Hamilton hammers home McLaren Monza message
9 September 2012
There was an air of redemption at the Italian Grand Prix, as the three main victims of last weekend's opening corner shunt at Spa-Francorchamps filled the podium places at the final European round of 2012 at Monza. For each, however, there was a different tale to tell.
For Lewis Hamilton, there was no sign of the distraction contract talks could have wrought as he led from start to finish to claim his first Italian GP victory. For Sergio Perez, a timely reminder that he could be the natural successor to Felipe Massa at Ferrari after he turned twelfth on the grid into second at the flag courtesy of a late tyre stop and blistering second half pace. For Fernando Alonso, a podium finish after a tough start to the weekend means that he now enjoys an extended championship lead after both Red Bulls retired and team-mate Felipe Massa again did his bit for the greater good.
Hamilton, having secured pole position with what he described as a 'half-decent' lap on Saturday, remained out of reach of everyone come Sunday, making a solid enough start to fend off an ambitious lunge from Massa into the Rettifilio and then having the pace to not only pull away from the Ferrari in the early stages, but to create a cushion for when, first, McLaren team-mate Jenson Button, and then Alonso and Perez took turns in second spot.
The Briton also enjoyed a near flawless pit-stop - unlike Button - which returned him to the track with a bigger gap over his team-mate than he had had a lap previously. From there, although Perez began slashing away at the margin in the closing stages, there was nothing, aside from a mechanical failure, that was going to deny the 2008 world champion a third win of the year, and second in three races, following his previous successes in Canada and Hungary.
In truth, with Hamilton in control out front, the real interest lay in what was going on behind, with the order seeming to change continually through a combination of retirements and passing, both standard and DRS-enabled. After a clean opening lap, with just a single shed front wing end-plate at the back of the pack, Alonso wasted no time in attempting to make up for the tenth place he was restricted to by rollbar failure in qualifying. Having already gained a spot off the line, the Spaniard usurped fellow world champions Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher in the space of seven laps before embarking on a feisty scrap with the man he is likely to supplant as #1 next season, Sebastian Vettel.
It took some time for the Ferrari to be in a position to challenge but, having closed quickly on Vettel over the previous couple of laps, Alonso launched an ambitious attempt to claim fourth spot at the Curva Grande. In a mirror of their battle from last season, the Spaniard found himself on the grass, despite Vettel appeared to hold the racing line around the corner. Alonso, unsurprisingly, was incensed, and his team backed up his view that he Vettel had attempted to 'ruin our race'. The stewards, too, sided with the home team, calling Vettel for a drive-thru' penalty for 'forcing another car off the road'.
It may have been a legacy of the carnage seen at Spa a week ago, but put the first dent in Vettel's hopes of closing further on Alonso's points lead, having taken 18 points out of the Spaniard in Belgium. The German, naturally, had the opposite view, although video evidence showed a bigger gap between the cars in the 2011 incident, where Vettel actually gained a place after his rival straightened his line under pressure. The penalty, however, dropped Vettel into the lower reaches of the top ten and he had only just begun to regain lost ground when he was warned that there was a potential problem with his RB8.
The German soldiered on for another four laps, but had just crossed the line to complete 46 laps when a more urgent message came over the radio, insisting he stop the car immediately. The problem, according to the missive from pit-wall, was the same -alternator failure - as that which had sidelined the Red Bull in the final moments of Saturday morning practice, but the tone of the call suggested that the Renault V8 - a rare commodity at this point in the season - behind the driver's head was in imminent danger of lunching itself.
By the time his closest rival was sidelined, Alonso was already up into second spot, having passed Vettel three laps after having to take to the grass in avoidance of a collision, and then benefiting from the sight of Button slowing on the run to Parabolica on lap 33. The McLaren driver did not appear to have enough to deny team-mate Hamilton victory, but second place would have been of benefit to his own championship challenge. Suspected fuel pump failure was blamed for the Briton's first DNF of 2012, and will surely raise the spectre of him having to play second fiddle to Hamilton over the remaining seven races of the season.
