Saturday, 13 September 2008

Italian Grand Prix: Vettel shines in the wet as Hamilton drowns

Incredible scenes in Monza today as one Italy's home teams secured a fabulous pole position, and a fourth position to boot. But it wasn't the giant of Italian motorsport Ferrari that took the headlines, it was the perennial minnows, Toro Rosso (neé Minardi). 21 year old Sebastien Vettel was the man who stunned the motorsport world with a fantastic performance to take his first ever pole, surely the first of many in the young boy's career, and team mate Sebastien Bourdais also put in an excellent performance in dire conditions to secure fourth place. While the unrestrained joy for Toro Rosso will rightfully take the headlines, the other big story of the day will be the huge disappointment for the main title contenders, particularly Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen who sensationally both failed to make it through the final session.

Rain always seems to cause great drama in motorsport. You only have to look at Monaco, Silverstone and Spa this year for evidence of that, and today's torrential weather in northern Italy didn't disappoint. The first session held no real surprises, as the tricky conditions made it a slippery but level playing field for the drivers. All of the major players made it through safely, and few would be surprised to see Sutil, the two Hondas, Nakajima and Piquet dropping out. All the drama was to kick off in Q2...

At the start of the session the conditions were fairly poor, and everyone knew that the weather was only due to get worse and worse as the session progressed. It was clear that the best times of the session were going to be set early on. It seemed as though there was an ever-so-slightly drying line on the track after the first session, and crucially some drivers took the massive gamble of trying to squeeze in a lap on intermediate wet tyres. Most notably Lewis Hamilton was out on inters, and it was to cost him massively. Almost as soon as he went out the rain started to fall heavily, and his plans went out of the window. All the drivers out on full wet tyres were able to set decent lap times while Hamilton floundered. The Ferraris also got caught out as they both failed to set a lap time early in the session.

The rain only got worse and worse throughout the session, and really there was little chance for those out of the top 10 to improve. Hamilton especially was having a torrid time. He was fuelled heavily and didn't want to come in, but clearly he wasn't at all happy with the set up of the car and with hindsight should perhaps have come in to change something about his car, whether it was wing angle or tyre pressures. Raikkonen too was struggling, and at one point it looked as though all three title contenders would fail to make it through. However, Felipe Massa somehow managed to find some grip from somewhere and squeezed into the final session by the skin of his teeth. That could potentially be the biggest lap of his entire career, as it gives him a massive advantage over his title rivals, and will be favourite to now leave Monza with the lead in the driver's championship.

So with the fans still in shock from the failure of Hamilton and Raikkonen to make it through, the final session got under way with the rain still falling heavily. Sebastien Vettel had looked strong all day, and he and his team mate Bourdais were the early pace setters. Massa didn't look as though he was wanting to have a crack at the pole position; he must be fuelled very heavy for the race knowing that Hamilton and Kimi will be too. This meant that the opportunity was there for someone to cause a real surprise. As the clocked ticked down Vettel's early time still stood, and as the rain worsened nobody was able to match it. The scenes were incredible in the Toro Rosso pit as the mechanics first watched Massa fail to make the time, and then the other big threat Kovalainen missed out by a fraction of a second. Mark Webber put in a stellar lap to take third place, bumping Bourdais down to fourth at the death.

With the weather due to be no where near as treacherous tomorrow it sets up what could be one sensational race tomorrow. Vettel will be starting from pole with the chance to make history for the minnows from Faenza. His first challenge will be to hold off Heikki Kovalainen in the McLaren. He will surely be the favourite for the race tomorrow, and McLaren will be desperate for him to at least stay ahead of Massa and take some points off the Ferrari man. The other big story will of course be watching Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen trying to fight their way through the field from their lowly grid slots. It could well be a classic...

Provisional Starting Grid

1. Vettel
2. Kovalainen
3. Webber
4. Bourdais
5. Rosberg
6. Massa
7. Trulli
8. Alonso
9. Glock
10. Heidfeld
11. Kubica
12. Fisichella
13. Coulthard
14. Raikkonen
15. Hamilton
16. Barrichello
17. Piquet
18. Nakajima
19. Button
20. Sutil
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Friday, 12 September 2008

Italian Grand Prix: Friday Practice

Kimi Raikkonen ended the day at the top of the timesheets after a severely rain-interrupted first day of action in Monza. The first session was all but a total washout, with only the second session seeing any meaningful running from the teams. If it rains like it did during fist practice, we may be lucky to get a race at all on Sunday!

Not much to report from the first session other than rain, rain, rain.

And then some more rain.

