Saturday, 13 October 2012

2008 Italian Grand Prix - Monza

September 14, 2008

The Autodromo Nazionale di Monza is one of those special places at which Formula 1 cars race. It is said by some that Formula One is a religion in Italy. If that is accurate, then Monza is it's cathedral, the Prancing Horse it's cross, and the tifosi are it's disciples.

The 1988 season however, left them little to worship. The McLaren-Hondas in the hands of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna were all but untouchable. They had won all the Grands Prix thus far that season, and there was little hope that the tifosi could wish for more than third place for their beloved Scuderia at the Italian Grand Prix. Their one shining star was Gerhard Berger. The young Austrian proved to be the main challenger, how ever hopeless it seemed, to the McLarens throughout the season and at Monza he had the added motivation that the team's venerable Commendatore, and founder, Enzo Ferrari passed away less than one month before. A victory in Italy would be a fitting tribute.

1988 Italian GP - Berger conquers the almighty McLarens. 
Fate did not go McLaren's way that day. This was Monza after all. Prost was out just after half distance with a blown engine. Senna was well in front, but the Honda mechanics had to re-map his engine to ensure that it did not go up in smoke like the Frenchman's. With Senna running more conservatively Berger came back into the picture. Knowing that the Ferraris were catching him Senna came up to lap Jean-Louis Schlesser (Williams), sitting in for Nigel Mansell who was out sick, he didn't have time to waste getting past. Schlesser locked-up his tyres on the entry to the Rettifilo chicane. Senna, seeing the Williams wide to the right, well off line, went for the overtake. Schlesser made the first corner though and was on the apex of the second when Senna arrived at the same point. The two touched and Senna spun across the next kerb and was beached with rear wheels in the air. The two scarlet cars of Berger and Alboreto blasted past now first and second leaving the tifosi ecstatic for the last few laps until Berger took the chequered flag for a remarkable victory.

On that day, in Heppenheim, Germany, Sebastian Vettel was one year, two months and 8 days old.

Fast forward in time twenty years, and three days to the 2008 Italian Grand Prix. Gerhard Berger had become the co-owner of Scuderia Toro Rosso, and Vettel, now  a protégé of the Red Bull Junior Team is his driver. The team (previously Minardi) was formed for the 2006 season to act as a junior/sister squad to the premiere outfit Red Bull Racing. Vettel, the youngest driver to ever take part in a Grand Prix weekend and the youngest to score a World Championship point, joined the team during the latter half of the 2007 season replacing the American Scott Speed. Prior to him joining Toro Rosso the team's best result was an eighth place finish.  In his sixth race for the team Vettel scored a remarkable fourth place finish in China. His talent and potential was plain for all to see, but he was driving a Toro Rosso after all and so it was felt that his true form would only be seen once Ron Dennis (McLaren) or Luca di Montezemolo (Ferrari) came calling. As it turned out, the Toro Rosso was all Vettel would need to fully display his innate ability.

At Monza the young German stunned everyone by capturing the pole position on Saturday in very wet conditions, becoming the youngest driver in Formula One history ever to do so. He was joined on the front row of the grid by Heikki Kovalainen (McLaren) with Mark Webber (Red Bull) in third. An impressive performance for sure from Vettel, but few backed him to maintain this position for very long in the race. Most felt that both Kovalainen and Webber would overwhelm him early and battle for the win. Vettel was expected to score points or perhaps a podium at best .. he was racing in a Toro Rosso after all.

2008 Italian GP - Vettel shows true pace to capture the pole position.
On Sunday heavy rain prior to the race made the track very slippery, with more rain expected throughout the day. It was not too surprising then that all chose to start the race on the extreme wet weather tyres or that the race would begin behind the safety car. After the second lap the safety car pulled off into the pit lane whereupon Vettel got away perfectly. This, of course, was absolutely crucial. With the rain coming down as it was only the leader could properly see where he was going with any confidence. Sebastian made the most of this advantage, and in the early laps the Toro Rosso was as much as 20kph faster than any other on Monza's long straights. By lap 18, when he made his first stop, he had built up a lead of twelve seconds over Kovalainen.

By now the worst of the rain had passed, but still there was no question of switching from "full wet" tyres to intermediates. Vettel temporarily dropped to fourth place, but as Kovalainen, Mark Webber (Red Bull) and Felipe Massa (Ferrari) came in for their stops, he retook the lead, and thereafter never lost it.

By the time of Vettel's second stop, on lap 36, conditions had improved to the point that now intermediates were the thing to have, and this worked much to the interests of the drivers who started the race with a heavy load of fuel on board and planned only on a single stop.

