Fernando Alonso has been telling anyone willing to listen that Ferrari is now able to take the fight to Red Bull, and today he backed up his words with a win. Granted, he’d also won two weeks ago at Monza, but there were some who attributed Ferrari’s relative strength (or Red Bull’s relative weakness) to the peculiarities of the track.
Monza is the quickest track on the calender, and the one which requires the lowest downforce settings on the cars. The Red Bulls have excelled at high and medium downforce circuits, and Monza was seen as having nullified their advantage. There were many predictions that they would be back on top at Singapore. In fact, their performance in most of the practice sessions seemed to validate this notion.
But in Saturday’s qualifying, in which Alonso took pole position, we saw an omen of things to come. Off the grid today, the Spaniard managed to hold the lead (edging Vettel towards the wall, in a move that Vettel has never been able top perfect), and from there he never gave it up. Although Vettel was stuck to Alonso’s tailpipe for most of the race, the Spaniard never put a foot wrong, and Vettel was never able to make a challenge for the lead.
His only real hope was when both cars pitted on the same lap, but Ferrari executed a flawless pit stop and got Alonso out in front. Meanwhile, while Red Bull was equally quick in getting their driver out, Vettel himself balked the car by trying to pull away in second gear. By the time he’d sorted that out, Alonso had gained sufficient margin to ensure that he would be in front.
Alonso has been saying for several weeks now that the title contest is essentially a five-man race, and indeed all of the top five title contenders, Alonso, Vettel, Mark Webber, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, saw today’s event as critical to their championship hopes.
Hamilton, who vowed that he would storm back from his unforced error at Monza, which resulted in a DNF, instead crashed out again after colliding with Mark Webber. While Hamilton was big enough to admit his miscue at Monza, it wasn’t so easy to assign blame today. The collision was reviewed by the race stewards, and ultimately it was written off as a racing incident, without penalties being handed out.
But it was the second consecutive race in which Hamilton has thrown away points, and he must be kicking himself, if not for his own mistakes, at least for his inability to stay out of harm’s way at critical moments.
As for Webber, he made the most of an early pit-stop strategy. He’d qualified badly, and had made a mediocre start, so the Red Bull brain trust decided to bring him in early, and hope that a safety-car shuffle later on would move him forward. And that’s exactly the way it played out. Webber was always slower than the leaders (Alonso and Vettel were in a class of their own today, often pulling out three seconds a lap over everyone else), but given that Webber and Hamilton were first and second in the points, respectively, going into today’s race, the only driver Webber was actually competing against was Hamilton.
Webber’s early pit stop meant that his tires went off early, as a consequence, and during the closing laps it looked as though Jenson Button might have made a challenge for third, but it never happened. I suspect that Hamilton, looking back, is wondering how his race might have ended if he’d played more of a waiting game, but Hamilton is a charger, and waiting isn’t his style. It would appear to be both his strong suit and his Achilles heel, to mix metaphors.
Although the race at one point threatened to be a processional bore, as is generally the case on street circuits, there were enough on-track incidents to keep the race lively, if not necessarily great racing. Michael Schumacher had yet another lurid race, this time coming into contact with both Sauber drivers, Kamui Kobayashi and Nick Heidfeld, in separate incidents. The seven-time world champ had looked certain to finish in the points, but after his unplanned pit stops, one of which entailed a nose change, he managed only to end up 13th, a lap down from the leaders.
Certainly both Alonso and Vettel were the heroes of the day, both of them turning in exemplary drives at a time when both of them needed good results to keep their title hopes alive. Vettel was especially impressive, not so much for his outright speed, but for the fact that he managed to keep his head and not do anything foolish. Earlier this year, McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh dubbed Vettel “the Crash Kid,” and the Ferrari crew were probably biting their nails, waiting for Vettel to pull one of his signature T-bone maneuvers that seem to defy the laws of physics.
But no, Vettel (after a bit of coaching from Chris Horner, no doubt), has apparently internalized the idea that there’s no glory without points. He made no overly optimistic moves against Alonso, and the two of them easily cruised home to first and second. “I tried to push him [Alonso] into a mistake, but he did not make a mistake,” Vettel said after the race. “It’s difficult to overtake here and it would have been too risky.” Perhaps this is a sign of a new maturity in the young German driver. If so, he’ll need it if he ever expects to win an F1 title.
The other sterling drive of the race, for my money, was turned in by Renault’s Robert Kubica. The Pole pitted late for his mandatory tire change, and once he had fresh tires he promptly began a series of highly effective overtaking maneuvers that made the competition look lame.
There have been rumors lately that Kubica will move to Ferrari next year, to replace Felipe Massa, never mind that Massa has two years left to run on his contract. Looking at Kubica’s performance today, one wonders if the rumors have set the Ferrari brass to thinking.
There have also been rumors that Adrian Sutil will replace Michael Schumacher at Mercedes next year. Certainly, Schumacher’s dust-ups today did little to cement his position in the team, especially when his young team mate, Nico Rosberg, managed to stay out of trouble and finish a solid fifth, which seems to be as much as can be expected from the Mercedes at this point. Ross Brawn, like his counterparts at Ferrari, has denied that the team will be making a change in driver line-up for 2011.
We shall see. It seems that the silly season has finally gotten into full swing. Drivers who are on the bubble will be anxious to prove their worth, which, if nothing else, should make for some lively racing.
01. Alonso Ferrari 1h57:53.579
02. Vettel Red Bull-Renault + 0.293
03. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 29.141
04. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 30.384
05. Rosberg Mercedes + 49.394
06. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 56.101
07. Kubica Renault + 1:26.559
08. Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 1:52.416
09. Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth + 1:52.791
10. Massa Ferrari + 1:53.297
11. Petrov Renault + 1 lap
12. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap
13. Schumacher Mercedes + 1 lap
14. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap
15. Di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps
16. Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth + 3 laps
Glock Virgin-Cosworth 51
Heidfeld Sauber-Ferrari 35
Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 34
Klien HRT-Cosworth 30
Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 29
Senna HRT-Cosworth 28
Trulli Lotus-Cosworth 26
Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes 1