Following a brilliant Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps that saw Kimi Raikkonen get Ferrari's maiden win of 2009, Formula 1 arrived at the historic Autodromo Nazionale Monza for Ferrari's home race, the Italian Grand Prix. The race at Monza has always been a very special one because no other team sees anywhere near the level of support on their home races as much as Ferrari does here. The Tifosi from all over the world come out in their hundreds and thousands to show their overwhelming love and passion for the legendary Italian marque.
Even besides the sea of Reds in the grandstands, the circuit itself always provides superb racing. Monza does not have a lot of corners but its long and fast straights coupled with the slow speed chicanes provide the ultimate test for a car's engine and gearbox. Like Spa-Francorchamps, cars with low downforce levels perform the best here but unlike Spa, cars really need to have the lowest levels of downforce of the year and the best engines powering them to win a race at Monza. Aerodynamics are a crucial part of the performance of a Formula 1 car, and the lower is the downforce, the higher will be the car's top speed at the expense of grip and handling at slow and medium speed corners. That is why, every year, teams come to Monza with an aerodynamic package particularly suited to Monza because of its unique characteristics. Ferrari is a religion in Italy and it becomes very clear when one visits this race track during a Formula 1 race weekend, but this year the Scuderia did not quite have the pace to challenge for a win here. The triumphant team was BrawnGP who returned to form with their first one-two finish this year since the Monaco Grand Prix.
Over the practice sessions on Friday and Saturday, it was getting quite clear that the Mercedes engines were the best and the most powerful in the field. It was confirmed at the end of the Qualifying session on Saturday that saw all six of the Mercedes-Benz powered cars (the 2 McLarens, the 2 BrawnGPs and the 2 Force Indias) qualify within the top seven. The only car, seemingly out of place, was Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari in 3rd place.
Although traditionally teams always opt for a one-stop strategy at Monza, as that is the quickest strategy, in recent years a two-stop pit strategy have been experimented with as it is faster in theory. The idea is that the lighter cars, on a two-stop strategy, should get away in front and build up an advantage early on in the race big enough to counter for their extra pit stop as opposed to the one-stoppers. So the top 3 cars on the starting grid, Hamilton on pole ahead of Sutil's Fore India and Raikkonen's Ferrari, were all on a two-stop strategy. Every other car behind them on the grid were on a one-stop strategy. On that note, it can be said that the two BrawnGPs were the fastest cars as they qualified 5th and 6th with the heaviest fuel load of anybody in the top ten. Kovalainen, who qualified 4th, was on a one-stopper but was slightly lighter on fuel than the BrawnGPs. This was good news for BrawnGP, and particularly for Championship leader Jenson Button, who has had a difficult time over the last few races and was keen to get back on form in this race. Behind Barrichello in 5th and Button in 6th, Liuzzi, Alonso, Vettel and Webber completed the top ten.
At the start of the race, pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton did not have a particularly good start and was almost about to be overtaken by Raikkonen before he forced the Ferrari to marginally go out wide on the grass on the main straight. Raikkonen backed off slightly but remained glued to the back of Hamilton's McLaren, and going into the first chicane the Finn overtook Adrian Sutil to take 2nd place. Behind them, the two BrawnGPs made tremendous starts as Rubens Barrichello was up in 4th place by the time he got to the first chicane. By the end of lap 1, Jenson Button and Vitantonio Luizzi in the Force India had also overtaken McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen who made a bad start. Although, unlike the last race, there were no big pile ups on the opening lap, the only incident was involving Robert Kubica and Mark Webber when the BMW hit Webber's Red Bull going into the Ascari chicane on lap 1. As a result, Webber spun and crashed into the barriers ending his race immediately. This incident caused some damage to Kubica's front wing as well. Part of his front wing left end-plate was hanging out quite dangerously for a while before Kubica was forced to come in to the pits by Race Control to replace his front wing. That unscheduled pit stop put Kubica right at the back of the field before he retired on lap 15, citing an oil leak.
Meanwhile at the front, as Alonso overtook Kovalainen on lap 3, race leader Lewis Hamilton was setting a string of fastest laps. Round about lap 9, Hamilton was more than 4.5 seconds clear of 2nd placed Raikkonen and was more than a second a lap faster than the BrawnGPs in 5th and 6th place. At the end of lap 13, Hamilton, who was now 6.5 seconds ahead of Raikkonen and 16 seconds ahead of Barrichello, set a new fastest lap of the race before making his first pit stop on the next lap. As Raikkonen took the race lead closely followed by Sutil, Barrichello and Button, Hamilton came out of his pit stop in 5th place ahead of Liuzzi.
Adrian Sutil pitted on lap 17 to come out in 7th just ahead of Kovalainen. Crucially, Raikkonen pitted in the next lap and came out in 5th place, ahead of the one-stopping Alonso and Sutil and behind Liuzzi. A bit later on lap 20, Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari retired with a gearbox failure.
At this stage, the two BrawnGPs had burnt off a lot of their fuel and were lapping almost half a second a lap faster than Hamilton's McLaren, with all three of these cars fighting for victory. On lap 22, Hamilton was more than 11 seconds behind race leader Barrichello. Force India's Vitantonio Luizzi, who replaced Fisichella at the Silverstone based team, was forced to retire at this stage with a gearbox failure.