There was hardly any meaningful running throughout the session, with neither McLaren even bothering to set a lap time. The only incident of note was Kazuki Nakajima putting his Williams into a gravel trap and ending his session barely before it had begun. The rain got so bad towards the end that the pit lane drains were all overflowing, and the session was red-flagged. The early stoppage meant that Sutil and Fisichella were the fastest two drivers of the day in their Force Indias!

First Practice Times

01 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:32.842 18 laps
02 R. Barrichello Honda 1:33.428 14 laps
03 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:33.695 19 laps
04 T. Glock Toyota 1:36.800 13 laps
05 N. Rosberg Williams 1:36.900 9 laps
06 F. Alonso Renault 1:36.965 10 laps
07 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:37.142 20 laps
08 J. Trulli Toyota 1:37.214 13 laps
09 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:37.392 5 laps
10 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:37.754 13 laps
11 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:38.057 11 laps
12 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:38.303 7 laps
13 J. Button Honda 1:39.062 12 laps
14 F. Massa Ferrari 1:40.233 5 laps
15 N. Heidfeld BMW no time 1 lap
16 K. Nakajima Williams no time 2 laps
17 R. Kubica BMW no time 1 lap
18 H. Kovalainen McLaren no time 1 lap
19 M. Webber Red Bull no time 1 lap
20 L. Hamilton McLaren no time 1 lap

The second session was far more interesting, with the track now starting to dry. As you would expect the times tumbled throughout the session, and there was plenty of running from all the major teams as they sought to make up for lost time from the first session washout.

As the track dried out and more and more rubber was laid down the lead changed hands more times than could be remembered, but by the end of it Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen took the Friday honours. His success came on the back of some great news for Kimi and his Finnish fans, as it was announced just before the session that he has signed an extension to his current contract which will take him to the end of 2010. I'm not sure how great that news is for the Tifosi, because to be honest Kimi really hasn't looked the part for most of this season. It certainly isn't good news for Fernando Alonso, the man who many thought would be the man to take over from Kimi in 2010. His options for the future seem to be narrowing somewhat, with BMW now being a likely destination for the Spaniard.

The BMW's looked very quick in the second session, finishing 2nd and 3rd. Kubica edged out Nick Heidfeld, the man most believe will have to make way for Alonso if the rumoured move is to take place. Kubica did have a rather spectacular spin into the second chicane towards the end of the session, but no lasting damage done. Lewis Hamilton was fourth for McLaren in a fairly solid performance for the young Brit. It was a very close session all round though, with the top four drivers separated by barely more than a tenth of a second.

Title contender Felipe Massa was a little further adrift down in sixth place, with Williams' Nico Rosberg getting himself between Massa and Hamilton in fifth with a good performance. Force India surprisingly managed to continue their "good form" from first practice, with Adrian Sutil actually making it into the top 10 on merit in 9th place. Toyota seem to have taken something of a step back in terms of pace compared to earlier in the season, as Trulli and Glock looked terribly slow as they did in Spa. Hopefully for them that means that they are merely focusing all their development attention on 2009. Renault too looked pretty dismal, with Alonso way down in 18th and Nelson Piquet dead last after an embarrassing spin at the Retifilio left him wedged high and dry on the speed bumps, meaning he needed rescuing by the marshalls!

Practice Two Times

01 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:23.861 31 laps
02 R. Kubica BMW 1:23.931 26 laps
03 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:23.947 29 laps
04 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:23.983 25 laps
05 N. Rosberg Williams 1:24.110 33 laps
06 F. Massa Ferrari 1:24.247 34 laps
07 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:24.365 29 laps
08 M. Webber Red Bull 1:24.521 35 laps
09 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:24.669 22 laps
10 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:24.773 35 laps
11 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:25.100 25 laps
12 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:25.192 39 laps
13 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:25.204 24 laps
14 R. Barrichello Honda 1:25.296 25 laps
15 J. Button Honda 1:25.309 34 laps
16 K. Nakajima Williams 1:25.330 28 laps
17 T. Glock Toyota 1:25.397 28 laps
18 F. Alonso Renault 1:25.481 22 laps
19 J. Trulli Toyota 1:25.753 29 laps
20 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:26.195 23 laps
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Thursday, 11 September 2008

Italian Grand Prix Preview

So whilst the dust is still yet to settle on the hugely controversial Belgian Grand Prix just four days ago, there is no time for the teams and drivers to take time out and take their eyes off the ball. Sunday will see Monza hosting the Italian Grand Prix, with Lewis Hamilton looking to put his recent disappointment behind him and try to increase his slim world championship lead in Ferrari's own back yard.

