You can never really go wrong with a Spa-Monza double-header, can you? Part 2 of Formula One’s historic double-act was certainly well poised after Mercedes’ catastrophic clash in Belgium. The result was a rather attractive 29 point lead from Nico Rosberg’s point of view but for rival Lewis Hamilton, another mountain to climb.
Can the Brit get his championship aspirations back on track at the magic Monza circuit? The much-loved high speed track will play host to the final European race of this intriguing 2014 season. With around ¾ of the lap on full throttle, this is a circuit were the brute force of the Mercedes power is expected to make the likes of Mercedes and Williams even more imperious than usual.
Can the impressive straight-line speed demonstrated by Williams interfere with another potentially exhilarating Mercedes battle? Can the Mercedes battle cleanly this time around? Mercedes were naturally a popular topic of discussion after Belgium but, if both cars were to qualify on the front row, this was a race start not to be missed!
THE RACE: Rosberg error punished by rapid Hamilton!
Race day at Monza was without doubt highly anticipated as the Mercedes duo were set to go wheel to wheel for the first time since their infamous coming together at Les Combes.
Hamilton was back on what must have felt like uncharted waters: pole position. The 2008 champion could see nothing but tarmac for the first time since all the way back in May. But could he make the most of it?
HAMILTON HINDERED! ADVANTAGE ROSBERG!
No appeared the answer as the start of the race was slightly reminiscent of the season-opener in Melbourne. Another mechanical issue arose for Hamilton; a problem with his launch sequence badly hurt him off the line and he was swamped heading down the long run to the first chicane.
By contrast, Rosberg was off like a stabbed rat as was the McLaren of Magnussen, who found himself in 2nd place ahead of Massa’s Williams. Massa’s solid start did not coincide with his team-mate’s though as Bottas suffered a dreadful start and fell out of the top 10 as a result. The Finn was hampered by the slow Mercedes of Hamilton ahead while another driver to suffer a woeful start was Belgian GP winner Ricciardo.
Hamilton was down in 4th. If Mercedes were in any way worried about the possibility of a first corner clash, Hamilton’s issue certainly extinguished that quickly.
In the words of BBC co-commentator David Coulthard, Magnussen was effectively a “mobile chicane” who Hamilton had to dispatch ASAP in order to hunt down the championship leader. It was the dream scenario for Rosberg as he knew he had a solid barrier between himself and his rival: for now!
HAMILTON FIGHTS BACK!
Of course, that barrier was merely temporary. Massa out-dragged the McLaren through Curva Grande to take 2nd while Hamilton opportunistically followed the Williams through and took Magnussen down the inside of the first of the Lesmo corners.
With the McLaren out of harm’s way, Hamilton had to relieve 2008 title rival Massa of his 3rd place…and it has to be said he did the job beautifully. Hamilton had enough speed to sit side-by-side with the Williams but the defensive Massa forced him to the outside line.
Rather than give up the corner, Hamilton out-braked the Brazilian and held it round the outside of the Rettifilio chicane. Both drivers gave each other plenty of racing room this time around (it would almost certainly have ended up in contact if this was 2011).
ROSBERG SUCCUMBING TO PRESSURE?
With Hamilton working hard to navigate the Mercedes-powered pair ahead of him, Rosberg was extending his lead on what looked like becoming a placid path to his 5th win of 2014.
This appeared exactly what he needed after he failed miserably in his last attempt at a wheel-to-wheel battle for the lead in Spa and the chastising he unceremoniously received in the immediate aftermath.
But the usually unflappable German showed a sign of vulnerability to pressure as he made an unforced error at turn one. He had a little lock up and his cautiousness convinced him that turning out of the corner and weaving round the polystyrene blocks was the safer option: albeit the more time consuming.
That surprising mistake allowed the trio behind him to slash his lead. Was this a ray of hope for Hamilton?
Rosberg’s worst nightmare filled his mirrors once Hamilton had climbed back to P2 and the Brit was visibly the much faster driver. He was faster but his race engineer persuaded his driver to exercise caution and avoid Rosberg’s ‘dirty air’.
The theory was that the dirty air from the back of the sister Mercedes would see Hamilton’s tyre life deteriorate and therefore deprive him of the opportunity of a late surge to victory (as Rosberg attempted in both Bahrain and Spain).
