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September 14, 2008

F1: Italian Grand Prix

It was raining hard enough at the start of the race that the safety car was used to pace the field with a rolling start instead of the usual standing start. Sebastian Bourdais had to start from the pitlane due to the engine stalling while on the grid, giving up his well earned 5th place position. Teammate Sebastian Vettel started from pole. The field made a clean, cautious start – visibility was virtually nil. Everyone was on full rain tires.

One new(-ish) feature was the use of flashing yellow caution lights in some areas in addition to flags.

Gradually the track began to dry somewhat. Lewis Hamilton went from 14th to 8th within about 20 laps. His McLaren was well set up for the conditions. The Ferraris of Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa have not done well in the wet this season, it appears they’re not as well suited to some tire specs as the McLarens are. It is rumored they operate better with softer compounds and/or higher temperatures. So even though there is technically no “tire war” there is a rivalry among the teams to get Bridgestone to develop tires more suited to their individual chassis.

Hamilton appeared to be on a one stop strategy, a common tactic when starting from back in the pack. After his first stop he came out with clear track and was well positioned to challenge for the win, particularly since Massa, on a two stop strategy, came out behind a long queue of traffic.

While there was the continued threat of rain, toward the final third of the race the track definitely began to dry. Fernando Alonso was the first to switch to intermediate tires and immediately began to improve his lap times. Other drivers followed.

This is where luck plays a big factor. The longer a driver’s stint (or the fewer his planned stops) the less flexibility he has in changing tires without additional time cost if the weather conditions change. There’s simply less flexibility.

Hamilton was caught out by this. If the track had continued to stay wet he would’ve been in a good position at the end. Instead, he had to stop to make an additional stop to change to intermediates as well.

During a subsequent tussle Mark Webber and Hamilton banged wheels resulting in Webber missing the first chicane and using the escape road. He was able to continue.

David Coulthard seems unable to get through a race without making contact with other cars. It’s not always his fault but he’s been involved in more than his fair share of incidents. Today’s collision with a Williams in the Parabolica just added to that tally.

To make matters worse Massa and Hamilton were not far behind the incident and Massa ran over some of the debris.

In the end Vettel won his first grand prix in style. There are striking similarities between his rise to F1 and that of Michael Schumacher (young German blitzes the F1 world and starts winning in cars that no one thought could win). Hopefully this is the first of many wins for him.

Massa finished 6th and Hamilton 7th so Hamilton retains his championship lead by one point. Kimi Raikkonen finished a distant 9th, unable to score points. He did, however, score the fastest lap of the race (on the last lap no less), but that was too little too late. He’s done that regularly this season, and a contributing factor is probably his poor qualifying positions cause him not to have clear track until the late stages of the races, the fuel load is low, tires scrubbed, and the track nicely broken in – exactly how he should perform in qualifying to avoid low starting positions.

The podium consisted entirely of first time winners in 2008 as Vettel was followed home by Heikki Kovalainen and Robert Kubica. And who’d have thought Gerhard Berger would ever be on an F1 podium again after retiring as a driver? He was there to collect Scuderia Toro Rosso’s constructor’s trophy.

It was a fantastic result that few could’ve expected. Next season Vettel will be in the Red Bull “senior” team and should go very well.

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