With Kimi Raikkonen's title ambitions seemingly in tatters for this year at least, Ferrari will be looking to Felipe Massa to lead the line in their battle with McLaren. He has certainly been on excellent form recently. The only time that he doesn't look a World Champion in the making is when the rain starts to fall, which is when he tends to end up looking rather amateurish. He will not have been thrilled to learn that there is rain predicted for the Grand Prix weekend, and lots of it! The Italian GP is normally run in balmy heat under glorious blue skies, but on the odd occasion it does rain it REALLY rains.

Rain will be just what the doctor ordered for Lewis Hamilton, as every time it has rained so recently he has excelled; notably Silverstone and Monaco this year and Fuji last season. The real challenge for Hamilton could well be one of temperament. Will he be able to put last week's disappointment (to put it mildly) behind him and focus 100% on the task at hand, or will he still be distracted and let his emotions get the better of him?
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Sunday, 7 September 2008

Breaking News: Hamilton Stripped of Victory

Breaking News: Hamilton has been stripped of his race victory. He has been given a 25 second penalty, pushing him down to third place and gifting the victory to Felipe Massa.

Enormously controversial decision, one which I'm sure will cause much consternation for weeks to come and potentially cast a negative shadow over the whole of this year's driver's championship. Just when people start to talk about Formula One for all the right reasons again, after a truly classic race, the stewards threaten to drag the reputation of F1 through the sh*t yet again... Read more!

Belgian Grand Prix: Hamilton holds his nerve in classic Spa thriller

Lewis Hamilton cemented his place at the top of the Formula 1 World Driver's Championship with a stunning victory in a rain affected Belgian Grand Prix. Despite starting from pole position it was a victory that looked highly unlikely for much of the race, as Kimi Raikkonen looked to be driving his way back into title contention on this his favourite track. However, in the dying moments of the race the rain began to fall and chaos ensued; in one of the most thrilling finishes to an F1 race in years Raikkonen ended his race and his world title defence in the crash barriers on the exit of Blanchimont corner. Felipe Massa finished second to keep himself firmly in the contest for the title, while Nick Heidfeld secured an amazing third place despite starting the final lap in ninth place!

After a morning of fun and games in the rain for the GP2 drivers the track was still damp as the main event was due to begin. There was no rain predicted for the hour or so, so all drivers barring Nelso Piquet took the option of starting on dry tyres and braving it out for the first couple of laps. From the start everyone seemed to get away relatively cleanly and Hamilton lead comfortably going into La Source. Jarno Trulli had an incredible start and was scything through the field only to be bumped from behind be Sebastien Bourdais. This caused the field to bunch up and a number of cars to run wide, with Heikki Kovalainen being the big loser dropping from 3rd way down to 12th. Raikkonen was the beneficiary as he managed to get right in behind Massa through Eau Rouge and then tow straight past his team mate into Les Combes.

By this point Hamilton had gained himself a comfortable lead and was enjoying the clean air out front. Coming into La Source for the second time though the race changed complexion dramatically. Downshifting for the hairpin Hamilton locked his rear tyres and the back end snapped loose. The half spin meant Raikkonen went wide onto the run off zone for the second time in succession. Hamilton recovered his spin very quickly and managed to just maintain his lead through Eau Rouge, but Raikkonen was so close that he was able to draft straight by him on the straight just as he had done to Massa the lap before. Raikkonen had gone from 4th to 1st in less than two laps; it seemed that he was finally getting his act in gear after weeks of mediocre performances had the paddock and press doubting his championship credentials.

Raikkonen began to creep away from Hamilton slowly but surely, with his extra downforce really paying dividends through the second sector of the lap and Pouhon in particular. Hamilton was able to stay well ahead of Massa, and he in turn was ahead of Alonso who had had an excellent start. Kovalainen was beginning to recover from his awful start and was taking positions left right and centre from the mid field runners. However, his eagerness soon got the better of him as he got a little too bold into the Bustop trying to overtake Mark Webber, and he locked up on the greasy inside line and bumped the inside of Webber and earned himself a drive through penalty. Just as that was occurring the leaders came in to pit. Hamilton was in first, and unfortunately for him ended up rejoining the circuit right behind his team mate who in turn was now bunched up behind Kubica. What little chance Hamilton had of getting past Raikkonen in the pits had disappeared, as Raikkonen pitted next time round and was able to avoid all traffic and increase his lead easily.