Interestingly though, Hamilton politely declined his engineer’s advice as he smelt blood. He must have known or seen his team-mate’s excursion through the run-off at turn one and intended to capitalise on what he might have seen as a new-found inability to deal with pressure.
If that was Hamilton’s thinking, than his refusal to adhere to his engineer’s commands was genius. He closed in on the Mercedes lap by lap but the opportunity to redeem themselves for the clash at Spa vanished as Rosberg took a second trip round the polystyrene and handed Hamilton the lead on a platter.
Given Hamilton’s superior pace, it appeared as though Rosberg would have nothing in response. Hamilton was now set to slash his championship deficit to 22 points rather than see it extended to a painful 36.
Not only the championship battle but more prominently the psychological battle had taken a major turn: a turn in favour of the Briton!
BOTTAS LOOKS TO MAKE AMENDS!
Since doing away with Magnussen’s McLaren and succumbing to Hamilton’s Mercedes, Massa was comfortable in 3rd and enjoying a much-needed uneventful path to a potential podium.
For his young team-mate though, it was anything but a nice Sunday drive. Bottas had left himself work to do after a dire start saw him tumble 8 positions from an excellent 3rd on the grid. Equipped with a Williams with straight-line speed in abundant supply, he sought to carve his way through the pack.
He navigated his way efficiently passed both Force Indias and both Ferraris and Button’s McLaren before seeing the sister McLaren of Magnussen in his sights. The Dane was less amenable than the others though as demonstrated at the Rettifilio chicane.
Bottas tried to emulate Hamilton’s manoeuvre on team-mate Massa by holding his car round the outside of the McLaren but Magnussen ensured the Finn had no choice but to cut the corner.
For the second consecutive Grand Prix, the stewards deemed Magnussen at fault for forcing a car off the track which inevitably led to an investigation and a subsequent penalty. Although the 5-second penalty was less severe than the 20-second punishment he received in Belgium, it was a punishment that once again harmed his race result.
Bottas did eventually complete a clean move passed the aggressive Magnussen before dispatching Vettel’s Red Bull and culminating a superb comeback drive in 4th place.
RICCIARDO RECOVERS WELL!
Bottas’ climb through the pack was a good watch, but he was certainly not the only driver providing the entertainment.
Another young driver having a superb ‘breakthrough’ year was of course three-time race winner Ricciardo. He has already demonstrated tremendous race-craft over the course of the year and his race at Monza was no different.
Like Bottas, the Aussie had a miserable start. He bogged down in the initial phase of the start and a bumpy trip over the sleeping policeman in the run-off area saw him well outside the top 10 once the field established order.
Red Bull had placed both their drivers on rather starkly contrasting pit strategies. Vettel was the first of the leading runners to box for tyres, leaving him with a very lengthy 34-lap stint on the harder compound tyres. Intriguingly, the plan for Ricciardo could hardly have differed more as the Aussie was in fact the last of the leading runners to make the switch to primes.
As he did so impressively in Canada and Hungary, Ricciardo exploited his fresher rubber to perfection and made a charge through the field. He once again illustrated his brilliance in wheel-to-wheel combat and executed some fabulous overtakes on his way to 5th place.
Highlights were a bold move on Raikkonen at turn one and two textbook passes at the Variante della Roggia. The first of which saw him sell Perez a dummy towards the braking zone before mugging the inside line and confirming a superb overtake.
Since he had that move well-rehearsed, he decided who better to repeat the trick against then his four-time champion team-mate. Having been 8 or so places ahead of the Aussie on the first lap, Vettel could be forgiven for wondering how on earth Ricciardo got to his slipstream.
Ricciardo’s initial look round the outside of turn one came to nothing but he got better drive on the exit and had enough speed through Curva Grande to find himself alongside the sister Red Bull. But when it looked like Vettel may have done just enough to defend his position, Ricciardo sold him the same dummy and nicked the inside line once again.
He may not have been enjoying the lofty heights of the top step of the podium this time around, but it was nevertheless yet another outstanding performance from the smiling assassin as he was on his way to finishing the Grand Prix as the highest placed car without the luxury of Mercedes power.
