14 September 2008
Italy 2008: Flying Vettel earns his wings.
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.
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