For the rest of the second stint the status quo was more or less maintained. Raikkonen had a 5-6 second lead over Hamilton, and Hamilton himself had a similar gap over Massa. Behind them Alonso was maintaining fourth place well, and the two Toro Rosso drivers were having a great day. Bourdais was putting in easily his best performance of his F1 career, keeping the BMW of Kubica at arm's length, and Vettel right in behind Kubica. It looked likely as though the top three or four positions would remain as they were for the rest of the race.

Thankfully for the spectators though, the infamous Ardennes weather was about to have a say in the matter. Rain was predicted to fall with around 5 or 6 laps to go, with the potential to cause some real headaches for the strategists, and cause some real stress and difficulty for the drivers themselves. First things first, the second pit stops took place and the drivers all switched to the less fancied prime tyre. Immediately Raikkonen did not look comfortable on the less grippy tyre, and Hamilton began to close in on him at a rate of knots. In looked that Hamilton may even have a chance of getting past Kimi before the rain fell, as he closed the gap to around 1.5 seconds. However, Raikkonen suddenly got to grips with the new tyres and was able to stabilise the gap at about 2 secs. Any rain now would surely set up a grand stand finish for the final laps...

And so it proved! With about 6 laps remaining light spots of rain started to fall all around the track, and the track started to get visibly slippier and the lap times increased dramatically. Hamilton was again closing on Raikkonen, and as the rain worsened Hamilton got to within striking distance. On the run up to the Bus Stop Hamilton forced Raikkonen to go very defensive, and he went for a pass around the outside. He looked to have made the position, but Kimi had other ideas. He forced Lewis wide and onto the escape road. Hamilton was told on the radio to immediately give the position back, which he did very quickly. But no sooner was Raikkonen back in front than Hamilton was attacking again. He sold him a dummy on the outside and jinked to the inside to take the lead. Kimi got a little too close to comfort at La Source trying to regain the lead and actually hit the back of Hamilton. Lewis was unfazed though, and he headed off down to Eau Rouge with his lead intact.

The rain was getting worse and worse, and each and every corner was becoming a voyage into the unknown with regards to grip levels, especially for those still trying to fight for position and without the option of taking it cautiously. Raikkonen clearly wasn't giving up without a fight, and was pushing Hamilton all the way. When they reached Fagnes chicane they came across Nico Rosberg who was recovering from a spin, and Hamilton was forced wide and onto the grass, allowing Kimi back in front. It seemed a cruel stroke of luck for Hamilton as it seemed to have stolen his victory away from him. However, Raikkonen's lead was incredibly short lived as he spun almost immediately, letting Hamilton back through. Things really were getting dangerous out on track, a fact that was to be proved by Raikkonen on the exit of Blanchimont. Hamilton looked to have overcooked it slightly and ran right across the kerbing and white lines. Amazingly this didn't send him into a spin, and he was able to continue. Raikkonen wasn't so fortunate though, as he ran wide onto the concrete run off and the back snapped wide. He was then a passenger as his car skidded nose first into the barrier and was trashed, along with any realistic hope of Kimi retaining his title.

At this point many drivers chose to pit for intermediate tyres just for the final lap, but both Hamilton and Massa decided to brave it on dry tyres. It must have been the slowest final lap in history, as both drivers coasted home desperately trying to avoid an embarrassing incident. Both kept their cool and made it home safely to secure the points and make the title battle a close two horse race. Behind them all hell was breaking loose though, as those drivers who pitted for new tyres suddenly found themselves 30 seconds a lap faster than those in front. Heidfeld was the man to gain the most, as he stormed through the field to take a highly improbable podium finish, rounding off what had been a very good weekend for the German. Alonso too had an incredible final lap to take fourth place. Spare a thought though for the poor Toro Rosso drivers, particularly Bourdais. He and Vettel began the final lap third and fourth respectively, and on for the greatest finish in the team's history. However, at the chequered flag Vettel had dropped to fifth and Bourdais all the way down to seventh amidst the last lap chaos.

So going into Monza in just a week's time Lewis Hamilton has increased his championship lead over Felipe Massa, and Kimi Raikkonen's title challenge is all but over. Yet again Hamilton has proved to be the class of the field when the chips are down and the rain is falling. The McLaren may not quite be able to match the raw speed of the Ferrari at this point in the season, but if Hamilton continues this consistency and reliability the title may well be his to lose...

Race Results

1. Hamilton
2. Massa
3. Heidfeld
4. Alonso
5. Vettel
6. Kubica
7. Bourdais
8. Glock
9. Webber
10. Kovalainen
11. Coulthard
12. Rosberg
13. Sutil
14. Nakajima
15. Button
16. Trulli
17. Fisichella
18. Raikkonen ret
ret Barrichello
ret Piquet
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