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Italy 2008: Flying Vettel earns his wings

14 September 2008

Sebastian Vettel broke another Formula One record on Sunday at Monza, but that won't remain in his mind as long as the feeling of standing on the top step of the podium in front of the tifosi having won the Italian Grand Prix.

A German being feted by the most passionate fans at the Autodromo Nazionale is nothing new to Formula One, but none had ever done it behind the wheel of Italy's second team, Toro Rosso nee Minardi. Strange as it may seem, that is exactly what Vettel managed, capping a fascinating weekend that restored a little lustre to the battered face of Formula One.

Having secured pole position in a qualifying session blighted by intermittent torrential rain, Vettel had it all to do again over 53 laps on Sunday, as the weather refused to let up over northern Italy. Although the morning's GP2 race had managed a conventional grid start - and without incident - such were the track conditions by 2pm that race director Charlie Whiting called for a safety car start to the grand prix, obliging everyone to leave the grid on the 'extreme' wet tyre option.

Two laps were run at controlled pace, but already Toro Rosso's nerves were being challenged, as Sebastien Bourdais stalled on the grid. With no warm-up lap in the circumstances, the Frenchman - already reduced to tears by losing points-paying places in the last two laps at Spa - was a long way behind when he rejoined.

Vettel, however, was doing his bit to calm those nerves, pulling out an immediate lead over the chasing pack. Having almost collected Heikki Kovalainen in his bid to warm his tyres as the field was readied for release, the German pounced at just the right moment, flooring the throttle exiting the Parabolica to give himself a cushion approaching the Rettifilio chicane.

The cautious start paid off as the entire field negotiated the right-left obstacle without incident, Timo Glock making the sole move of the lap to steal seventh from Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard was quick to react, taking the spot back next time around, but there was no early movement from either Kimi Raikkonen or Lewis Hamilton, who had been forced to start from 14th and 15th respectively after lacklustre qualifying performances.

Indeed, Hamilton appeared to be in trouble in the opening laps, losing ground on those ahead of him and not lapping anything like the pace of his rivals. At the same time, Vettel had already opened 5.2secs gap over the 'other' McLaren, with Kovalainen reporting unresponsive brakes as he attempted to keep tabs on the German. Third-placed Mark Webber was eight seconds down after five laps, and Nico Rosberg already ten adrift in fourth, while the Raikkonen-Hamilton train was dropping two seconds a lap to the leader. There was even a potentially contentious 'chicane' moment for the Briton on lap four, but he wisely ceded to Raikkonen...

The conditions had prompted the teams to go for a variety of one- and two-stop strategies, which would have explained some of the disparity in lap times, but also ensured that everyone was keeping a closer eye on the weather predictions than normal. The timing of the stops, and the conditions at the time, would prove to be crucial.

The first semblance of a dry line began to appear around lap eleven, just as Hamilton finally kicked into gear and, having previously followed the Finn around Giancarlo Fisichella, got past Raikkonen at the first Lesmo, courtesy of better traction out of the Roggia chicane. Fisichella, meanwhile, made contact with the rear of David Coulthard's car as the Scot attempted to come through, and then had his front wing disintegrate at the quick right-hander, sending him into the tyre wall and ending Force India's most impressive weekend to date.

Perhaps sensing Hamilton's increasing pace, Felipe Massa began to show signs of life, passing Nico Rosberg for fourth place at the Roggia chicane. Although the move looked permissible to the untrained eye, however, Ferrari advised the Brazilian to give the place back lest he fall foul of the stewards as his title rival had done in Belgium. It mattered little, for the Ferrari retook the spot at the Rettifilio next time around to put six places between Massa and Hamilton, who was now into the top ten after passing Nick Heidfeld's BMW Sauber.

While the Briton appeared to have an upper hand on most of those ahead of him, however, it did not prevent him from courting controversy, his lap 16 pass on Glock seeing the Toyota edged towards the grass verge. Robert Kubica then provided little resistance to the McLaren, succumbing at the Roggia on lap 17 as Hamilton moved into the points for the first time.

At about the same time, the teams received a warning that heavy rain was on its way, causing more than a few heads to be scratched as the two-stoppers approached their first pit call. Rubens Barrichello had already visited the Honda pit, taking on fresh 'extremes', just as Vettel did on lap 18, the German turning the lead over the Kovalainen in the process.

The Finn was unable to do anything with the clear track ahead of him, however, and could not pull out enough of a gap to rejoin in front of the Toro Rosso when he rejoined from his own stop on lap 22. Such was the cushion that Vettel had extracted in the opening stages, he was able to slot back into fourth, keeping himself clear of the best of the one-stoppers, while Kovalainen - along with Webber and Massa, who stopped at the same time - dropped back behind the likes of Hamilton and Alonso, the Briton having caught and passed his nemesis after lapping around two seconds a lap quicker than the Renault.

The top three pitting promoted Vettel back to the lead, but the German could soon see a different silver machine in his mirrors, as Hamilton's relentless progress, and the fact that he had yet to stop, brought him to within four seconds of top spot, having disposed of Jarno Trulli and Rosberg on successive laps. To underline just how much ground the Briton had gained from the inside of row eight, Raikkonen was still struggling to crack the top ten, having mired himself behind Heidfeld's BMW.

