These days, with the world championship getting closer and closer to being clinched, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that a Sebastian Vettel win wouldn’t be the most popular result in Monza this weekend. But let’s revisit a time when the world was universally overjoyed with his success and smiled at the sight of the ‘Vettel finger’.
Vettel’s ascent to superstardom actually came at an ideal time for Formula One which was having to withstand a barrage of criticism following the unsatisfactory ending to the previous Grand Prix at Spa. After a battle for the ages with Kimi Raikkonen in devilishly difficult conditions, Lewis Hamilton crossed the line to take what he thought was a pivotal victory in his title tussle with Felipe Massa. Instead, he would leave Belgium with his title lead slashed to two points, rather than the eight it would have been, after stewards ruled his overtake on Raikkonen at Le Source two laps from the finish was illegal and handed the win to Massa.
The sense of injustice was reflected in the British media in the days following the Spa controversy with the FIA perceived to have done Ferrari a turn and interfered with the championship situation but whatever the rights and wrongs, a cloud hung over the sport as it arrived in Monza and not just those rolling into Northern Italy with large quantities of rain.
The impending downpour was set to provide a unique and thrilling spectacle in the weekend that lied ahead. If history had told us anything, a wet Italian Grand Prix was as likely as a Minardi challenging for victory but the plucky tailenders that morphed into Red Bull’s junior team in 2006 were a completely different animal these days. In September 2008, as the Italian heavens opened, the Faenza squad’s perfect storm had finally arrived.
With the exception of FP2 on Friday, every session took place in the wet and that spelled trouble for the championship contenders in Q2. Timing was everything as rain began to fall with greater intensity early in the session and it soon became clear that McLaren and Ferrari had got theirs all wrong. Heikki Kovalainen was the exception as he cruised through to Q3 but his teammate was stranded in the drop zone, leaving him fifteenth, one place behind Kimi Raikkonen. Felipe Massa somehow scraped through in tenth but the title challengers would be consigned to the role of supporting players from there on in.
Vettel was the quickest of all in Q2 after Toro Rosso kept their cool in the changing conditions and with tyre choice much more clear cut for Q3, there was nothing to stop the 21 year old taking pole position. The German proceeded to beat Kovalainen by seven hundredths of a second with his future teammate Mark Webber qualifying third ahead of his current one, Sebastien Bourdais in fourth. Massa was sixth behind the Williams of Nico Rosberg.
With the rain unrelenting, the race was unsurprisingly started behind the safety car and Toro Rosso’s joy was tempered by the sight of Sebastien Bourdais stationary as the cars left the grid. The Frenchman had stalled his STR3 and without a formation lap, would immediately fall a lap behind his race leading teammate. Green flag racing would commence on lap three and within the first 3.6 miles, the young hotshot had disappeared, pulling out a two second lead over Kovalainen’s McLaren. This wasn’t a case of getting out of DRS range, this was simply a case of Sebastian being faster, miles faster.
Apart from a brief skip over the sleeping policeman at the Variante della Roggia, Vettel didn’t put a wheel wrong as he built up an eleven second lead but surely he was low on fuel when he set that sensational pole position? This particular paddock theory for why Sebastian couldn’t do the unthinkable was dispelled when Vettel stayed out until lap 18 before calling in for fuel. The youngster’s performance was made all the more impressive when Kovalainen, Webber and the Ferrari of Massa stopped on lap 22, confirming that his closest challengers were also two-stopping.
After his nightmare Saturday, Lewis Hamilton had started heavy in an attempt to salvage a good result and an electrifying first stint had brought him right into play. Thirteenth after ten laps, the Briton went on an overtaking spree which took him past Raikkonen and Giancarlo Fisichella in consecutive laps while Nick Heidfeld didn’t put up much of a fight in relinquishing tenth. Timo Glock defended ninth a little more but only got put on the grass for his troubles, Robert Kubica was overhauled at the Roggia chicane, and arch-rival Fernando Alonso was powerless to stop the car he could have driven power past his Renault. Once the two-stoppers had called in, Lewis was effectively second and his hopes of spoiling the Toro Rosso party suddenly hinged on the weather.
McLaren had fuelled their driver to the finish on lap 27 but with the track gradually drying out, the moment to fit intermediates was coming. This would favour Vettel who needed to pit again regardless but another shower would swing the race back towards Hamilton and enable him to stay out on full wets. Today though, the weather gods were pulling for the underdog and no more rain fell. As a result, when Vettel made his second scheduled stop for fuel and intermediates on lap 36, Hamilton was forced to follow him in to discard his now second-hand set of full wets.
From there, the only threat to Sebastian was the other McLaren of Kovalainen who was having a fairly anonymous afternoon, still eleven seconds in arrears, but the Finn only fell further back in the closing stages. He didn’t come under pressure from behind although Kubica and Alonso timed their second stops perfectly to grab third and fourth. Nick Heidfeld held off Felipe Massa for fifth while the extra pitstop put Hamilton behind his title rival in seventh.
A year earlier, Lewis was busy rewriting the rule book for what rookies should be achieving in Formula One but the performance from Vettel, still in his first full season at the top level, was impressive even by those standards. His early races were overshadowed by incidents such as tailgating Mark Webber behind the safety car, costing both a podium but this was a performance of remarkable maturity and excellence.
At a Grand Prix steeped in history and emotion, the sight of Toro Rosso co-owner Gerhard Berger receiving the constructor’s trophy will have warmed many a heart among the Tifosi, twenty years on from his memorable victory for Ferrari in 1988. It says a lot when the thousands of Ferrari fans go home happy on a day when their drivers finished sixth and ninth.
In truth, there were precious few in the paddock unhappy to see Vettel and Toro Rosso taste victory and no-one could say he didn’t deserve it. By snatching pole position, scampering into the distance early on and controlling the race from start to finish, this race had Sebastian’s name stamped all over it. The 2008 Italian Grand Prix was a glimpse into the future and as we have seen, that future would be very bright indeed.
Image courtesy of Octane Photographic.