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2018 Italian Grand Prix analysis: Mercedes scores an emphatic ‘away’ win

9 Mins read
Hamilton was the benefactor of Mercedes' superior strategy in Italy, extending his championship lead to 30 points. Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

Any racing fan will agree that the fastest driver, in the quickest car should be the one heralded as the “Formula 1 world drivers’ champion” after the final chequered flag of the season has flown.

More often than not, the team this driver is employed by will win the prestigious constructors’ world championship, completing the double of both titles at the pinnacle of motorsport.

And every so often, when a team has that ‘season of seasons’ it will finish 1-2 in the drivers’, coming as close to perfection in an F1 season as is possible.

This achievement is so rare, that since the turn of the 21st century, only two teams have reached such  heights. In its Michael Schumacher heyday, Scuderia Ferrari achieved the feat in 2002 and 2004, with Rubens Barrichello playing the dutiful team-mate to his team-leader.

Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport is the other team to have completed the feat. When F1 was its personal play-thing in the first three seasons of the turbo-hybrid era from 2014, nothing less than a Lewis Hamilton/Nico Rosberg 1-2 in the drivers’ was expected. In all three of these seasons. Mercedes scored over 700 points in the constructors’, the peak coming with just the 765 hauled in the ’16 season.

Rosberg and Hamilton secured three consecutive ‘clean-sweeps’ for Mercedes in 2014-16.
Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

‘Where is all this going?’ I hear you say. Going back to the original point about ‘fastest driver in the fastest car will win the championship’, that is true. Except when it isn’t.

Speed is only one factor in the equation that will hopefully result in winning the world championship. Consistency, reliability. wet-wether nouse, sharp operations and minimalising your own mistakes are as key parts to the equation as anything.

How to clutch defeat from the jaws of victory

There is an argument that can be made that Ferrari lost the Italian Grand Prix at 3:00pm on Saturday. rather than at about the same time 24 hours later when Hamilton overtook Kimi Räikkönen at Turn 1 with eight laps of the 53-lap distance to run.

Moreover. you could say that Ferrari’s choice to bring only one set of the yellow-marked soft compound Pirelli tyre was also a major contributing factor. But let us begin on Saturday afternoon, just as the cars are rolling out of the pitlane for the final runs in Q3.

Mercedes had it. Ferrari had it as well. Only the latter had made a mistake.

Due to the nature of the Monza circuit, it was quickly evident that slipstreaming in qualifying was the best way for teams to secure as high a starting position for its drivers as possible.

With their inherent pace advantage over the other teams, both Mercedes and Ferrari did not need worry until Q3, only fine margins would be the difference between pole position and the second-row of the grid.

Both utilised the tow on the initial runs in Q3, with team-leaders Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel ‘towing’ their team-mates, Valtteri Bottas and Räikkönen. So far, so good.

And then Ferrari dropped the ball. While Mercedes had Hamilton behind Bottas for the final runs, the Italian squad was lead out by the Scuderia’s best shot at the championship: Vettel, with Räikkönen once again set to receive the benefit of a tow.

The 2007 world champion then went out and set the outright fastest lap in F1 history, at 163.785mph to nab his first pole of the season, and left his team-mate a frustrated second. “We’ll speak after,” on the radio attested to Vettel’s feelings.

Vettel is Ferrari’s best hope of winning the drivers’ crown, so it should have given him the best chance of pole at Monza.
Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

All was not lost. Vettel could quite conceivably make the better start and lead out of the chicane and through Curva Grande. Perhaps what he didn’t bank on was a feisty Räikkönen at the start, moving straight over to defend the inside line at the Turn 1 braking zone.

This pushed Vettel wide and allowed Hamilton to have a look at the inside himself, although he backed out after light contact with the Ferrari. However, the narrower line that Vettel was forced to take cost him speed on the drag to the braking zone of the Variante della Roggia.

Vettel was on the inside, while Hamilton drove clean around the outside of his title rival. The two made contact when the Ferrari hit the side of the Mercedes. The stewards rightly decided that it was a racing incident.

