Sebastian Vettel Overcomes Immense Pressure From Ferrari to Finish First at Italian GP
“The Man With the Pointy Finger, ” as Nic likes to call him, has finished in first place for the 6th time this season, despite incredible pressure from Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa to win at home. While the current World Champion led the drivers for the majority of the race, his lead began slipping at the very end to the fast pace set by Alonso. Transmission problems in the low gears hindered both Red Bull racers, but Vettel and Webber were able to keep the hometown heroes at bay to secure podium finishes. The crimson sea that flooded the podium viewing area greeted the race winner with deafening jeers and boos, something he attributed to not heading an Italian team. Although Webber had shut out 4th place finisher Massa, similar vitriol was not reserved for the Aussie.
It was a Red Bull front row at race start, with Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg surprisingly starting in third; Massa and Alonso began in 4th and 5th, respectively. Statistics hounds had a field day, pointing out that Lewis Hamilton’s extremely disappointing qualifying performance relegated the 2008 World Champion out of Q3 for the first time in 67 Grands Prix. Also suffering from surprisingly bad results was Kimi Räikkönen, who shared Row 6 with Hamilton.
The commencement of the 2013 Italian Grand Prix was loaded with action. Massa and Alonso rocketed past Hulkenberg, while Massa was able to overtake Webber to slot in behind Vettel as the drivers bunched up and created dangerous traffic in Turn 1; that traffic unfortunately saw an accident involving Räikkönen and Sergio Pérez. Räikkönen collided with Pérez amid possibly locked tires, sending Pérez careening off track but allowing him to (slowly) rejoin the pack after the chicane. Räikkönen suffered front end damage that would send him immediately to the pits next lap. The next set of switchbacks would prematurely end the race for Paul di Resta. Di Resta attempted to thread his temporarily disabled car through a gap between Romain Grosjean and Adrian Sutil, but he rammed into the back of Grosjean and nearly ripped off his front tire. Thermal imaging, which made its first appearance in this race, shows di Resta’s tires locking up before the chicane.
Räikkönen’s pit stop placed him at the back and severely hampered his chances of catching up to Alonso in the Driver’s Championship. At the front, Alonso pulled away from Räikkönen even further by dispatching Webber and joining his Ferrari teammate in the top 3 as both attempted to close the gap between the Ferraris and Vettel. The Champion was having none of it, and increased his lead lap by lap. Massa was eventually given a team order to let the quicker Alonso pass to bring the fight to Red Bull.
Hamilton, in the back half of the race at this point, was given the command to pit to stop a slow puncture in his right tire from becoming a catastrophe. His tire change forced him to the rear of the drivers not far from Räikkönen.
By Lap 23, Vettel’s lap times began to cede to Alonso’s, and he had to switch tires to stay competitive. Unfortunately, the Ferrari boys waited too long to call in Alonso for a rubber change, and Vettel began to shut down Alonso’s lead. By the time the Ferrari reentered the field, Vettel had built a substantial lead. Due to his one stop tire strategy, Vettel was able to more or less coast until the end of the race. In the rear, Räikkönen quickly moved from 14th to 7th in just a couple of laps thanks to pit stops from other drivers as well as his own exceptional talent. The comeback wouldn’t last long, as a tire change in Lap 33 again saw the Finn in 14th.
In Lap 43, both Red Bulls seemed to develop transmission issues, especially in gears 2 through 4. Vettel and Webber were told to adopt a short shifting technique to preserve the lower gears, but the drivers appeared to gamble and not take the advice, given their strong corner exits. It is fortunate that Monza has relatively few turns, otherwise the ignored commands could have proven disastrous.
By Lap 49, the gap between Vettel and Alonso began to close. Vettel, never one to conserve tires even while leading by a considerable amount, was finally experiencing the repercussions for his driving style. The tires had started to deteriorate and the lap times were going to Alonso. A 10 second lead turned into a 5 second one, but the race was thankfully over for Vettel before Alonso could catch up. Despite a front end collision in the third lap that damaged his wing, Webber finished in a not-distant third behind Alonso, whose teammate Massa followed in a much-needed 4th place victory. Hulkenberg, who began the race in a surprising third, finished in an incredible 5th place, his best result all season. Guest announcer and racing legend Mario Andretti predicted it would be a career-changing performance. Hamilton was able to rebound from the race somewhat, finishing in 9th, while Räikkönen ended in 11th, his second non-points finish for the second consecutive race.