Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Italian GP: Alonso closes in on Hamilton

Fernando Alonso has moved ever closer to McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton at the top of the Drivers' Championship with a pole-to-flag victory in the Italian GP.

With Hamilton securing second place courtesy of a mighty overtaking move on Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren's 1-2 was the perfect riposte to the political moves against the team this week.

Raikkonen finished third with the BMW pair of Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica finishing in fourth and fifth places.

With Felipe Massa an early casualty due to an unspecified problem at the rear of his Ferrari, the team comprehensively failed to deliver the 1-2 that Ferrari president had asked them to deliver in the last six races.

Grand Prix Report: The ambient temperature was at 28C and the track at 30C as the drivers drove at full-speed to form up on the Monza grid. In previous GPs, teams have saved fuel by crawling very slowly to their starting positions, but now, mid-season, the rules have been changed to compel drivers to use all the revs. This has been done in the interests of safety to prevent accidents between cars of widely varying speeds on the track.

Monza has one of the longest drags to the first corner and as the cars concertina into the braking zone one errant braking manoeuvre can have severe consequences. Starting from fifth on the grid Kimi Raikkonen showed he was keen to get past P4 Nick Heidfeld by opting for the softer tyres.

As the red lights went out Fernando Alonso was quickly away, but Lewis Hamilton, starting from the dirty side of the grid, moved left to block Felipe Massa, leaving just a car's width of tarmac between himself and the outside of the track. It was enough for Massa to squeeze effortlessly though and he was up into an easy P2 even before the end of the pitlane.

Behind him, Kimi Raikkonen, starting from a good metre and a half outside his starting box, was able to get the jump on Heidfeld and even looked to be threatening Hamilton's third place down the outside.

Coming into the braking zone of Turn 1, Hamilton's extraordinary deftness on the brakes completely caught out Felipe Massa. Massa looked to follow the line of Fernando Alonso through the corner when suddenly he had a silver McLaren Mercedes braking extremely late on his outside and which was now in front of him.

Such was Hamilton's edge that he was able to turn in in front of Massa whose front tyre speared into the back tyre of the McLaren pushing him over the kerbs.

The monitor immediately announced that Car 2 was under investigation for cutting the chicane, though TV replays clearly showed Hamilton was steering to take it properly but had been pushed across it by Massa's misjudgement. Curiously, despite a lot of other cars cutting the first and second chicane in the race, there were no further announcements of stewards' investigations of chicane incidents.

Massa wasn't finished with Hamilton yet, though, and harried him all the way round to the second chicane, the Curva della Roggia and on to the first Lesmo, which presented a lessening threat with each turn. Hamilton made his car very wide and Massa couldn't find a way through.

As the cars crossed the line at the end of the opening lap the order was: Alonso, Hamilton, Massa, Raikkonen, Heidfeld, Kubica, Kovalainen, Rosberg, Button, Webber, Barrichello and Alex Wurz in 12th place.

David Coulthard, starting from P20 after gearbox problems in his Red Bull on Saturday, made up a lot of places on the opening lap, but at the start of Lap 2 he lost his front wing through the Curva Grande and his car hurtled towards the barrier at speed.

This necessitated the deployment of the Safety Car so that the barrier could be repaired and the car removed. It was perfect for Kimi Raikkonen, who had been fuelled heavier than two McLarens and could now complete the race with one pit-stop, the optimum strategy.

However as the race re-started on Lap 6, the home team favourites were about to suffer a hammer blow. Third place Felipe Massa suddenly headed down the pitlane on Lap 9 and was refuelled and sent on his way in last place, clearly an unscheduled stop. He lapped off the pace and then returned to the pits on lap 11 complaining that "something wasn't right at the rear of the car." He drove straight into the garage and retirement.

Ferrari had given the cause of Kimi Raikkonen's Saturday practice accident as driver error, but with Massa's obvious mechanical glitch, and the fact that far less competent F1 and GP2 drivers don't go off where Raikkonen did, it seems to indicate that both Kimi and Felipe had failures on their cars.

At the front Alonso and Hamilton began to edge out a gap, swapping Fastest Laps between them until Alonso had lowered it to 1:22.871 on Lap 15. On Lap 17, the gap between the two Mclaren drivers was still just 1.1 seconds with Raikkonen 10.1 seconds in arrears.

Hamilton pitted at the end of Lap 18 and Alonso at the end of Lap 20 but maintained their positions. On Lap 21, Nico Rosberg finally got the better of Jenson Button after the Williams and Honda drivers had engaged in a titanic struggle in the first stint. Rosberg got alongside Button going through the first chicane and the pair ran side by side into the second with Rosberg finally coming out in front before the first Lesmo.

