all the cars were in Parc Fermé, creating a scene as if a rock superstar called Ferrari was about to play live on the podium. There may well have been cheers for Vettel, who won his first race as an inexperienced underdog at this race in 2008, beating pouring rain in his Toro Rosso to win from pole, but the biggest cheer seemed to come when Fernando in his red overalls lifted the third place trophy, some of which probably came from the small group who could be heard booing Sebastian for beating him. They are undeniably passionate, the Italians.

And so we head back into the modern world with "The Night Race" at the Singapore street circuit, where the cars always look better under lights. Sebastian Vettel will be hoping to keep those lights pointed squarely at him though, because if he wins the next race and his nearest rivals aren't close enough, then he will be World Champion with five races to spare. Personally I hope it doesn't go his way, just to stretch the title fight out a bit more. Otherwise, once Red Bull sews up the constructor's championship - which I suspect with a 126-point lead won't be long afterwards - what will be the point of doing the rest of the season? It's hard to believe there are still six races to go in September, but there are. The racing had better stay exciting over the next six races...

Results and points are below, click to enlarge.

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