Qualifying and pre race drama
Further sealing Felipe’s fate and endearing himself to the Tifosi, Alonso nabbed a superb pole position in his first outing for the Scuderia at their home GP: Monza, La Pista Magica! The Ferrari’s had been looking strong all weekend with only the Mclaren of Button managing to sneak ahead of the Ferrari waterboy who himself qualified a solid third.
Going into the race Hamilton was still on top in the WDC after his win at Spa, 3 points ahead of Webber. The pair of them had created a bit of breathing space behind them since Vettel, Alonso and Button all failed to score the previous race. At this point, the championship started looking like it would boil down to a Webbo-Lewis fight.
Other noteable performances in quali were Hulkenberg getting a solid p8 ahead of his teammate Rubinho in 10th. Both Williams cars in q3, hard to imagine in 2011! The Red Bulls were struggling on this power track as Webber only managed 4th with Vettel putting in a dissappointing 6th, their worst qualifying performance of the season. The top 10 was rounded out by Hamilton (5th) Kubica (9th) and Rosberg (7th).
Lots of controversy surrounded the interval between Spa and Monza, with Ferrari escaping with a ‘mere’ 100k $ fine for their team orders BS in Germany at a council hearing, and the FIA having introduced more stringent load tests in response to the (ongoing) Red Bull flexi wing drama.
Jenson Button got a great run off the starting grid and despite Alonso’s best attempts to scare him into the wall or on the brakes in a classic Vettel/Schumi swipe, Button kept his foot in and balls firmly in hand as they headed into the tight first chicane. Massa also got a better start than Nando and was challenging him hard. However Nando being Nando, and Ferrari being his team, he basically barged Felipe out of the way on the corner exit, the pair even banging wheels. But that was not enough bumper cars for Nando, as he also took out a chunk of Button’s rear diffuser late in his desperate, yet ultimately successful attempt to keep his teammate firmly behind. Something tells me that in the 2011 stewarding universe, he may have gotten into some trouble there. While it did not seem to massively hurt Button, it did compromise him as he certainly lost some rear downforce in that incident.
Webber made yet another of his now trademark horrific starts as he dropped from p4 to p9 at the end of the first lap. Either Mark has horrid reaction times or something fishy has been going on at Red Bull with their clutch settings for Mark because this continues to jeopardize his races to this day. Rosberg jumped into 4th as the rest of the field squeezed through fairly cleanly in that tricky turn 1.
The Ferrari bumper cars antics in turn one allowed Hamilton to get a run on them in the slipstream heading into the second chicane. However, he was nowhere near enough to make the overtake stick into that tight turn and slammed his right wheel hard into Massa when he slotted in behind Alonso. This broke Lewis’ steering column and had him flying off into the gravel trap. Perhaps as a sign for things to come this year, an overoptimistic move saw Lewis’ race over at the first Lesmo, and the championship was wide open again with Webber facing a long fight from down in p9.
While Button’s superb start saw him grab and maintain p1, he just could not build a gap to Alonso, and even Massa hung on to them reasonably well for the first 10-15 laps, until Felipe started getting very ragged and had some moments which dropped him a few seconds behind the leaders. Button had gone for a radically different strategy at Monza, using a high downforce setup and counting on the F-Duct for top speed. This meant that in the Lesmos and chicanes Button managed to build a gap in sector 2, but the Ferraris would keep clawing him back in sectors 1 and 3. However it was not enough as Button fairly easily withstood the constant pressure from Alonso to stay ahead. It would all boil down to pitstops, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Rosberg was leading the best of the rest but was quickly dropping behind the leading trio, followed by Kubica, Hulkenberg, Vettel and Webber. Suddenly we hear a very panicky Vettel on the team radio saying his engine was giving up on him, and indeed he started losing chunks of laptime as Webber cruised past him and Vettel was falling back into the clutches of Schumacher. However miraculously Vettel’s engine ‘fixed itself’ after 1 or 2 laps and he was straight back on the pace, setting the scene for a curious strategy which would see him pit for the hard tires on the final lap of the race. (screw you Bridgestone, thank you Pirelli)
Even the leading trio left it to well past the halfway mark to make their one and only pitstop, and the Mclaren team were the first to blink. Handily announced by the FOM coverage on the team radio, Button was coming in on lap 39 and he was told to push. Of course, Ferrari heard this as well and Alonso in particular started to pump in some quali laps and hope to pip Button in the pits. He came in one lap behind Jenson and true enough, the Ferrari fairly comfortably cleared the Mclaren into T1, and Nando took the lead. Massa came in two laps later but had fallen too far back prior to his stop to make an impact on the fight for the lead.
