By Karun Chandhok, C4F1 technical analyst
The story from Monza has really got to be: “How did Ferrari, with the fastest car, a front-row lockout and huge home crowd support, come away from the weekend further behind in the championship than when they went into it?”
To see how this unfolded, we need to go back eight weeks to the tyre selection process.
Ferrari arrived in Italy with only one set of soft tyres for Sebastian Vettel and just two for Kimi Raikkonen. We’ve seen other people do it and I’ve never really understood why teams put themselves into a corner like this.
The Pirelli tyres are extraordinarily tricky to manage – much more than the Bridgestones or Michelins we had previously in F1 – and by now every team knows that.
Tyre wear was defining factor of the outcome of the Italian GP, as Raikkonen suffered with severe wear on practically all four of his tyres— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) September 2, 2018
Allow @karunchandhok to analyse just how the race was decided #C4F1 #ItalianGP https://t.co/gyGJpQrrJK
I can sort of understand bringing only one set of the hardest tyre because it’s very rarely used, but certainly with the two softer choices you want to give yourself enough of a chance to run the tyre in free practice so you get a good idea of what you’ve got when you bolt it on in the grand prix.
Yes, they all have simulation tools and reports from dozens of engineers and ‘tyre groups’ but there’s nothing like good old-fashioned real-life practice sometimes.
Lewis Hamilton really forced his way into the victory on Sunday and Mercedes played the team tactics game much better than their Italian rivals.
Undoubtedly the moment of the race was right at the start when Hamilton and Vettel made contact— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) September 2, 2018
Here's Steve & DC discussing just how Hamilton came out on top and Vettel was left facing the wrong way #C4F1 #ItalianGP https://t.co/s7eMFHN57E
There was a feeling in the paddock that the Ferrari was the quicker car all weekend, but the qualifying battle among the top three was closer than everyone expected. It truly was one of the best sessions I’ve seen in a long time.
The most confusing thing from qualifying was Ferrari’s decision not to back their main title contender.
The slipstream effect on the straights in Monza far outweighs the loss of downforce in the corners. At other circuits, drivers try to do their qualifying laps with about a seven-second gap to the car in front in order to avoid any turbulent air.
At Monza, they were all aiming to be about 2.5 seconds behind another car, which the teams found to be a good balance between beneficial on the straights but not too damaging in the corners and braking zones.
It was a super battle for pole position during qualifying, with Raikkonen surprising us all by beating team-mate Vettel and Hamilton— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) September 2, 2018
Re-live the Flying Finn's pole lap, which was the fastest ever recorded lap in F1 history #C4F1 #ItalianGP https://t.co/Zo1HjTcj0H
Valtteri Bottas seemed to suggest after qualifying that being in front of Lewis gave the Englishman a benefit of a couple of tenths, which was exactly what Mercedes wanted him to do. Rightly, they are very clear now that if they have to win the world championship, they need to start playing the No 1/No 2 driver card.
So, when Raikkonen came out of the pits behind Vettel for both runs in Q3, it was very confusing. Kimi himself seemed slightly unsure of the plan as there was a bit of team radio chat on the final out-lap, asking if they should stay in that order.
Seb got a distant tow from Lewis but Kimi got a much better double slipstream, which I’m sure didn’t please the German. One thing’s for sure, in the dominant Ferrari era of Michael Schumacher, Ross Brawn and Jean Todt, there’s no way the No 2 driver would have been given the same freedom.
Ahead of the race, I did wonder if Ferrari had decided to implement team orders. The easiest thing to do would have been to tell Kimi not to fight Sebastian into the first chicane – or if they don’t sort it out straight away, then let him past into the second chicane before playing the rear gunner role.
This was a golden opportunity to reduce the points gap from 17 to seven by scoring a 1-2 when they clearly had the pace to do it.