Vettel easily held the lead and never came under the remotest threat. 
With virtually everyone on intermediates, Vettel's performance came into perspective. By lap 38, seventh placed Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) began lapping fastest recording a 1:32.869, more than a second faster than the leader Vettel. Hamilton's team-mate, Kovalainen, however could make no impression on the German.

Asked about the closing laps afterwards, Vettel said, "Sometimes I was thinking 'there is still P1 on my board, how can it be? I am fuelled to finish, there is nothing, no pit stops, so just keep it together.' Then I have to say I was extremely focussed every lap. I didn't lift and try to save the engine or the tyres or anything. Of course I was looking after my car. I was trying to keep attention because especially towards the end when there was kind of a dry line throughout some corners it was crucial to stay on that dry line. Just half a metre too wide and you can be off..."

He did keep it together and was dutifully able to maintain the twelve second gap to the chequered flag becoming the youngest Grand Prix winner in Formula One history. This astounding victory also marked the first win by Scuderia Toro Rosso, who were in the process the first non-Ferrari Italian-based team to win since 1957.

How on earth did this kid and this tiny team pull off such a remarkable victory? There had to be a catch somewhere, didn't there? During the race Vettel set only the fourteenth fastest lap. The only retirement of the race was Giancarlo Fisichella (Force India), so all the top teams and drivers made it to the end. The drivers of the primary Red Bull outfit, Webber and David Coulthard could only manage eighth and sixteenth respectively. This was not luck, nor a fluke. Vettel and Toro Rosso undeniably deserved this victory fair and square. Perfect strategy, excellent decision making, measured aggression and flawless driving in extremely difficult conditions is how the minnow ate the shark(s) that day. And it was beautiful to see.

Those who sold Vettel short before the race witnessed first-hand what this young talent was truly capable of ... even with inferior machinery.

"Obviously I had a bit of an advantage in the beginning when I was probably the only one with trouble-free vision." He said after the race. "But it was never easy. I knew that I would stop earlier than the others. I didn't know how much earlier, so I was pushing very hard . Sometimes I nearly lost the car - I was always trying to drive on the edge."

Remarkable victory - Vettel becomes the youngest GP winner in history.
And while the maturity of his drive was impressive, his celebration over the radio and on the podium clearly displayed the enthusiasm that is the hallmark of youth. This, mixed with the magical atmosphere that is Monza made for something truly special. The uninhibited joy on the face of a winner, and a lovely thing too, to see Berger, who won at Monza twenty years earlier, back on that very same podium, now in the role as a team owner and cheered to the rafters by the tifosi, who do not forget.

Berger had no doubts about the ability of his young star. "His intelligence and the way he works is great," he said. "I have to say I really underestimated the potential of this boy."

Boy indeed, But at twenty-one years, two months and eleven days old, and with just 22 Grand Prix starts to his name, there was very little that could be described as immature about Sebastian Vettel. The fact he won the Italian Grand Prix at all was startling enough, but the manner in which he took this victory was even more remarkable. He won from the front, on merit, beating all of the established aces with a measured, calm performance reminiscent of the great drivers of the past. One had to remind themselves that this was all new to him.

"... it feels just great. The last lap, the lap after the chequered flag, the whole podium ceremony, it was all great."

Giant Killers: Berger and Vettel share a moment on the podium.
It was new as well to the little team from Faenza, Italy ... and the young German realized this to. "I have seen every possible angle of the grid now and it is difficult when you always start from the back and you have to fight your way. You might finish a race in P15 without anyone noticing, but you still might have done a very good job, so you can still be happy and you can walk out of the paddock and be proud of yourself and the team. Now we can be proud of ourselves, celebrating a victory. It is great. To say these words together it sounds unbelievable. From where we started last year the team, the mentality has changed so much. The atmosphere is fantastic. Everybody is extremely motivated. When I jumped in the car before the race everybody said 'ok, now destroy them or push like hell.' All the guys were joking and were happy and looking forward. In that sense you could say we had the balls to do it today. Compared to BMW, or McLaren-Mercedes, or Ferrari we haven't got the amount of manpower at home in the factory .... we have about 160 people working in Faenza and everyone today feels very special and can feel very special. I am one of them."

It was an extremely exceptional performance. One that even their rivals were happy to acknowledge. "I'm delighted for him," said Ron Dennis. "Whatever the circumstances, and they weren't easy in practice or the race, he got the job done. It's easy to create reasons why, but at the end of the day he did a fantastic job, and he deserved to win. I'm pleased for him and Gerhard."

Great drivers are evident no matter what car they drive. And while Italy 2008 was the minnow's day of days, it was clear that Vettel's talent and his ability to galvanize the team around him was the crucial factor in achieving victory.


  1. Outstanding drive from Vettel. I still find it hard to believe that he was able to win in what was essentially the Minardi team. Truly brilliant.

  2. Cool connection between Berger's win and Vettel's.