In just about Ferrari’s only good-luck of the day, the safety car was called for, as Brendon Hartley had failed to make Turn 1 after contact broke the suspension on his Red Bull-Toro Rosso Honda. This allowed Vettel to creep back to the pits for a new front wing and to fit his only set of soft compound Pirellis.

With one Ferrari in Vettel out of the equation, and the other Mercedes of Bottas encountering a Max Verstappen-shaped roadblock, the fight for victory was between Räikkönen and Hamilton. And the German team did exactly what its Italian rival could not. It saw the bigger picture and played the team game.

Räikkönen came in early for his switch to soft-compound rubber,  leaving the top three of Hamilton/Verstappen/Bottas out ahead. The Dutchman soon exited the equation, when Aston Martin Red Bull Racing pitted him, which opened the strategic door to Mercedes.

Hamilton pitted,  as it would turn out, a crucial eight laps after Räikkönen, while Bottas trundled round in the lead, waiting for his team-mate to make up the 24 or so seconds he lost by entering the pitlane.

In a vain attempt to clear his fellow Finnish driver, Räikkönen pushed his tyres to the max, and sure enough, blistering started to appear, especially on the left-rear. Hamilton meanwhile, was safe in the knowledge that Bottas would ‘back’ the Ferrari into him, meaning he did not have to push as hard, saving vital tyre life.

This was another factor why Ferrari lost and Mercedes won. The Scuderia had only selected a single set of the yellow-marked soft compound rubber for each driver, meaning the first time either driver ran it was during the race itself.

When Vettel bailed from his attempt to complete the whole race, bar one lap on his set of softs, Räikkönen’s fate was almost certainly sealed. During his chase, Hamilton set the fastest lap, while Räikkönen lost heaps of time, and eventually became a sitting duck until the inevitable happened.

Bottas was key in helping Hamilton to pass Raikkonen, by holding the Ferrari driver up while Hamilton caught the pair.
Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

Job done. Bottas dived into the pits, allowing Hamilton a clean attack at race leader Räikkönen. Eight laps from the finish. Hamilton drove around the outside at the Rettiflio, going on to take F1 win number 68 by eight seconds.

Operationally, Mercedes saw the bigger picture. and used everything to its advantage, while Ferrari was left floundering. In a world championship of such fine margins. reducing mistakes such as sending Vettel out first on the final runs in qualifying will cost the team dear.

There is a strong argument in Ferrari’s favour that it has the best car on the grid this season. Its recent engine upgrade and power boost caught Mercedes off-guard, and scratching their heads.

Vettel and Ferrari must capitalise when they are strong and the opposition, chiefly Hamilton is not. Of course, it is unrealistic to expect any driver to drive every grand prix in a season perfectly and without mistake. If you want to win the championship, these mistakes need to be limited to a maximum of one.

But Vettel has exceeded his allocation and is in danger of throwing away his chance to become Ferrari’s first world champion since Räikkönen in 2007. In France, he ran into Bottas at Turn 1, damaged his front wing, and salvaged fifth from a race where a podium was well within his grasp.

And then came Germany. Already frustrated by the time it took for the team to tell Räikkönen to move out of his way, Vettel made his second catastrophic blunder of the season, when he drifted too wide at the left-hander in Hockenheim’s stadium section, and slithered into the barrier. Hamilton was running fourth when Vettel crashed, and so the 25 points Vettel lost added to the 13 Hamilton gained meant a swing of 38 points in the championship.

In seasons as closely fought as this, that is a chasm, and on such mistakes, world championships are won. Or lost.

30 points is now the deficit between Hamilton and Vettel with seven grands prix left in the season. It will be a tall order for the Ferrari driver to claw back some precious points. And what better place for Vettel to start than by laying the demons of the 2017 Singapore Grand Prix to rest.

Silly season nearly at an end

The F1 silly season is a much-vaunted part of the championship, but it rarely fails to deliver, save for the odd surprise big move for one of the top drivers.

But this year, things are different. No one is quite sure how everything will shake out and how the grid will look, come the Australian Grand Prix next March.

Of the top seats, the only one that still has TBC next to it is the second Ferrari seat, alongside Vettel.

