MERC MAN DOMINATES AT MONZA
Strong meat, is Monza. A classic that has retained all its character as a speed cathedral; a place where the faithful come in their masses to worship.
Only the dead could be immune to its petrol emotion, as race engines echo around the woods and single-seaters zip through summer air, disappearing in a heat-shimmer. And even the dead have their place here: ghosts in the trees whispering tales from the past.
Who cares if the ‘wrong’ guy wins. Monza leaves a taste to savour.
Lewis Hamilton looked serene as he reflected on his Monza pole. There’d been a little fist-pump of exultation as he hopped from his W07 pulling into parc ferme, after yet another scorcher at the Autodromo [his fifth pole here], but nothing elaborate.
It was the same a few minutes later as he faced the regulation press grilling in the close heat of Monza’s media centre, made warm by the steady beat of a September sun.
It had a been a blinder of a lap and he knew it, but he also knew that such had been his dominance in establishing a pole margin of almost half a second over team-mate Nico Rosberg, there was no need to showboat or play games.
“It got better and better through qualifying,” he said. “The last two laps were fantastic. The last lap in particular was super-clean, with no lock-ups. Coming out of Turn One, I was already a tenth up and I kept my momentum from there. I drove the last corner [Parabolica] the best I have done all weekend.”
He was simply the best man out there – and by some margin: his 1m21.135s to Rosberg’s 1m21.613s told its own story of perfection attained. The only hint of a cloud in Hamilton’s otherwise haze-blue sky was a minor lock-up in his first Q3 run. But he dismissed any notion that it might cause him a problem on race day: “I didn’t really damage the tyres,” he said. “There was a small lock-up into Turn One but the flat spot was minimal. I can’t really feel it.”
In setting pole and setting up a 50th grand prix victory, Hamilton became the third member of an elite trio of drivers who have been P1 at La Pista Magica five times – the other two being Juan Manuel Fangio and Ayrton Senna. It’s becoming increasingly common to mention Lewis in the same breath as these legends; already the most successful British driver, he’s fast closing in on some of F1’s all-time records; his pole tally is now 56, only nine behind Senna’s 65 and 12 off Michael Schumacher’s 68.
“He was really dominant,” confirmed Merc supremo Toto Wolff. “There was no problem for Nico, but he just didn’t feel as comfortable as Lewis overall. It was one of those typical Lewis Hamilton qualifying sessions. Now we have to maintain that momentum.”
There was a sense of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ in the wake of Hamilton’s trial-blazing. Rosberg secured another Mercedes front-row lockout thanks more to the machine at his disposal than to any track heroics, while Ferrari lined up a predictable 3-4 – Sebastian Vettel being the only other driver in the ‘21s’ on 1m21.972s, ahead of Kimi Raikkonen on 1m22.065s.
Vettel was far from downbeat, despite noting that Ferrari were “further away from Mercedes than we were last year.” His observation that Merc were able to run more powerful engine modes during qualifying than they can sustain in race trim offered hope, even if slim, of red competition for silver on Sunday. Ferrari’s upgraded Power Unit was keeping the Scuderia in the game, although not truly in the hunt.
“We know we need to be quicker, but we don’t exactly know the answer how,” Vettel quipped. “If anyone out there does, get in touch and we can do a contract.”
Valtteri Bottas slammed in a creditworthy P5 on a track that has tended to suit the Merc-powered low-drag Williams well these past three seasons. Beating two Red Bulls and both Force Indias to lead the ‘best-of-the-rest’ tussle was no small achievement and perhaps confirmed that Williams had been right to call time on Felipe Massa’s career. Earlier in the weekend Massa had announced he was quitting F1 ( see column, page 7), but any hope of bowing out with a podium at the track where he has finished P3 for the past two seasons took a knock when he failed to progress into Q3. He’d start 11th, having introduced asymmetry into what would otherwise have been a perfect two-by-two top 10.
Massa’s slip allowed Esteban Gutierrez into rarified Q3 air for the first time, elevating his Haas team to the top table, too. “We did a great job in achieving the consistency that has allowed us to work on the details that make the difference,” he said. “The laps were fantastic and I loved pushing the car.”
Team-mate Romain Grosjean suffered transmission problems in FP3 that compromised his qualifying prep. He placed 12th, then was relegated to 17th after a penalty for a gearbox change.
Elsewhere, Fernando Alonso led the Mclaren charge (P13 to Jenson Button’s P15), while Pascal Wehrlein stunned in the Manor for P14.
On the day that Button announced his F1 sabbatical, Wehrlein’s performance was a timely reminder that while F1 is about to lose some of its big beasts, a feisty and super-talented young brood is primed and ready to fill their seats.