The gap was down to just over a second when Hamilton peeled off for what was expected to be his single stop of the afternoon, and a shade under ten seconds to 'fit and fill' saw the points leader rejoin a couple of places shy of the points. Hamilton gained two places almost immediately, however, as Rosberg and Coulthard both experienced the perils of pit-stops and strategy. The German was still running second when he stopped, but a promising run in Williams' 500th grand prix was ended when the fuel hose stuck, delaying his exit and dropping him to 14th.

DC, meanwhile, took the risk of being the first to fit the 'intermediate' tyre choice, dropping out of ninth spot to make the change and then promptly sailing straight on at the Rettifilio as he scrabbled for grip....

The promised downpour had still not arrived as lap 30 came and went with Vettel leading Kovalainen, the still-to-stop Alonso and Kubica, Webber, Massa and Hamilton, and the Spaniard joined Coulthard in fitting the less-heavily grooved Bridgestone when he stopped at the end of the lap.

'Inters' quickly became the order of the day, with Massa coming in for his on lap 33 as Alonso began logging times quicker than anyone else on track. Kovalainen, having pitted after Vettel first time around, was in on lap 34, rejoining in fourth, with Kubica and Webber joining him and dropping to sixth and tenth respectively. The leader, meanwhile, kept on going, now sitting on a 33-second margin back to Hamilton, who appeared to be the biggest obstacle to a dream result.

The conditions, however, appeared to favour Vettel and Toro Rosso and, with the forecast rain clearly not coming, the timing of his second stop on lap 36 seemed perfect. Able to rejoin in first place, all the youngster had to do was bring it to the flag, while Hamilton was faced with the prospect of making his own second stop, his lap times dropping off as the extreme cut began to suffer on the drying track.

The Briton turned in as the leader rejoined - followed by Nelson Piquet Jr, who had waited until that point to make his first stop - and slotted back into eighth place, although he made short work of Webber, despite being on considerably 'colder' tyres than the Australian. Webber had already found just how perilous the intermediates could be until up to temperature, spinning when challenged by Massa two laps earlier and losing any hope of a potential podium.

With the majority of the field now on the tyres they would take to the end - although Barrichello was back in for an experiement on dry-weather medium compound 'slicks' on lap 43 - Vettel held a near ten-second advantage over Kovalainen, and had 30secs in hand over Hamilton, who had now switched his sights to keeping tabs on Massa rather than chasing his first victory since Germany in July.

The title rivals were together on the track by lap 40, with Hamilton having closed rapidly on the Ferrari as it battled Heidfeld for fifth. Once running line astern, however, the Briton's progress slowed, seemingly unable to make the pass. He jockeyed in Massa's mirrors for a couple of laps, but then dropped away, a combination of traffic and pushing his rubber too hard seeming to end the challenge and allow Webber to close in once again.

While most people's lap times rose deeper into their stint, however, the impressive Vettel continued to motor on, pulling fully seven-tenths on Kovalainen on one lap, despite looking for the damp patches to keep his rubber under control. The other man making noticeable gains was Raikkonen, strangely quiet early on but now picking off places as he attempted to salvage some points. Coulthard succumbed on lap 47, and Piquet next time around to slot into ninth.

The Finn's hopes of moving further up the order, however, seemed to rely on those ahead self-destructing, and he almost got his wish as Webber homed in on Hamilton approaching the Rettifilio. As he had with Glock earlier in the race, the Briton left his rival no room, the pair making front wheel contact as Webber went down the outside. Thankfully undamaged, the Australian slalomed through the infield, allowing his assailant back in front as he rejoined, still in eighth.

Red Bull team-mate Coulthard was not so lucky when he made contact with Williams' Kazuki Nakajima with a handful of laps to go, the pair coming together when Nakajima pinched the Briton at the Parabolica. Although neither was out of the race - and went on to finish twelfth and 16th - they left a worrying amount of debris for the leaders to negotiate over the remaining couple of tours.

The irony of Red Bull's 'senior' team denying its 'adopted little sister' its moment of glory was thankfully avoided, as Vettel steered clear of the shed bodywork to led Kovalainen, Kubica, Alonso and Heidfeld across the line. Such had been his pace, the German was still 12.5secs clear of the McLaren at the flag. The Massa-Hamilton-Webber train completed the point scorers, but was nearly half a minute adrift of F1 newest winner as the Brazilian close to within a point of the championship lead.

With neither Toyota in the top eight - and the Cologne team now the only one in the field without an F1 win somewhere in its history - Renault closed the gap in the battle for fourth overall, while Toro Rosso vaulted past Red Bull Racing, probably not what Dietrich Mateschitz had in mind as he plans to offload one of his two interests.

Vettel, meanwhile, wasn't just the newest winner in the top flight, but also the youngest, replicating Alonso's feat of taking both a maiden pole and win at a younger age than anyone before him and lowering the mark to 21 years and 73 days.

Proving that nice guys can finish first, the German took a few moments to let his achievement sink in before climbing from the car and punching the air. There were many similarities with the man at whose family kart track he had begun his racing career, but somehow the blend of German and Italian anthems seemed fresher this time....


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