DEPRESSING DAY FOR FERRARI!
Red Bull had an absolute shocker of a home race back in Austria with an 8th and a DNF. It was now Ferrari’s turn to disappoint the home fans as Alonso and Raikkonen could conjure up a measly total of 2 points between them.
Alonso was running in an underwhelming 7th and was literally unable to push his car any further after an engine failure signalled his first mechanical retirement since a major engine blowout put him out of the 2010 Malaysian Grand Prix. Having completed 90% of that race, you have to go back to his Renault days in 2009 to see the last time the Spaniard was not a classified finisher due to mechanical gremlins.
Raikkonen’s car was healthy, if not pretty slow. The 2007 champion was embroiled amongst a late battle involving the McLarens, Perez’s Force India and Kvyat’s Toro Rosso.
Well…make that only the McLarens and Perez’s Force India. Kvyat’s Ferrari-powered Toro Rosso sat behind the works Ferrari until a catastrophic brake failure saw him almost plough viciously into the back of Raikkonen’s car at the Rettifilio. The Russian teenager reacted amazingly to prevent his car either crashing into either Ferrari or nearby barrier.
With team-mate Vergne in a lonely 13th, it was undoubtedly a day to very much forget for the Italian teams at their home race.
HAMILTON EARNS A MUCH-NEEDED WIN!
Much like Monza 2012, Hamilton was in cruise control as he crossed the line for his 6th win of the 2014 season. Victory was nothing short of imperative in order to maintain a competitive championship challenge and the victory was the culmination of a superb recovery.
A cautious, and seemingly flustered, Rosberg took 2nd and his first ever experience of what is surely the best podium on the Formula One calendar. It may have been 18 solid points, but it was nevertheless a disappointing result for the championship leader having effectively gifted the win to his team-mate.
A Hamilton victory seemed popular as shown by the passionate cheers of the crowd but another popular result was soon to follow as Massa delivered his first podium finish as a Williams driver. It was his first top 3 finish since the Spanish Grand Prix of 2013 and it was a result of a solid weekend without the sort of rotten luck that has blighted the Brazilian’s season thus far.
Bottas’ recovered to 4th to help Williams leapfrog Ferrari for 3rd in the Constructors’ Championship while Ricciardo recovered to 5th after yet another sensational drive. Red Bull team-mate Vettel was 6th and was nearly caught by the McLaren of Magnussen who crossed the line 7th.
Vettel needn’t have panicked about the McLaren though, as the Dane’s 5-second penalty saw him plummet to 10th. As a result, Force India’s hopes of overtaking McLaren in the Constructors’ were boosted thanks to Perez’s promotion to 7th. Button was lifted to 8th and Raikkonen 9th after the penalty was applied.
Magnussen completed the points but it was the second race running in which a similar incident has cost himself and his team valuable championship points. As for those who could not quite make the top 10, Kvyat still claimed 11th despite his monumental scare. He hobbled home over a second ahead of the quiet Hulkenberg in 12th and Vergne in 13th.
The Frenchman, whose F1 career is in major doubt following Max Verstappen’s confirmation as a Toro Rosso driver in 2015, was the last of those on the lead lap. Maldonado, Sutil, Grosjean, Kobayashi, Bianchi and Ericsson occupied positions 14-19 while Gutierrez was 20th and last after a moment of stupidity. The Mexican punctured his tyre after weaving aggressively into Grosjean’s Lotus and was penalised 5-seconds as punishment for causing the contact.
Just two retirements from the race made fears of a multitude of retirements back in Australia seem like years ago. The two retirements were both extremely rare retirements. Alonso was the second of those after his mechanical frustrations while Chilton’s early crash signalled only his second retirement out of the 32 he has taken part in since his debut last year.
While still not the perfect weekend in terms of reliability, it was the perfect weekend in terms of pure results for Hamilton. He had rediscovered his qualifying form and was back on the top step of the podium for the first time since his home event at Silverstone.
He took a 7-point chunk out of Rosberg’s lead but the German still has a reasonably healthy 22 point cushion to take into the flyaways. Is this win a turning point for Hamilton’s season or will Rosberg regain authority in Singapore? It is the end of the European leg but this championship battle is far from finished!