Sergio Marchionne had favoured promoting junior star Charles Leclerc to the top team, before the former Fiat-Chrysler’s chairman’s untimely death in July. But since those rumours first started circulating, Räikkönen’s form has improved, taking six podiums in seven grands prix.

Heading into the weekend at Monza, Räikkönen seemed poised to pen another one-year deal at Maranello, taking his stay to a sixth consecutive season, and ninth overall.

However, it now seems that new bosses Louis Camilleri and John Elkann favour honouring the pledge that Marchionne made and promote Leclerc.

The futures of Ocon and Lelcerc are two of the biggest talking points of F1s silly season.
Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

If Ferrari decides to stick rather than twist, it will still be in a strong position with Leclerc, as it is just a matter of time before he is promoted to join Vettel, given Räikkönen will likely retire at the end of 2019, if he is given an extension.

While most of the pieces have fallen into the puzzle, Esteban Ocon finds himself as the piece that just can’t find the right slot.

Much like Leclerc, Ocon’s eventual promotion to the Mercedes works team is all but a given, but faces Hamilton and Bottas sized obstacles currently in his way.

Lance Stroll seems set to take Ocon’s place at Racing Point Force India F1 Team, after his father’s consortium rescued the team from collapse, while there is no room at the Renault Sport Formula 1 Team or McLaren F1 Team inns for the Frenchman.

Williams Martini Racing is the logical destination for Ocon, given the team runs a Mercedes power unit, but that is complicated by the fact that if Stroll leaves in 2018, the team is contractually obliged to give reserve driver Robert Kubica the race seat.

Given what Kubica has been through to get back to the fringes of an F1 race seat, it is highly unlikely that he could be brought out of his contract, leaving Ocon as the spare part.

Dog eats dog

Ron Dennis once famously told Eddie Jordan “welcome to the Piranha club” after Benneton had pinched his new driver, a certain M. Schumacher.

And Renault’s protest against the legality of Romain Grosjean’s Haas F1 Team car after the race proves that the club is still alive and kicking.

Sixth place for Grosjean and eighth for Renault’s Carlos Sainz, Jr meant that Haas and Renault were tied on 84 points in the battle for fourth in the constructors’, with the American squad ahead by virtue of Grosjean’s fourth place in Austria trumping Renault’s best result of the campaign, fifth in Azerbaijan.

The French team was unhappy with the dimensions of the leading edge of the floor of the Haas F1, and so lodged an appeal with the stewards.

Grosjean finished sixth, but after Renault’s appeal against the floor dimensions of his Haas, he was disqualified.
Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

The area in question had been subject to a technical directive being issued at the Hungarian Grand Prix, informing teams that they had until the Italian GP weekend to make the necessary changes to the floor of their cars.

Haas requested extra-time, until the Singapore Grand Prix, as it feared the work would not be completed in time, due to suppliers and the summer break. However, FIA single-seater chief Nikolas Tombazis informed the team that they were expected to conform to the directive, and would run at risk of protest if not.

As it happened, Grosjean qualified sixth and ran strongly to finish there, continuing an impressive run of scoring points. Until the stewards threw him out for an illegal car, thus promoting everyone behind him up a place, and Renault back ahead into a clear fourth in the standings.

It is the first time that a driver has been disqualified since Felipe Massa in the 2015 Brazilian Grand Prix, where he constantly ran over the white line denoting the pit-entry, while Daniel Ricciardo in the 2014 Australian GP was the last technical infringement that led to expulsion from the results.

Who knows what would have happened had Grosjean finished behind Sainz…

A feel-good effect from Grosjean disqualification, which Haas has appealed, was that it promoted Sergey Sirotkin to 10th, and secured him his first points in F1.

The Russian has had a difficult time in an uncompetitive Williams car, and the result was Williams’ first double points finish since the Malaysian Grand Prix last season.

It also marks the first season since 2005 where every full-time driver on the grid has scored a world championship point, remarkable as points only went down to eighth in that era.

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About author
Jake Nichol is a motorsport journalist writing about the Formula 1 world championship for The Checkered Flag. He is currently freelancing for Autosport, where his work includes IndyCar, NASCAR and UK-wide national race meetings.
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