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Alonso Wins at Monza and Keeps Title Hopes Alive

Fernando Alonso in parc ferme at Monza

It was a fine day for the tifosi today.  Fernando Alonso scored his first Monza win as a Ferrari driver, an achievement which he ranked alongside of his 2006 win at his home grand prix at Barcelona.

For those interested in semi-obscure statistics, it should be noted that when Alonso secured pole position yesterday it was the first time a driver had done so at Monza during his first year with the Scuderia since Niki’s Lauda’s pole at the storied Italian venue in 1974.

Alonso admitted that the taking pole for Ferrari at Monza was an emotional event, but that ultimately winning pole position was only significant if the driver managed to convert it into a race win.  And that was exactly what he did.

Even with pole position under his belt, however, Alonso’s win didn’t come easily.  He fobbled the start a bit, and wasted precious time by moving to his right in an attempt to block Jenson Button, who had started in second slot.  But Button eased past Alonso fairly easily, and from that point on, Alonso went into damage control mode.  Team mate Felipe Massa was on his heels, and nearly passed him going through the next few turns.  But Alonso is a game fighter, and he managed to keep the Brazilian at bay, without pulling a Vettel on him.

(Perhaps vettel will become a new verb in the Formula 1 lexicon.  To vettel: to crash inexplicably crash into your team mate, or some other unsuspecting rival, while trying to overtake.  Example: McLaren’s Jenson Button was cruising to an easy podium finish, when suddenly he was vettled in the sidepod by one of the Red Bull drivers, thus taking both cars out of the race.)

Later, Alonso said that the first ten seconds were intense.  Going into the first corner, he punted Button slightly from the rear, and then he tapped team mate Felipe Massa on the right.  His first thought was that he’d damaged the car, but that proved not to be so.

Not so lucky was McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, who was part of the same scrum as the Button, Alonso and Massa.  Hamilton was trying to squeeze onto the same piece of real estate, and before he knew what had happened he was squeezed by Massa’s Ferrari and his right front suspension arm caved in.  Carbon fiber suspension parts are remarkably strong as long as they absorb vertical energy; but when they are on the business end of a lateral shunt, they tend to shatter.  Hamilton coasted into the gravel, and his day was done.  He later admitted that the incident was his fault, not Massa’s.

For the remainder of the first stint of the race before pit stops, Alonso trailed after race leader Button like a greyhound chasing a mechanical rabbit.  Button was never able to pull out any kind of a margin.  At best, he was able to avoid making any errors, which would’ve allowed Alonso to pounce.  Massa wasn’t far behind.

It was the pit stop that told the difference.  The Ferrari crew managed to change Alonso’s tires in 3.4 seconds, nearly a second quicker than Button’s tire change.  It was enough to allow Alonso to slip into the lead.  After that, he was actually able to build up a three second margin.  He was never in danger of being challenged by Button after that.

Massa stayed in the hunt, finishing a bit over a second behind Button.  The three of them all looked pleased to be on the podium.  Massa, for his part, didn’t display the same sulk that he wore on the podium in Germany, where he’d been ordered by the team to move over for Alonso.

Sebastian Vettel finished fourth, some 28 seconds behind Alonso.  Reb Bull had predicted that Monza wouldn’t be their track, and on that score they were correct.  Mark Webber came in sixth, about three seconds behind Vettel.  The Red Bull excels at most tracks on the calender, as most tracks require a significant amount of downforce, which is just what the Red Bull chassis is brilliant at providing.  But Monza is mostly long straights and long high speed turns.  Very little downforce is deployed, unless compensated for by the use of the F-duct device.  Ergo, the Red Bulls were left in damage control mode, trying to scrape up as many points as possible.  At least the Red Bull boys managed to avoid crashing into each other.

Clearly, this would have been a race for Mark Webber to win.  Prior to the race, he was lying second to Lewis Hamilton in the points.  With Hamilton scoring a DNF, this would have been an ideal opportunity to make up ground with maximum points.  Instead, with a sixth place finish, while Webber has regained the points lead, his margin is only five points, which is nothing in the current points system.

Nico Rosberg did an impressive job in scoring a fifth place position.  Currently, the Mercedes cars seem to be on a par with the Williams and the Renaults.  Williams driver Nico Hulkenburg significantly outperformed his more experienced team mate, Rubens Barrichello, and managed to hang onto seventh, just a couple of seconds ahead of Renault’s Robert Kubica.  And 10 seconds adrift of Kubica, in ninth, was Michael Schumacher, who, apart from a brief duel with Mark Webber, drove a rather quiet race.

Schumi continues to be vocal about how he’s generally unable to find a suitable setup for the car, and as he trailed his team mate Rosberg by 16 seconds at the end, it would certainly appear that something was wrong.  Schumi’s performance relative to Rosberg’s seems to fluctuate from one race to the next.  I don’t believe that the German has lost his talent, and I also believe that he’s well past the “rusty” stage of his comeback.  While he might never recover the dominant form he enjoyed during his prime, I do expect him to improve next year.

This year’s Mercedes was designed to suit Jenson Button’s driving style, and clearly setup chracteristics can make a difference, even to someone like Schumacher.  Witness the peformance difference between Button and Hamilton at Monza today.  They went different directions in setup (Button opted to use the F-duct, while Hamilton chose not to), and as a result Hamilton was unable to match Button’s pace in qualifying, even though, on a purely lap for lap basis, Hamilton is generally reckoned to be the quicker driver.

The results at Monza today did much to keep the title race alive amongst the top five drivers.  A one-two finish by Webber and Hamilton might have consolidated the title hunt into a two-man race.  Those two drivers still lead the standings, but Alonso, Button and Vettel are now within striking distance.  A 24 point spread covers the top five drivers.  With five races to go, and 125 points to play for in race wins, this means that any of the top five could walk away with the champion’s laurels.  None of these drivers can afford to make any mistakes at this point.

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