As the European season rolls to a close, Nico Rosberg took another massive chunk out of Mercedes team mate Lewis Hamilton’s championship lead with a domineering win in a tepid and uninspiring Italian Grand Prix.
Hamilton took the flag in second, with Sebastian Vettel rounding out the top three, to the delight of the ever passionate tifosi, in a sombre mood beforehand due to the aftermath of the shocking earthquake that hit Central Italy just a little over a week ago.
Although Hamilton had dominated the weekend thus far at a track he has had great success at, all his hard work on Saturday was undone in a matter of metres, after a poor start allowed Rosberg to lead into Turn 1. The German never looked back, reducing the deficit further, with the final flyaway races imminent, the gap stands at just two points with seven races to go; the momentum lies with Rosberg, with two wins out of two after F1’s summer break. The Brit certainly has a fight on his hands, with Rosberg leading on number of victories additionally.
In Qualifying, the Mercedes duo easily captured the front row. Sebastian Vettel admitted that they were “in another league“, with Hamilton taking pole by over half a second. Saturday’s session also saw Haas qualify in the Top 10 for the first time, courtesy of the underfire Esteban Gutierrez.
Hamilton suffered a nightmare start – but took responsibility for it; music to Mercedes ears after their clutch problems earlier in the season. Suffering with wheelspin in the second phase of his getaway, the reigning champion saw Rosberg, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo all fly past him on the run down to the tight, manic Turn 1 – for the final time in the foreseeable future in F1.
As Hamilton’s recovery drive started, Rosberg started to stretch his legs, setting several fastest laps in succession on the soft tyres, with the two Ferraris in hot pursuit on the SuperSoft compound. Ricciardo was dispatched of by Hamilton, as he set off to catch Bottas, the Finn utilising the Williams’ prowess in a straight line to great effect; Hamilton’s rear tyres starting to wear by the lap, as he tried to maximise every traction zone – to no avail.
Up ahead, Raikkonen was also having troubles with his tyres, citing a vibration under braking on his first set of tyres. He kept in touch with Vettel, but started to lose time to the chasing Bottas and Hamilton, who eventually found a way through via the help of DRS on lap 10.
No such luck for his fellow Britons, Jenson Button was forced to miss the first chicane in avoidance action, Jolyon Palmer meanwhile was given no room by Felipe Nasr, giving him little choice but to clout the Sauber. Former rivals in Palmer’s GP2 championship winning season in 2014, both retired soon afterwards; Nasr shouldering the blame, receiving a pointless 10 second penalty.
Button did have some joy today, the day after he announced his inventive sabbatical to the world; passing team mate Fernando Alonso to claim twelfth place. Alonso had a bittersweet afternoon, McLaren’s pit release light defaulted and failed to go green, costing the Spaniard valuable seconds. Although he set the fastest lap on the last lap, he laughed down the radio at the thought of catching Romain Grosjean. No sign of his sense of humour waning.
Hamilton’s saving grace came in the form of strategy: both Ferraris on a more aggressive, two-stop strategy in order to keep in touch with the formidable Rosberg, but they couldn’t build the sufficient gap to keep Hamilton at bay, who had the unenviable task of carving into Rosberg’s 12 second lead.
Another driver who had a troublesome start was Max Verstappen, fresh from a wave of criticism and aggravation after his defensive tactics at Spa-Francorchamps seven days ago. The Dutchman went into anti-stall, losing positions hand over fist, producing a quiet, but solid recovery drive to seventh.
His Red Bull team mate Ricciardo spent most of his afternoon staring at the back of Bottas’ rear wing, but pulled off an audacious move on the Finn at Turn 1, that was greeted with a sly “sharka” going round the Curva Grande.
But, no one could even get close to Rosberg’s rear wing, his only worry was successfully negotiating traffic, which he did with flying colours. He didn’t class this race as a must win, but expressed his relief in finally breaking his Monza duck, after eleven attempts.
The German admitted that the race was “won at the start.”
“I got a really good start, I’ve really improved on that since the summer break” Rosberg noted, “After that, I knew it was my Sunday, because the Ferraris were just not quick enough to beat us.”
Hamilton was more reflective post-race, saying his day was all about “reducing the loss from the start“, and was frustrated by losing time whilst following Bottas.
He has time to regroup, as we move onto Singapore in a fortnight, with the season tightly poised for a tense, final showdown.