Issue 30: Italian Grand Prix Review


10 September 2014

Race Summary: Lewis Hamilton won from pole position closely followed by team-mate Nico Rosberg. Felipe Massa put in a tidy drive to claim third spot and an emotional podium. The sister Williams of Valtteri Bottas finished fourth ahead of the Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel in fifth and sixth respectively. Ferrari endured an ignominious day with Kimi Raikkonen coming home ninth and Fernando Alonso retiring.

Slip-streaming at Monza

The Italian Grand Prix is the apex of the F1 season. There is simply no other track like Monza. The ‘Cathedral of Speed’ has an unmatched combination of heritage and vibrancy. The racing is good too. And the 64th Gran Premio D’Italia didn’t disappoint. Tardy getaways off the start-line by pole-sitter Hamilton, third-placed starter Bottas and Ricciardo from ninth on the grid offered the prospect of an exciting race. It offered the prospect of watching three great talents hunt down and overtake slower drivers. All three put in some excellent slip-streaming overtakes down the main start-finish straight on their way to impressive recovery drives.

Hamilton, for example, made a well-timed move in the heaviest braking zone at Monza to take a clean second from Massa at the Variante del Rettifilo chicane on Lap 10. The Brazilian driver and McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen – who was quick out of the blocks when the red lights went out – had got by Hamilton after his W05 Hybrid became jammed in a launch mode. But, Hamilton cleared them both and set off after the leader.

Bottas suffered from excess wheelspin at the start and alarmingly dropped to 11th position on the opening lap. However, he simply scythed his way through the Ferraris, Red Bulls and McLarens, making numerous overtakes in a performance reminiscent of his at Silverstone a few races back. Bottas’ drive was all the more impressive as his pitstop dropped him from fourth to ninth place, forcing him to work his way back up to fourth, which he did with aplomb.

Ricciardo came back from 12th position on the opening lap, making several strong overtaking moves that culminated in a great pass on Vettel into the Variante della Roggio chicane. On the approach at speed, the Australian went right and then ducked quickly to the left to force his way past on the inside line in shades of Mansell on Piquet at Stowe Corner in 1987. Ricciardo left the German champion for dead after that. In truth, Vettel had pitted too early (Lap 19) for new tyres and by the closing phase of the race he had little grip left to defend with. However, this was the fifth race this season where Vettel had out-qualified Ricciardo but finished behind him on Sunday. Either Vettel’s stock is dropping or Ricciardo has been seriously under-valued prior to 2014. Or perhaps it’s both…

The ‘Monza Gorilla’

Dramatic overtaking moves punctuated what was an absorbing race, not least for ultimate victory. Could Hamilton catch and pass Rosberg? Or would the German hold on for the win? After dispatching Magnussen and Massa, Hamilton put in a succession of fastest laps. The Briton looked menacing as he incrementally closed the gap. For example, Hamilton had a clear advantage over Rosberg under braking for the Variante del Rettifilo where he closed on the leader by 0.1sec on most laps. Hamilton was coming…and quickly. Rosberg looked assured at the front. But then, the German missed his braking point for the Variante del Rettifilo and went straight on down the escape road. In missing the chicane, the gap halved. The pitstops came and went, but Hamilton continued to close. On Lap 29, the German committed the same error and Hamilton swept into the lead. He never looked back.

The narrative being written is that Rosberg cracked under pressure. The advancing Hamilton – who in truth had been the faster Mercedes driver all weekend – had ‘forced’ the errors out of Rosberg. Such a narrative suits Hamilton of course. But, the question that can’t be avoided is would Rosberg have made the same errors had Hamilton not been closing? Moreover, that’s now three errors from Rosberg in the last two races. Is the pressure of the title battle getting to Rosberg? My view is that Rosberg can handle the pressure of a title fight. However, watching the German in close-quarter battles this season, my conclusion is that Rosberg does feel the pressure in wheel-to-wheel racing more than Hamilton. Yes, he resisted the Briton in Austria, but the heated radio calls in Bahrain, the contact in Belgium, caused by Rosberg, and the anticipation of another close battle in Italy indicates the German is not too comfortable. Conversely, close combat is where Hamilton is at home and often at his best.

What impressed me most about Hamilton’s victory was his decision to ignore the team and trust his racing instincts. The team recommended he shadow Rosberg and then attack in the closing phase. Hamilton thought differently; strike Rosberg while he enjoyed a pace advantage. What this showed is that the natural ‘racer’ can also independently ‘think’ his way to victory. It also showed that – refreshingly – not every F1 driver always relies on the pit-car radio for driving advice.

This horse has bolted

Away from the slip-streaming and intra-Mercedes battle for supremacy, the Italian Grand Prix cruelly exposed the state of the home team, Ferrari. What a shocker! Neither Alonso nor Raikkonen could make any impression on the race and it’s clear that the Scuderia are once again ensconced in midfield mediocrity as they were 20 years ago. Like the rest of the grid, they fell behind Red Bull aerodynamically from 2009 due to windtunnel correlation problems and from this season, they fell behind Mercedes due to a failure to invest early enough in energy recovery technology. Ferrari should be challenging Mercedes; they are the only other team that design their own chassis and power unit, which is an advantage. They have a big budget and two world champion drivers. Yet, they are floundering.

Someone needs to save Ferrari for the good of Ferrari and F1…

A final point on reliability. I said in Issue 27 that we could expect an increase in mechanical failures later in the season as ‘already used power units and gearboxes are put under further stress’. At Monza, both Mercedes suffered from electronics failures in FP2 (Hamilton) and FP3 (Rosberg) while Alonso retired due to an ERS failure and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat was forced to use a sixth power unit this season. Monza is infamous for being tough on powertrains (over 70% of the lap being spent on full throttle), but this is likely to be just the start of an increase in mechanical failures, especially powertrain and gearbox failures. I just hope that unreliability does not affect the drivers’ title battle again…