Fernando Alonso ingratiated himself further with the tifosi by winning first time out for Ferrari at the Italian Grand Prix, but the Spaniard was made to work for his spoils by the McLaren of reigning world champion Jenson Button.
Alonso had already ensured a capacity crowd at the former royal park at Monza by planting his F10 on pole, ahead of Button, but could do little about the Briton as the lights went out, with the higher downforce levels of the MP4-25 – and a tardy start by the Ferrari – allowing Button to scythe ahead on the run to the Variante del Rettifilio. Alonso did what he could to deter his rival, jinking right in an effort to block his progress, but Button braved it out and had the inside line.
The Spaniard’s start also allowed team-mate Felipe Massa to take a look at second place, the pair going side-by-side through the chicane after the Brazilian benefited from tows from both front row men. That compromised Alonso’s line into the left-hander and, after clipping the kerb, the nose of the Spaniard’s car made solid contact with the rear of Button’s. Although both men survived the brush, their mounts showed the scars of battle, with the McLaren losing part of its rear wing endplate and a strake from its diffuser, and the Ferrari having the tip of its nose removed.
Alonso, however, had to slot into second as Button eased away into the Variante della Roggia, while Massa, slowed after running wheel-to-wheel with his team-mate, now had his hands full with the second McLaren of Lewis Hamilton. The points leader coming into the race, Hamilton had been frustrated when his decision to run low downforce and without the McLaren’s F-duct had resulted in only fifth on the grid, but had made a blinding start to jump past Mark Webber, and fancied his chances against Massa into the second chicane.
Unfortunately, the Briton wasn’t quite far enough alongside to convince Massa to yield, but also failed to back out of the move. His right front wheel grazed the side of the Ferrari, but could not avoid heftier contact with its left rear, breaking the McLaren’s track rod in the process. Apparently unaware of the damage, the 2008 world champion continued as far as the Lesmos but, after ploughing into the gravel when it proved unable to turn, his car was going no further.
With the second McLaren out, the top three were able to break away, with the expected threat from Red Bull failing to materialise at the start. With Webber slipping back to ninth after being too cautious into the first turn and then taking to the gravel at Roggia, and team-mate Sebastian Vettel also losing a place to sit in seventh, it was left to Nico Rosberg to take up the pursuit, but the German quickly fell several second behind and continued to lose ground. Robert Kubica and Nico Hulkenberg also got ahead of Vettel on the opening lap, with Michael Schumacher – up from twelfth after successfully navigating the midfield mix-up at the Rettifilio – slotting in between the two RB6s.
Although there was very little damage at the opening corner, Force India’s Adrian Sutil saw his hope of points disappear later in the lap, an incident prompting the German to pit and get his mandatory tyre stop out of the way shortly afterwards. The tactic appeared to be paying off as Sutil carved his way through the backmarkers, but a second stop ultimately put paid to anything better than 16th.
There were only 22 runners at the end of the lap, as Kamui Kobayashi’s gearbox problems prevented him from leaving the pits, and Bruno Senna added to the retirements a dozen laps later after pulling off, but there was very little action up front once the race settled down. Button spent a lot of his time with one eye on the mirrors, attempting to determine how much of a gap he had over Alonso as the differently set-up McLaren proved good through the turns but slower on the straights.
Behind them, only Webber’s turn one pass on a stubborn Michael Schumacher on lap six shuffled the early order, but the Australian was on the move again 13 laps later, when he sailed past Red Bull team-mate Vettel. The German’s pace took a sudden drop, and left Vettel reporting a suspected engine problem, but a few tweaks advised from the pit-wall soon had the German back up to speed, albeit at the cost of valuable ground.
Button continued to lead through half-distance, the gap to Alonso ebbing and flowing as each made the minutest of mistakes and began to deal with the inevitable traffic, but it became ever more likely that the performance of their respective pit crews could determine the outcome. Kubica began the stops among the frontrunners, resuming in ninth place after his change of tyres, and Button soon got the call to ‘push’ as McLaren prepared to follow suit.
