Monza – it just sounds fantastic doesn’t it? One of Formula 1’s last true temples of speed played host to the Italian Grand Prix today and it was a race that says a lot about what we can expect for the remainder of the 2013 season.
“We need to be lucky and we need to have some DNFs from Sebastian or something to win the championship.”
The words of Fernando Alonso following today’s race. It was Ferrari’s home race and all of the team’s top brass were on hand, adding to the tension in the paddock. Felipe Massa’s career as a Ferrari driver is on the line and it was an important weekend for him to prove himself. After a failed drafting strategy by the team in yesterday’s Q3, Massa qualified ahead of his teammate, starting from P4. It’s the quickest we’ve seen Massa all season and begs the question of where his pace has been hiding? Massa has a history of doing some of his best driving under pressure, but why does his job need to be on the line in order for him to perform? Ferrari may be realizing that and his fate could already be determined. Despite Massa’s 4th place finish, there’s plenty of excellent talent vying for one of the top seats in Formula 1.
Despite his best attempts at a race win, Alonso came up short, unable to match the pace of Vettel’s Red Bull. It was a heroic drive in front of the tifosi and had there been another 5 laps in the race, we may have seen a different outcome. Both Red Bull’s were suffering from gearbox trouble in the final laps of the race and Alonso was closing in on Vettel. However, time ran out and the day ended with the Ferrari driver finishing 2nd. Say what you will about Alonso, he’s not afraid to get everything he can from the car.
Today’s race was telling because for the 4th year in a row, the Driver’s Championship may already be in the books. Harking back to Alonso’s comments earlier, it would take a severe turn of events to knock Vettel out of the lead. He’s now won half of all the Grands Prix in 2013 and we’re just over the halfway mark of the season.
Granted there’s a long second leg in Asia before the penultimate races in the Americas, but Vettel has such a commanding lead that reliability may be his only competition at this point. While a 4th Driver’s Championship would further cement his legacy, fans have become bored with the predictable nature of Red Bull’s near weekly success.
For the 7th race in a row, Vettel has been met with raucous boos on the podium. Everyone loves a winner, but win too much and they just might turn on you. It’s something Vettel will have to deal with for as long as he’s a Red Bull driver in an Adrian Newey car. Despite his skill, there are still questions of how much his success can be attributed to the car. If Vettel were to join another team and experience the same levels of success, the questions (and the boos) would cease.
Rounding out the podium was Mark Webber. Today was his best result at the track and a fitting end to his final European leg in the sport. Webber is one of the last gentleman racers in Formula 1 and the sport will be lacking in his absence. His retirement brings attention to the “old guard” moving on and the transitional period to come. More seats at the front runners will begin to open up over the next 5 years and it will be interesting to see who will rise to the occasion.
Nico Hulkenberg could be one such driver. Labeled by many (myself included) as the “best of the rest,” Hulkenberg had a fantastic weekend at Monza and a much needed boost to a woeful season at Sauber. After qualifying P3 yesterday, Hulkenberg did his best to fend off attacks from Nico Rosberg and Daniel Ricciardo to finish 5th overall. It’s a massively impressive result, especially considering the lack of pace Sauber have had all season. I argued that McLaren were foolish to pass over Hulkenberg when Lewis Hamilton left the team last year. He’s got all of the qualifications to be a future World Champion, he just needs the right team behind him. One seat that he would be the ideal candidate for is Massa’s at Ferrari. While it’s not certain whether Massa will leave the team, the chance for Hulkenberg to drive alongside Alonso would be his best opportunity for 2014.
While Monza played to the advantages of Red Bull and Ferrari this weekend, Mercedes, Lotus and McLaren struggled. After winning it last year, many projected Hamilton to be the favorite in Italy. In yesterday’s Q2, he was held up in the Parabolica by Force India’s Adrian Sutil – read into that what you will. Sutil was handed a 3 grid spot penalty and Hamilton was unable to break into Q3. After starting from 12th, the Mercedes driver suffered a slow puncture that forced an early, unscheduled pit stop. Hamilton did his best to fight his way up the grid, including some nice wheel-to-wheel racing with Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button, but ultimately the best he could do was a 9th place finish.
A downbeat Hamilton said after the race that he wasn’t happy to fight for bad positions, this coming from a driver who came into the season happy to write the whole thing off in favor of 2014. Hamilton has certainly experienced great success (relatively speaking) with his new team but the funk he was in during his final seasons with McLaren seems to have carried over somewhat into 2013. More than any other driver currently in the sport, Hamilton’s private life plays an immense role in his on track performance. It raises questions that he may be his biggest enemy, when it comes to winning Championships in the future.
McLaren have publicly written off 2013 in favor of putting all of their efforts into next season. It’s an unusual sight for a McLaren team to be pleased just scoring points, rather than fighting for podiums and this will go down as one of the team’s worst seasons ever. The hope is that a renewed alliance with Honda and the massive change in technical regulations will play to McLaren’s favor in the coming seasons.
Button has made it known that he’d like to finish his career with the team, as he goes into contract negotiations at the end of this season. While he’ll likely stay, questions surround his teammate’s fate. One of the primary reason’s in McLaren’s split second hiring of Sergio Perez was for the benefit of potential funding from the World’s richest man, Carlos Slim, who has ties to the driver.
With Vodafone ending their partnership with McLaren, the presence of Perez invites Mexican business interest in the team moving forward. The pay driver argument comes into play, given Perez’s performance this season and should Slim opt out of funding the team, there’s little reason for McLaren to stay loyal to the Mexican after 2014. That story line will be an interesting one as it plays out next season.
The 2013 Italian Grand Prix was hardly the most exciting Formula 1 race of the season, but the passionate tifosi and historic venue made it the usual spectacle we’ve come to love.
For those of us watching the race in the United State, NBC Sports’s coverage seems to be resembling that of SPEED’s more and more each race weekend. A smaller studio set and the network’s acquisition of Barclay’s Premier League telecasts, hints at less of NBC’s attention being put into Formula 1. While they have upped their game on extended coverage throughout the race weekend, the sheer volume of commercial breaks during live coverage has become infuriating. While the network has no control over FOM’s World feed, the cutaways to “Wish You Were Here” spotlights of the venues and promos for the network’s other featured sports during the race, is unfortunate. 2 weeks ago, many of the Spa’s best moments were overlooked during commercial breaks and unnecessary replays. While I commend the work of Will Buxton and the insight of Steve Matchett (two of the best in the business), surely NBC Sports – a premium pay channel – could be offering so much more, including commercial free coverage during qualifying and races.
The European leg of Formula 1’s 2013 season is officially in the books. The teams now head back to Asia for the second time this season. The Singapore Grand Prix in 2 weeks!
Photos courtesy of F1 Fanatic.