Robert Kubica's afternoon looked to be falling apart when his car came off the front jack during his Lap 23 pit-stop and the mechanics couldn't get the wheels on.

To the collective joy of the tifosi Kimi Raikkonen had contined in the lead until he pitted on Lap 25. With eleven seconds of fuel going into the car it was clear that he was going to run until the finish. The big question now was could the McLarens build a big enough lead before they both had to stop again?

On Lap 26 Alonso had a 15.2 second lead over Raikkonen and 2.3 over Hamilton. The pace of the McLarens made it look as though they would just about do it.

Lap 27:
Alonso 1:23.762
Hamilton 1:23.663
Raikkonen 1:24.849

Lap 28:
Alonso 1:23.435
Hamilton 1:23.620
Raikkonen 1:24.670

The positions on Lap 29 were: Alonso (stopped), Hamilton (stopped), Raikkonen (stopped), Heidfeld (stopped), Rosberg, Button, Webber, Barrichello, Trulli, Kovalainen (stopped), Kubica (stopped).

The McLaren gap to Raikkonen was growing by big chunks each lap, but towards the end of the second stint they hit traffic which Kimi wouldn't reach before they pitted. Hamilton had a gap of 24.8 seconds to Raikkonen before he came in for the second time on Lap 40. Though he was stopped for just six seconds, it was too long.

As the silver car emerged at the end of the pitlane, Raikkonen was already through to Turn 1 to roars of approval from the tifosi. He would not get the drop on Alonso, but he had successfully put himself in second place, and with overtaking notoriously hard at Monza he could well strike a blow for Ferrari.

Hamilton had other ideas though. Now on the supersoft tyres Lewis set about whittling the gap to 50 metres by the end of Lap 42. He seemed too far back to overtake but all of a sudden, steaming into the braking zone of Turn 1, he launched his McLaren up the inside of Raikkonen.

It was a move combining immense bravery and impeccable judgement, because he only just got his car stopped in time and turned in with a go-kart slide under locked brakes. Raikkonen had spotted the danger too late and as he moved instinctively to cover the inside line found Hamilton's car already there and the Finn also had to lock his brakes to get through the turn. Certainly one of the overtaking moves of the season, and given the circumstances and where it was, probably of the year.

Alonso came in for his pit-stop and resumed in the lead. By now the gap to Hamilton was too much for the Brit to close up and Raikkonen let his engine revs drop as he protected both his engine and his painful neck which had not recovered from the knock on Saturday.

On Lap 45 the order was Alonso, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Heidfeld, Rosberg, Kubica, Kovalainen, Button, Webber and Barrichello.

Robert Kubica, out of position since his pit-stop delay, had managed to overhaul Kovalainen and eased his way past Rosberg on Lap 48 to take P5. From there it was a cruise to the line for all concerned. The Italian TV director choosing to stay with Raikkonen's onboard camera for a few laps while he was lapping two seconds off the pace and slower than the Super Aguris.

It had been a great race for Fernando Alonso who had looked the class of the field all weekend. Lewis Hamilton, despite his successes in Canada and the USA, didn't look so at ease in the latest low-downforce set-up, but still performed impressively to keep Massa at bay and overhaul Raikkonen. But it was Raikkonen who had surprised everybody by running the McLarens so close in a race where he was severely hamstrung by an injury not of his own making and deserves the most plaudits for his drive.

The BMWs picked up their regular 4th and 5th places, Rosberg emphasised his class by taking 6th, Kovalainen kept Renault in their well-established position behind the top three teams, while Jenson Button showed Honda that there is light at the end of the tunnel. But not the wind tunnel.


Race Result
01 F. Alonso McLaren 1:18:37.806
02 L. Hamilton McLaren + 6.062
03 K. Räikkönen Ferrari + 27.325
04 N. Heidfeld BMW + 56.562
05 R. Kubica BMW + 1:00.558
06 N. Rosberg Williams + 1:05.810
07 H. Kovalainen Renault + 1:06.751
08 J. Button Honda + 1:12.168
09 M. Webber Red Bull + 1:15.879
10 R. Barrichello Honda + 1:16.958
11 J. Trulli Toyota + 1:17.736
12 G. Fisichella Renault + 1 laps
13 A. Wurz Williams + 1 laps
14 A. Davidson Super Aguri + 1 laps
15 R. Schumacher Toyota + 1 laps
16 T. Sato Super Aguri + 1 laps
17 V. Liuzzi Scuderia Toro Rosso + 1 laps
18 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso + 1 laps
19 A. Sutil Spyker F1 + 1 laps
20 S. Yamamoto Spyker F1 + 1 laps
Did not finish
21 F. Massa Ferrari + 43 laps
22 D. Coulthard Red Bull + 52 laps