Raikkonen on pole alongside Vettel, Hamilton waiting in the wings in P3 and a nice long run down to Turn 1— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) September 3, 2018
It was always going to be a thrilling opening lap
Re-live all the action in just 375 seconds with our race rewind #C4F1 #ItalianGP https://t.co/KGK3M3Y8yP
As things transpired, Kimi moved across the track in front of Seb at the start and the two red cars fought hard into the first chicane. Once that was sorted, they then headed through the Curva Grande with Lewis firmly in the slipstream and ready to pounce.
At that point, if they chose to play the team game, Kimi would have just stayed to the right and opened the door for Sebastian to go past cleanly, but instead he went to defend the inside which boxed Seb in a bit and opened up a gap for Lewis to dive around the outside.
The collision between Lewis and Sebastian was just a typical racing incident that we’ve seen many times at a chicane in Monza – two drivers both charging hard and neither really wanting to give in – but with the benefit of hindsight, I think Sebastian will regret how he played that.
Every wheel-to-wheel battle you do as a racing driver is a game of risk versus reward and it’s clear that Seb would have been better off letting Lewis take the place at that moment. Being third on lap one was going to be a lot better than facing the wrong way.
After qualifying it looked almost certain that Ferrari would take victory on home soil after they locked-out the front row— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) September 2, 2018
But what a difference a day makes...
Here's Steve & DC analysing what went wrong for the Scuderia #C4F1 #ItalianGP https://t.co/r4BjGb8s2v
The next key point of the race came around the pit stops.
Kimi and Lewis were driving beautifully up front in that opening stint. Mercedes told Lewis to do the opposite of Kimi on strategy and when the Finn pitted on lap 20, Hamilton delivered three very strong laps on his worn supersofts.
This was key to what happened to Kimi later in the race.
With any race tyre, in general, the more gently you use it during the early laps of its first heat cycle, the longer they will last. Because Lewis was pushing like crazy and delivered some very fast laps, Ferrari were forced to tell Kimi to push hard straight away, not allowing him to bring the tyres in gently.
This meant he started to get some blistering on the rear tyres sooner than they expected, and when Mercedes played the team card of backing Bottas up into Raikkonen, Kimi had to battle on in the dirty air – which didn’t help the blistering.
Speaking to people at Pirelli, early feeling is that Kimi pushing so hard on those early laps after the stops to defend against Lewis’ strategy to stay out started the blistering. Following Bottas didn’t help but wasn’t the cause...— Karun Chandhok (@karunchandhok) September 2, 2018
It was interesting to see how many people on social media were tweeting with comments like “Lewis only won that race because of the Mercedes team tactics”.
I think that’s unfair.
He won that race because Ferrari didn’t play the team tactics game as well all weekend, starting with the tyre choices. He won that race by being opportunistic and with calculated aggression on lap one. He won that race because he unleashed some impressive pace in those laps after Kimi’s pit stop and forced the 38-year-old to go too hard too soon on his soft tyres.
It's not often a driver wins from below the front-row at Monza— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) September 2, 2018
But Hamilton knocked the stats out of the park on his way to a famous victory
Here's the championship leader regaling Lee with his version of events #C4F1 #ItalianGP https://t.co/JeRQVi1773
It also really winds me up when people say we’re being biased towards Lewis.
Last year, with seven races to go, Lewis led Sebastian by three points when Mercedes still had the faster car. This year, he’s 30 points in front when the Ferrari has been more competitive than in 2017. That’s not being biased – that’s just fact.
I would actually have loved to see Kimi win in Monza, as I think he’s driving very well at the moment and it would have been a great story for F1. When Seb and Ferrari won in Spa, we complimented them and the brilliant job they did.
They’re going to need plenty more of those weekends between now and Abu Dhabi to turn around that deficit!
DC: "We’ve got some pretty difficult circuits coming up."— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) September 2, 2018
He's not wrong! It's going to be a fascinating second half of the season
You can catch all the action from the next round of the season at Singapore LIVE in two weeks
Don't miss it! #C4F1 #ItalianGP pic.twitter.com/Yo4w6YjB6Q