“Nobody is to blame”, insisted Mercedes’ ever-illuminating team boss Toto Wolff, when pressed as to what might have caused Hamilton to start so badly at the Italian GP. Lewis dropped from pole to sixth then spent the next 53 laps playing catch-up to his scarpering team-mate, for an eventual second place.
It was, added Toto, no-one’s “fault” – because finger-pointing in an operation as fraught and fragile as a high-flying F1 team is the start of “things going downhill”. But there had been an error in the start-line procedure – one which could be traced back to the driver – so while Lewis Hamilton was not “to blame”, nothing but a finger-fumble caused him to be slow away.
Not that Lewis was quite able to admit to failing, as he elaborated on the “inconsistencies” of Mercedes’ clutch system and how, before a rule change for 2016, an engagement target would have been set by engineers, for drivers to hit. Now, responsibility for finding that launch sweet-spot is down to drivers alone.
“I lost at the start,” Hamilton reflected. “I knew that my engineers would be worried and nervous about how the start went, so that’s why I tried to put their minds at ease [with a radio message explaining there hadn’t been a technical failure].
“After that I don’t really remember what happened,” he continued. “I did the sequence exactly the same and just saw lots of cars coming past. In the moment, you’re just thinking about getting back to where you started. I could see Nico pulling away and I know from my experience here that the chances of the win decrease lap by lap, second by second. Still, we live to fight another day.”
If it felt somewhat unjust that the man who had bossed qualifying with a virtuoso pole-setting display should be so harshly penalised for an error of sequence, rather than a failure of skill, that only underlined once again that Rosberg – error-free from P2 to chequer – is simply too good to be discounted. When not having to defend for his life against a rabid Hamilton, Rosberg is as smooth and convincing a winner as any of the top-liners who populate the richly talented 2016 F1 grid. He proved that at Monza, just as he did 10 days ago, at Spa, or earlier in the season in Baku and Shanghai.
“The start was the big opportunity,” he said. “Ferrari had a bit more grip at the start, on the softer tyre, but apart from that, soft-medium was the fastest way to go to the end of the race.” Nico’s gain certainly arose from Lewis’s loss, although as Wolff noted, Hamilton’s Spa podium had been safety-car assisted. Them’s the F1 breaks.
Regardless, both Mercedes boys benefited in Monza from starting on soft tyres carried through from Q2, that permitted 25 laps of racing before their first and only stops, for mediums. All their rivals (if “rivals” they can be called) had started on the supersofts they’d felt obliged to use to secure passage from Q2 to Q3. No need for Team Silver to run Pirelli’s grippier compound; with tenths to spare, softs were all they needed. Ferrari’s Vettel and Raikkonen could reach only laps 16 and 17 before stopping for more supersofts, and by then Rosberg was nine seconds up the road, despite his harder compound.
That lead had become a cruisy 15s by race end, Hamilton having hustled
his way up to second, with Vettel a further five seconds back.
So not a great day for Ferrari, at their home race with top brass such as Sergio Marchionne and Piero Lardi Ferrari in attendance. But not a disastrous one either.
Vettel, who like Raikkonen ran a supersoft-supersoft-soft tyre plan, tried hard to entertain the Monza Ferrari massive, benefiting from Hamliton’s start-line woes to leap into second and challenge Rosberg for the lead into the first chicane. But he got no change out of Nico; nor did he from another sniff into Turn 4. After that, all anyone saw of Rosberg were tailpipe and diffuser.
Vettel remained chipper, however, for he’d given his best in a car that was quick – if not quick enough. “It was a great day,” he said, “and I had a really good start, but Nico did a really good job on the brakes into the first chicane and then later on lap one. We had good pace, but obviously Mercedes are quicker than us. They managed to do the race with one less stop, so Lewis ended up just too far ahead. But I’m happy and proud of two Monza podiums in my first two years with Ferrari. And our mission does not stop here. This is only the beginning.”
Mercedes’ deftly executed race strategy layered over a substantial underlying performance advantage brought their fourth 1-2 of the season and places Hamilton and Rosberg just two points apart at the top of the drivers’ table: 250 (Lewis) to 248 (Nico). Fourteen races down, seven Rosberg wins to Hamilton’s six… F1 2016 is nothing if not tight – between the Mercedes pair, at least.
Raikkonen followed Vettel home, leaving Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo in a tussle over fifth. A sweet, bold inside pass from Ricciardo settled that one in Red Bull’s favour on lap 45, with team mate Max Verstappen also gaining a late seventh place at the expense of Sergio Perez.
Dragstrip Monza was always going to be Red Bull’s weakest race, but they left La Pista Magica second in the constructors’ table, 11 points ahead of Ferrari and with Ricciardo 16 points clear of Vettel for third in the drivers’ chase. With seven sinewy racetracks to come over the next 11 weeks, the boys in blue may have something to say about who’s doing all the winning.