Conclusions from the Italian GP

Driven Lewis does what he does best, Red Bull lose their way and their power, and Perez puts in a performance that may have inadvertently been a little too good...

Last Updated: 10/09/12 12:11pm

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Driven Hamilton makes a great impression
From the ridiculousness of Spa to the sublime of Monza, if only Lewis Hamilton could spend all his time within the confines of a F1 car. If only he did all of his talking on a race track.

In the unnatural environment of a F1 car that is his natural environment, Hamilton has consistently been this season everything that he has not been in recent times outside of a F1 car: error-free, predictable, straightforward, rewarding, eloquent.

The contrast is what makes Hamilton so difficult to fathom, the baggage worth the hassle, and the hassle so very frustrating. No driver is an island and until Hamilton turns his talent into something more substantial than a solitary, unsatisfactory championship the mud will stick that too much of Hamilton the celebrity has corrosively seeped into the cockpit. Days like Sunday make it all the galling that it might have. If only he just stuck to driving motor-cars.

The World Championship Standings:

Fernando Alonso - 179 points.
Lewis Hamilton - 142 points.
Kimi Raikkonen - 141 points.
Sebastian Vettel - 140 points.
Mark Webber - 132 points.
Jenson Button - 101 points.

From the rough sounds of it, the decision Hamilton must soon make essentially boils down to deciding whether he prefers to see his future as a driver or a celebrity - whether he is more concerned with controlling his brand and image than race victories amounting to potential World Championships. For those of us hoping driven sense will win out, the glorious paradoxical reassurement of Monza was that Hamilton delivered such a finely-judged, well measured victory on a weekend when controversy and speculation ran wild all around him.

There's still hope: the celebrity has not yet become the dominant personality and the future of the most talented driver of his generation may still be, first and foremost, the future of a F1 driver.

On Sunday, Hamilton drove at his fluent best, remorselessly extending his lead into a buffer of substance in the opening quarter before cruising thereafter and covering Sergio Perez's charge to the chequered flag. It was in short, very, very impressive.

And while Hamilton's future remains unresolved there was a nice - and typically paradoxical - touch after Sunday's race as he mused on his own place in the history books at a time when he says he hasn't even started to consider where he wants to be in 2013.

"Since I started in Formula 1, Monza has been one of the races I always wanted to win at," he reflected. "To finally put my name on that list makes me feel extremely proud, but also very humble. It's such an incredible, historic circuit and all the great racing drivers have won here."

They have - and the decision Hamilton is belatedly due to make on his future will soon reveal just how much he is prepared to give up in order to achieve promotion to F1's highest echelon.

Title race will make one a legend
But it's not only Hamilton who is currently occupied in a pursuit of legendary greatness. Another title triumph - making him the youngest three-time champion in the sport's history - would confer elite status on Sebastian Vettel just as a third World Championship would cement Fernando Alonso's standing at the pinnacle of the sport.

Whether the three central protagonists in the championship battle realise it or not, the next three months are shaping up to be decisive for their reputations; the harder each of them push for the title, the more two of them stand to lose and one of them - assuming neither Kimi Raikkonen nor Mark Webber gate-crash the party - will gain.

Intriguingly, judging by his description of Sunday's result as "perfect for the championship", Alonso still regards Vettel and not Hamilton as his main challenger. Yet it is Hamilton who now follows the Spaniard in the standings and it is the MP4-27, victorious in each of the last three races, which has seemingly been developed into the class of the field.

We're entering the stage of the season where every race breathlessly becomes the biggest of the year but Singapore promises to be particularly fascinating for the promised upgrades from Ferrari for a car that was unexpectedly quick this weekend, any signs that McLaren have already peaked, and the need for Red Bull to capitalise from circuit characteristics which ought to suit the faltering RB8. If the World Champion and the World Champions fail to profit in two weeks, Alonso really will have to reconsider his pecking order of challengers.

Red Bull reach decisive period
Yet before we reach Singapore, what sort of conclusions should we reach on Red Bull's loss of form? Tepid ones, because only in two weeks' time will it be possible to draw any firm conclusions on whether the engine-mapping furore which exploded on the morning of the German GP has played a significant part in their recent relative decline. The facts are suggestive - for the four races before the FIA closed the loophole, Vettel qualified on pole twice as well as fourth and second; in the three since the closure, he's only lined up third, tenth and fifth.