The Briton needed as big a cushion as possible if he was to overcome the power deficit his set-up dictated, but two laps, even as fast as he could go, did not appear to be enough. Alonso and Ferrari shadowed the leader until he peeled off, then floored the Ferrari, trying to make the most of its lighter downforce levels to claw back precious tenths. Button resumed in third, Massa also close enough to move ahead while the McLaren pitted, and remained there when Alonso made his stop a lap later, the Ferrari
team able to capitalise on the Spaniard’s in-lap.
Massa wasn’t quite able to repeat the feat, and rejoined in third after his stop, but Ferrari’s tactics appeared to have paid off as Alonso made use of the clear road ahead of him to ease away from Button. The Spaniard quickly put full seconds between himself and second place, sealing the Scuderia’s first home win since Schumacher’s emotional farewell in 2006. Even a trip over the Rettifilio kerbs while distracted by a tailender could not deny Alonso, with Button now having Massa in his mirrors and focused on not losing second place.
At the same time as the lead was changing hands, Webber’s pursuit of decent points was scuppered by Hulkenberg, who cut the chicane under pressure, but refused to yield sixth place to the Australian after getting back on track. Despite the matter being referred to the stewards, no action was forthcoming, and it took fully twelve laps before the Red Bull found a way by.
Ironically, Hulkenberg had already helped Webber gain one place, inadvertently baulking Kubica and allowing the Australian to get around the Renault for seventh on lap 36, but his subsequent actions did little to find favour with the Red Bull driver as the delay allowed Vettel to come back into the reckoning. The German had responded to his early glitch by posting faster and faster laps and, by delaying his tyre stop for as long as possible, had moved into fourth place with a little over ten laps to run.
Even though Webber began to eat into the gap, Vettel’s half of the Red Bull garage refused to blink, waiting until the very last moment before calling their man in for tyres and leaving him just one lap to survive on the supposedly inferior prime Bridgestone. Vettel had around 23 seconds in hand over Webber when he stopped, with Rosberg between them on the road, and returned to the fray with both rivals still in his mirrors. Neither was able to challenge over the final 3.6 miles and Vettel’s punching of the air appeared as joyful as the race winner’s.
Behind Webber, Hulkenberg was a little over a second clear of Kubica in the battle for seventh, with Schumacher comfortably heading Williams’ Rubens Barrichello in the final scoring positions. Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi had temporarily occupied a top ten slot in the early going, but had to settle for eleventh at the chequered flag, while Tonio Liuzzi came through to claim twelfth for a disappointing Force India team, having started from 20th. Vitaly Petrov, who lined up next to Liuzzi after a blocking penalty was applied after qualifying, took 13th, ahead of Pedro de la Rosa and Jaime Alguersuari, who struggled to make progress after a drive-thru’ for cutting the chicane in the opening laps. Behind the lacklustre Sutil, Timo Glock won the newcomers battle for Virgin by just two seconds over Lotus’ Heikki Kovalainen, but both saw their respective team-mates retire in the closing stages, allowing Sakon Yamamoto to fill the final classified position.
Hamilton’s retirement, Webber’s struggles and podium finishes for two of the three men who failed to score in Belgium have all helped to shuffle the championship picture as F1 leaves Europe for the five ‘flyaway’ races that will close out the season. Webber’s damage limitation exercise proved sufficient to move him back to the head of the table, turning a three-point deficit to Hamilton into a five-point advantage, while Alonso’s victory now makes him the leading threat to the top two, albeit 21 points off the top. Button remains fourth, a point further back, while Vettel, despite his fourth place, slips to sixth overall, but still within a race win of his team-mate.
Hamilton’s DNF has also allowed Red Bull, despite possibly its worst show of the year, to retake the lead in the constructors’ championship, with three points now separating it from McLaren. The Milton Keynes team believes it will be back on form in Singapore – and for the rest of the season – while McLaren will be wary of the renewed Ferrari threat as the title battle intensifies on the road to Abu Dhabi.