Fernando Alonso has taken a maximum points haul to bring himself right back into championship contention by becoming the tenth Ferrari driver to win the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, heading off McLaren’s Jenson Button and the sister Ferrari of Felipe Massa.
For the top-three race finishers, the result was something of a bonus, as the two championship leaders – Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton – had troubled races. Hamilton was sent into retirement on the opening lap, while Webber spent the entire afternoon in recovery mode after another poor getaway left him in ninth at the end of the opening lap.
The season’s other championship contender, Sebastian Vettel, took a fine fourth after running all bar one of the 53 race laps on the soft set of tyres, making his compulsory pit stop on the penultimate racing lap.
Button made the better getaway from the dirtier side of the front row, managing to fend off a very aggressive squeeze from pole-sitter Alonso on the run down to the first corner. A little love tap from the Spaniard as the two exited the chicane saw minor cosmetic damage to both cars, but the crucial first stage had been won by Button. Now all he needed to do was to stay in front, which would prove no easy feat to achieve.
Alonso thought he’d have a go at the McLaren almost immediately, and as both he and Massa tried to swamp the McLaren on the run into the second chicane, Hamilton had a half-look up the inside of Massa under braking, and found himself squeezed onto the apex. Cue to inevitable contact between Massa’s left-rear wheel and Hamilton’s right-front, and it was game over for the Briton, who was out with broken suspension.
Hamilton could at least take some consolation from the fact that Mark Webber had made his by now customary poor getaway – rivalling his Spa-Francorchamps start for its tardiness – and had dropped to ninth place behind Michael Schumacher, who again continued his run of impressive getaways off the line to take four places in the opening sequence of corners. Other fast starters included Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg, Robert Kubica and Nico Hülkenberg, who occupied positions four through seven.
The leading trio of Button, Alonso and Massa quickly built up a lead over Rosberg and continued to pull away into the distance. With the set-up differences between Button and Alonso being a great contrast – Button running a higher-downforce rear wing with his ‘F-duct’, while Alonso ran Ferrari’s bespoke low-downforce set-up with its customised ‘F-duct’ – it was a game of cat and mouse. Button, with more rear end grip, had better traction and was incredibly quick through the Lesmo corners in particular. Alonso, by contrast, lacked stability under braking, but was much faster along the straights.
The gap between the two remained under 1.5 seconds for the first two-thirds of the race, and occasionally got much closer as Button made a slight mistake or as they came upon traffic. Massa continued to occupy a spot just in the background, ready to pounce if the pair managed to trip over each others.
Monza’s less-abrasive surface meant that tyre wear was negligible, and the leading trio didn’t make their pit stops until two-thirds race distance, with Button pitting at the end of lap 35.
With the radio communications able to be eavesdropped by everyone up and down the pit lane, McLaren
took a leaf out of Ferrari’s book opted for a less than subtle message to instruct their driver to pit, which was all the invitation Alonso needed to put the hammer down as soon as he had clear air.
His single lap at the front and some slick Ferrari pit work was just enough to leapfrog Button as he emerged from his pit stop in the lead, clinging to the inside line on the run into the first chicane, and immediately posting the race’s fastest lap as if to show that he was genuinely quicker than the McLaren driver.
From then on, barring reliability issues, the race was Alonso’s to win as he pleased, and the Spaniard could draw particular satisfaction from taking his first merit-based race win of the season, rather than by relying on others’ mechanical misfortunes (as in Bahrain) or an
informational radio message to his team-mate (as in Germany).
Behind the leading trio, Vettel finished a surprise fourth in the Red Bull. It certain’y hadn’t even looked like he was going to make the finish, let alone take such a good result, as he frantically radioed in with engine issues and dropped his pace for awhile until some settings changes seemed to resolve the matter. Thereafter, he charged very hard and posted some exceptionally quick lap times, and the masterstroke was in opting to stay out on his original set of tyres until the penultimate lap before making his compulsory stop for the alternative set of Bridgestone tyres. Fourth place was a just-deserved result at the end of the day.
Nico Rosberg took a fine fifth place after a steady drive in the Mercedes GP, not putting a foot wrong the entire race.
Webber, however, had a hard-fought race to take sixth at the end, eventually passing the Nico Hülkenberg with just three laps to go, whose Williams he found particularly wide at times as the German attempted to defend his position from the Australian. Of particular frustration to Webber were several instances where Hülkenberg cut the first and second chicanes, and at times it was felt that he had gained an advantage in doing so.
Sixth place and the eight points that come with it – particularly with Hamilton’s DNF – was enough to see Webber resume the lead of the Drivers’ Championship by five points over the McLaren driver. However, Webber’s poor starts have again become something of an elephant in the room for him once again, and he will need to ensure that in future rounds, his hard work in qualifying is not undone by another poor start. If he repeats the same thing in Singapore, for example, he won’t have the luxury of being able to recover quite as well as he managed this time around…
Behind the pair, Robert Kubica finished in eighth place, but the Pole had actually run ahead of both drivers, only to lose positions in the round of pit stops.
Despite a rubbish qualifying session, Michael Schumacher took two points – and retook ninth place in the Drivers’ Championship standings from Adrian Sutil – with a solid, although rather lonely drive to ninth place. Such is the openness of the championship and the mass of points on offer, that Schumacher was still mathematically in the title hunt this weekend, but he needed a podium finish to remain in contention. Without that, his hopes of an eighth championship are on ice until 2011, it would seem.
Rubens Barrichello took the final point with a drive to tenth, which he earned only when Renault’s Vitaly Petrov – who opted for a Vettel-esque strategy – pitted for tyres on lap 51, having been unable to build up enough of a margin over Barrichello to keep the place and the point that came with it. Having started from 20th after his five-place penalty for not using his mirrors in qualifying, it would have been a good result for the Russian rookie, who still leads the rookie standings in the Drivers’ Championship table by three points to Hülkenberg.
Sébastien Buemi finished a fraction outside of the points in eleventh place, and he was chased home by Vitantonio Liuzzi, who drove hard for no reward after a poor qualifying result. But it wasn’t a good day for Force India, who collected a point-less haul at the circuit where they had challenged for a podium just twelve months previously. Adrian Sutil finished 16th after making an unscheduled pit stop to repair accident damage from a lap-one brush with another car.
In the battle of the rookie teams, Timo Glock denied Lotus a first birthday present – it being a year to the day that the team’s 2010 entry was belatedly confirmed by the FIA – by holding out Heikki Kovalainen in a race-long battle. However, Jarno Trulli had actually lead the pair for the entire race until he pulled off in a cloud of smoke late in the race.
Poor HRT was dogged by rumours surrounding its financial position and some shocking reliability this weekend, with Bruno Senna bearing the brunt of the team’s misfortune with an early-race retirement. Sakon Yamamoto at least brought the underdeveloped car home for another race finish, although he blotted his copybook after running over one of his mechanics during his pit stop.
While it wasn’t a classic Italian Grand Prix with overtaking galore, this still provided another twist in the ongoing drama that is the race for the 2010 title. With Alonso vaulting to third and Button to fourth by dint of their solid results – and with there just being 24 points covering the top five drivers in the championship standings – it goes to show that this is still anyone’s race, and will probably (and hopefully) continue to be until the season finale at Abu Dhabi.
We look forward to the next round at Singapore – the sole night race of the season – in a fortnight’s time.
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