Button's retirement also promoted Alonso to third place, with just team-mate Massa between himself and the best haul of points he could have expected given Hamilton's dominance. With an exchange of places still allowing Massa a potential return to the podium, it came as no surprise when the Ferraris swapped second and third, the Brazilian having been told by engineer Rob Smedley to 'think about how you're going to manage the tyres'.
By the time Alonso moved into second place, however, Perez was already lapping more than a second faster than either of the Ferraris in his similarly-powered Sauber. The Mexican had started on row six after failing to repeat his Belgian qualifying form on Saturday afternoon, but was already up to eighth in ten laps and made the most of running longer than his rivals on his first set of tyres, having opted to run the harder prime Pirelli from the off. Switching to the softer medium option on lap 29 dropped him back to eighth, but he was immediately able to bang in fastest laps, gained from the misfortunes of both Vettel and Button, and passed Raikkonen twice in the space of a lap to secure fifth before Schumacher pitted to promote him to fourth.
Despite Massa being urged to up his pace again, the Brazilian had no answer to the Sauber's relentless progress, losing third at Parabolica on lap 43. Alonso was several seconds down the road, but was also powerless to resist as Perez took only three laps to account for the other Ferrari and move into second place. Hamilton, too, was warned to raise his game by a couple of tenths but, ultimately, it was only the remaining laps that prevented what could have been a grandstand finish as the pair were split by just four seconds at the flag. Perhaps it's no wonder that Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo has called for shorter grand prix distances....
Despite having to settle for third place, Alonso recouped almost all of the points he lost to second overall in Belgium. With Vettel sidelined, Hamilton vaults from fifth to second in the standings, but is fully 37 points behind his former nemesis as the season leaves Europe and heads for Singapore in two weeks' time. Raikkonen, who finished just over a second shy of Massa to claim fifth place at Monza, is now third in the championship, just a point behind Hamilton.
The Brazilian was briefly hampered by a loss of telemetry that caused his crew to lose track of his position on the road but, in truth, he was always likely to have to cede to his team-mate, especially as other title hopefuls began to hit trouble. That he then missed out on a first podium since Korea two years ago was symptomatic of the misfortune he has suffered of late.
Raikkonen was largely anonymous as Lotus again failed to make the most of the E20 and save for his repeated battles with Perez, would have been happy to pick up useful points towards a late title charge. He was followed across the line by Schumacher, who dropped two places over his grid position after a two-stop strategy failed to pay off for Mercedes. Team-mate Nico Rosberg suffered similarly, coming home one place further back despite taking fastest lap, taking seventh ahead of Paul di Resta, who attempt to overcome the grid penalty he incurred for changing his gearbox on Saturday morning was hampered by a temporary KERS failure. Kamui Kobayashi, comprehensively out-performed by team-mate Perez, and Bruno Senna, who snatched the last point from Daniel Ricciardo on the final lap, completed the scorers.
Pastor Maldonado, overcoming a ten-place hit after qualifying, also finished ahead of the Toro Rosso, while Jerome d'Ambrosio claimed 13th on his return to the grid, despite one leery moment exiting the Lesmos. Heikki Kovalainen headed the runners coming home a lap down, beating Caterham team-mate Vitaly Petrov to the flag by just 0.1secs, while Charles Pic got the better of the Marussia battle by a lot more over Timo Glock. Pedro de la Rosa had to settle for 18th on his 100th race appearance in the top flight, while Narain Karthikeyan again brought up the rear.
A bad day for Red Bull was exacerbated by Mark Webber's late spin at Ascari, which left the Australian with unmanageable flat spots and precipitated a DNF two laps from home, and Jean-Eric Vergne's early acrobatics, after a suspected suspension failure pitched the Frenchman's Toro Rosso over the kerbs at Rettifilio and left him nursing bruises. Nico Hulkenberg was the other casualty, his Sahara Force India losing its brakes in the closing stages.
The battle for the title reconvenes in two weeks' time in Singapore, where Alonso will be hoping for Lady Luck to again help turn the lights out on his rivals.