On lap 26, Button made his one and only pit stop while his team mate set a new fastest lap of the race. Button came out from the pits in 5th place as Barrichello made his pit stop on the very next lap. The Brazilian came out in 4th place, ahead of team mate Jenson Button and behind the two-stopping Hamilton, Raikkonen and Sutil.
On lap 33, Lewis Hamilton made his second and last pit stop but more importantly came out just behind Button. This now meant that if the defending World Champion wanted to win the race, or finish any higher than 3rd place, he would have to overtake the BrawnGPs on the track. This would prove to be a tough ask as the BrawnGPs were clearly faster than the McLaren.
Meanwhile out in front, Raikkonen and Sutil were setting the fastest sector times of anybody on the track and both were lapping on similar pace. The Ferrari and the Force India both pitted on lap 36, and Raikkonen led the way out of the pits by rejoining the race in 4th place ahead of Sutil in 5th. From here on until the Chequered Flag, although Sutil's Force India was faster than Raikkonen and was closing in on the Ferrari at up to half a second per lap, the KERS-powered Ferrari did not have too much trouble keeping the Force India at bay.
On lap 45 and nearing the end of the race, the BrawnGPs were looking like as if they are cruising to the finish line. They simply were the fastest cars out there. However, Hamilton in 3rd place was pushing like crazy and despite having a slower car, was closing in on Button. Button was more than a second ahead of Hamilton and responded with a personal best lap time. He was now starting to close in on race leader Barrichello. Behind them, Raikkonen in 4th place was having to drive flat out to ensure that he can keep Sutil behind him, as the Force India was the faster car of the two.
On to lap 53 and the race leader Rubens Barrichello was coming up to the Parabolica on the final lap of the race, with team mate Button not far behind. However, the drama was not over yet, as Hamilton in 3rd place, almost a second behind Button but still driving beyond the limits of his car trying to overtake his fellow Briton, lost the rear end of his car coming out of Lesmo 2 and slammed into the barriers. The yellow flags were out which meant no more overtaking was allowed. The safety car also came out just as Rubens Barrichello took the Chequered Flag for the 2nd time this season and for the 8th time for his BrawnGP team. Jenson Button completed a BrawnGP one-two finish, their first one-two this year since Monaco but unlike earlier in the year, this time it was the Brazilian driver to come home first. Behind them, thanks to Hamilton's crash on the last lap, Raikkonen came in 3rd amidst wild cheers of the Tifosi. The Finn has now been on the podium for Ferrari for all of the last four races and with 30 points collected during that time, has earned more points than any other driver to consolidate his 5th place in the Drivers' World Championship.
Jenson Button, with 80 points, now has a 14-point lead over his team mate Rubens Barrichello and a mammoth lead over Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber in 3rd and 4th place. The Red Bull drivers have 54 and 51.5 points each respectively. Kimi Raikkonen is in 5th place with 40 points, and if his strong run of form continues like this, he could be eyeing 4th or even 3rd on the Drivers' World Championship. More crucially however, Championship leader Button now has one main title rival and that is his team mate. Although the Red Bull drivers are still mathematically in the running for the title, realistically it is a fight between Button and Barrichello now. As Monza marks the end of the European leg of the 2009 season, Button certainly has a decent advantage in the form of those 14 points over his team mate.
Being the Italian Grand Prix, I have to say a few words about Ferrari. The Tifosi were out in full force throughout the weekend and they certainly enjoyed and appreciated the team's effort despite not having the fastest car in the field. Raikkonen's 3rd place was the best Ferrari could have achieved with this year's car, since Maranello has already shifted all its focus on to the 2010 car while other teams are still developing the 2009 car. It was an absolute flawless and brilliant drive from Kimi Raikkonen. His team mate, home hero Giancarlo Fisichella, also drove pretty well given that this is his first race with Ferrari. He certainly needs some time adapting to the handling and braking characteristics of the KERS powered F60, which is a bit different to the non-KERS Force India car that he had been driving up until two weeks ago in Spa. Fisichella still drove pretty well, finishing in 9th place after starting from 14th on the grid, and near the end of the race was pretty close to Raikkonen's lap times. He should be able to fight for some decent points at the next race. Although his former Force India team had a faster car this weekend, being an Italian how could he have dreamt of anything more than driving a Ferrari! More importantly though, after a couple of dismal races with Luca Badoer, Ferrari finally seem to have found a worthy temporary replacement for the injured Felipe Massa. The Brazilian is not expected to return to Formula 1 until the start of the 2010 season.
What a fantastic way to say farewell to Europe for this season with two brilliant races at Spa and Monza, two of motorsport's most historic and legendary circuits. Formula 1 will return to Europe in 2010 for the start of the winter testing in January. Before that though, we have the glamorous night race at Singapore's Marina Bay street circuit, followed by Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix, then Interlagos for the Brazilian Grand Prix before we find ourselves at the brand new Yas Marina circuit for the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as the season finale. The Championship is set to go down to the wire with main contenders Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, both driving for BrawnGP, on the best form of their lives. Until Singapore, drive safely everyone!