Thinking about it: how many times have Ferrari had their pit strategy announced to the world over the FOM feed compared to Mclaren, and to a lesser degree, Red Bull? Ah the conspiracy theorist in me is working overtime again! 😉 Anyway, that sorted out the top 3 as they headed to the finish with Button failing to make any impression on Nando, who cruised home to his first deserved win of the year (Bahrain he inherited it through Red Bull unreliability and Germany..well you know), even though his bumper car antics in T1 raised my eyebrows, the general public and analysts didn’t make a fuss about it.
Further back, Hulkenberg was badly holding up Webber and defended his position on three occasions by cutting the chicanes. Webber -rightfully- complained about it on the team radio but the stewards wouldn’t budge. When Webber finally did pass the Hulk, it was too late. Vettel’s strange strategy and Bridgestone’s retard ‘soft’ tires saw him maintain 4th on the final lap, something which surely would have left Webber fuming in the cockpit as he finished 6th. Rosberg got 5th and the top 10 was completed by The Hulk, Bobby K, Schumi and Rubinho.
Webber grabbed the lead in the WDC, 5 points ahead of Lewis and Nando’s late WDC challenge really kicked off here as he got himself into third, 21 points off the lead. Vettel was down in 5th, 3 points behind Alonso.
So, does this teach us anything to make an accurate prediction for this year’s race? Of course not, but it wouldn’t be fun if we didn’t try now would it! I’ve had a bit of a shocker prediction eating away at my brain, nay my very sanity, for the past few days: I was thinking of predicting a Massa win! Even as I write this I’m still expecting someone to come out of the woodwork and bitch-slap me to see reason, but I’m sticking to my guns: Massa will win the 2011 Monza Grand Prix! Work with me here, see the reasoning behind the madness: He has upped his quali performance, out qualifying Nando the past two races. His race pace is still off but the flow of Monza makes it a less technical track and more of a powerhouse thing, so it is not really a track where the driver can make that much of a difference compared to other places. Ferrari always bring a bucket-load of upgrades at their home GP so the car should be up there. Monza’s looking to be dry and hot, which will also favor the Ferrari and negate their tire warm-up problems. There’s just one factor I can’t get around: Nando and Luca’s man love for the Spaniard. For this to work Nando’s race needs to get cocked up somewhere, as there’s no way Felipe will be allowed to win if Nando is closely behind him. Stranger things have happened, and Nando’s been quite lucky with the car’s reliability this year, so perhaps it’s time for him to eat the cake this time.
While everyone expected to Bulls to suffer at Spa only to see them come out on top, they did – again- get luck on their side: the rainy qualifying, the perfect timing for the safety car, I believe Spa was more of a fluke Red Bull 1-2 than they would like to admit. Of course they will be up there, but I see Vettel having a horrible weekend to finish third (no sarcasm at all here, move along). Button will look set for the win until another team error hands P1 to Massa, but he’ll finish 2nd, just like last year. Hamilton will again try too hard and end up either in the wall or way down the order. He doesn’t seem to be learning the lessons this year, and for once I’m with Niki Lauda. If he just tones it down a bit, he’ll be WDC again in no time. But the way he’s going now, he won’t be for a long time.
As for quali, I see a Hamilton pole, closely followed by Vettel and Alonso. Button will line up 5th behind Massa with Webbo in 6th.
I know I’m crazy but if this comes through I’m a legend 😉 Do mock me and share your predictions in the comments below!