Taking the 1. and 3. places on the podium on the “fastest track of the season” should say enough about a team – which only further confirms Red Bull’s supremacy in Formula 1 today. Sebastian Vettel’s address from the top of the podium was greeted by massive “boos” from the pro-Ferrari audience; which could not spoil the reinforcement of the German’s leadership in the standings the Italian Grand Prix 2013 win has brought with it.
Vettel’s domination on the Monza circuit was unquestionable: following fastest performances in two later practice sessions and qualifying, he comfortably lead the pack from start to finish, extending the gap between himself and then second Fernando Alonso to over 11 seconds at one point, despite a dramatic-looking double tyre lock-up on lap one. The win extended his championship lead over the Spaniard to 53 points, which, with only seven races to go, brings the youngest hat-trick champion ever closer to a historic fourth consecutive title – a thought that must have been somewhere at the back of Vettel’s mind when he answered questions from the podium against a wave of boos from the tifosi crowd.
It was to be expected, as not only did the German crush Alonso’s opportunity to re-establish himself as a strong title contender; the other Red Bull driver squeezed Felipe Massa out of the podium, robbing the Ferrari-loving crowd off another cause for celebration. Same situation happened last year when it was McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton cheering from the top of the podium, despite audible audience dissatisfaction.
“If I’m up there and I’m getting booed that means I’ve won and I definitely want that,” the Brit told AUTOSPORT before the race weekend, and in that respect he was right.
However, he completely misjudged his performance at the same track this year. Following troubles in the Mercedes garage with some practice 3 reliability issues for his team-mate Nico Rosberg, Hamilton bagged himself a floor damage during the all-important qualifying session, which left him out of Q3 for the first time since the Malaysian GP 2010. Not knowing it was technical failure that affected his performance, the Brit was visibly struck by the result of the session, referring to his driving as “idiotic”. Having started the race from 12. he tried to fight through the traffic, but an early puncture forced a two-stopper, on top of radio communication issues, which only landed him a ninth place finish.
“I’m ninth and we should be much further ahead, so I’m very disappointed with myself… I blew it in qualifying and it was just impossible to catch up,” he told AUTOSPORT, when he also conceded his title fight is virtually over.
But the Brit was only one of many who will want to forget this Italian weekend.
After a disastrous qualifying session in which neither of the Lotuses managed to qualify into the top 10, the team’s champion Kimi Raikkonen finished the race just outside the points in 11., for the first time since the Chinese GP 2012. This adds to the string of disappointing “firsts” in the Finn’s revived F1 career: Spa saw his first retirement since his return to sport in 2011, then Monza’s second-lap pitstop was his earliest this year.
After the Saturday qualifying the 2007 champion admitted the car was simply too slow to achieve results – the first obvious sign that, despite previous reassurances, Raikkonen is not fully content with his current team – but with the Red Bull door now closed for 2014, the Finn’s only realistic chance of a career step-up is a Ferrari drive – which raises mixed feelings among a few people at Maranello.
Paul di Resta also recorded his first Formula 1 retirement in Monza – and that as early as lap one, after a tyre-lock out which led to a dramatic contact with Lotus’ Romain Grosjean and the Scott’s front left tyre ripping half-loose from the impact, leaving his car in the gravel. Di Resta has had a few reasons for complaint this season, but this time he had to concede the fault was his own – and a lack of performance in front of the Italian crowds will not aid his bid for a possible Ferrari seat next year.
Di Resta’s team-mate Sutil finished only 16., after a post-quali 3-place grid penalty for impeding Hamilton, which did not help Force India’s ambitions in the constructors’ championship against McLaren. The Woking team had one reason to celebrate – their 50th anniversary – which was however dimmed by another mediocre performance by its drivers. Once again Jenson Button just managed to hang onto a point-scoring place; while Sergio Perez, who out-qualified his team-mate on Saturday, finished the race two places behind him, in 12.
“All in all, I’d summarise our weekend by saying that we’ve come away with a very hard won world championship point,” team-principal Martin Whitmarsh said after the race, putting a definite cross over McLaren fans’ hopes that the team had finally found its mojo this season.
What did come as a surprise – a double surprise in fact – was an excellent drive by Nico Hulkenberg, who not only qualified third – the highest Sauber start this season – but then managed to finish the race in fifth.
“It is a nice surprise for ourselves, especially after a difficult Friday, with the car changed some bits and bobs,” the German told AUTOSPORT after Saturday qualifying, adding that “probably the timing is not the worst at this moment” since he is currently left without a 2014 contract, having rejected an extension offered by Sauber – but hoping, not without a reason, for a Ferrari drive.
In a pre-Monza interview for the BBC’s Formula 1 team, the Maranello’s team boss, Luca di Montezemolo, promised to reveal the 2014 driver lineup in the course of this week, naming Raikkonen, di Resta and Hulkenberg as potential candidates – out of which only the latter delivered on the most important circuit for the historic Italian team.
However, Felipe Massa’s brilliant performance over the weekend begs for his name to be added to that list. Having out-qualified Alonso for the fourth time this season and finished just outside the podium, the Brazilian seems to be carrying on the momentum he gained following his contract extension in the second half of 2012 – with a small dip in performance prior to the summer break. The talking heads suggest that Alonso’s arrogant comments and outbursts via the team radio (notably calling his team “geniuses” – or, as some report, “imbeciles” – over the qualifying tactics in Monza) are a sign of his disapproval of the bosses’ choice of his future team-mate. This may well be if Massa was to go – the Brazilian’s support for the two-time champion is tactile, even if sometimes difficult to swallow. So far the Ferrari pairing of a clear lead and supporting driver was a prime example of a point-scoring team – an image which might be jeopardised by an addition of a second driver as fiery and determined as Alonso.
With the transfer and contract tensions building up in the upcoming weeks, one driver can keep his smile on. Despite an average seventh place finish in Italy, Daniel Ricciardo can enjoy every bit of racing until the end of this season without feeling much pressure to over-perform, as his Red Bull contract is now well and truly sealed.
“I am pleased with that! After qualifying well yesterday, it was nice to maintain that position at the end of today,” Ricciardo said after the race.
With the Aussie’s senior, Webber, claiming his first – and last – Monza podium (despite some worrying gearbox issues that almost cut his efforts short), the Italian Grand Prix 2013 leaves both current and the most imminent Red Bull generation content – probably as the only players on the Italian grid.
And although the circus still faces seven grands prix this season, it seems the Milton Keynes team has this one in the bag, as encompassed in Alonso’s comment:
“We need to be lucky and we need to have some DNFs from Seb or something to win the championship.”