On the other hand, the data pool remains small, Vettel was formidably fast in race trim last Sunday at Spa, and his struggles this weekend could almost exclusively be attributed to the deficiencies of his Renault engine. If a loss of 10mph to his rivals along the straights - only the HRTs were slower - at a circuit where the cars run for 80% at full throttle wasn't bad enough, the alternator failure which retired Vettel retire from the race was the third such malfunction this season - with the first costing him a near-certain victory at Valencia.

Red Bull might not be entirely innocent in the matter, with paddock rumour suggesting that the tight packaging of its KERS unit may be a reason why their alternator keeps failing, but Christian Horner's frustration was plain on Sunday night: "It is very disappointing. It was replaced on Saturday morning, a new one was put on the car for the race and unfortunately that's also failed which is a repeat problem from Valencia earlier in the season which is especially disappointing." Renault have duly apologised.

Mark Webber, meanwhile, has been handicapped by two gearbox changes in the last four events, costing him ten grid slots. The upshot is a team on the back-foot and in urgent need of points-scoring remedy. They'll be the first into the spotlight under the Singapore lights.

Perez makes his move at Kobayashi's expense
Pity Kamui Kobayashi. The better he does in qualifying, the worse it seems to get for him on race-day: third on the grid at China amounted to a single point a day later, seventh in qualifying at Valencia heralded mid-race retirement, the career-high of second for the Belgian GP brought instant withdrawal symptoms at the first corner, and this weekend a very respectable eighth in qualifying only resulted in the indignity of a thorough thrashing at the hands of his team-mate on Sunday afternoon.

And given that Sergio Perez started twelfth to his eighth, and prospered precisely because his failure to reach Q3 meant he could roll the dice on strategy by selecting his tyre choice in reverse to the top-ten starters, it was a defeat which must have profoundly hurt Kobayashi. Ouch and ouch again.

Worse still, it comes at a time when whispers are beginning to turn into rumours that Kobayashi seat is vulnerable. Indeed, it's not difficult to make the argument that Sunday's result at Monza was probably more impactful for Kobayashi's career than Perez's: the Mexican, we can be sure, will be at Ferrari sooner or later and all that perhaps changed this weekend was the speed of the when; Kobayashi's concern is whether or not his F1 career will simply soon be a thing of a past.

But the problem Kamui now has is that not only is he being severely beaten by Perez - the scorer of 65 points compared to Kobayashi's 35 - but that the Mexican is putting Sauber on the map as an attractive destination in a diminishing market for 2013. There are a whole host of drivers, young and old, who would leap at the opportunity to sit where Kobayashi is currently sitting.

Whether Felipe Massa is amongst them remains to be seen. The Brazilian once again suffered severe tyre degradation in his Ferrari and he must have wondered, as Perez hurtled past, whether his style might be better suited to a Sauber car which treats its Pirellis so kindly. A swap for 2013 remains possible if not probable - although quite whether Alonso himself will approve of the prospect is another matter.

Though he was able to celebrate at Sunday's finish, the Spaniard's mini-defeat to Perez was an irritating inconvenience which might yet prove critical for his World Championship hopes. Looked at another way, Perez might have done too well this weekend because the current World Championship standings make it instantly apparent how valuable an advantage the presence of a subservient team-mate is for Alonso against rivals handicapped by domestic strife. Perez's mistake, in other words, might have been to make it plain that he might be a little bit too good for Ferrari's one-driver operation.

Di Montezemolo makes untimely case
With this Sunday's Italian GP the shortest race on the calendar, Ferrari chief Luca di Montezemolo picked, inadvertently or not, the most appropriate weekend of the year in which to make a rather unexpected call for shortened races.

Depending on your point of view, Di Montezemolo's suggestion was thus either timely or untimely given that Sunday's race lasted a mere one hour and twenty minutes - a shortfall in duration of approximately a third compared to the expected length of the upcoming Singapore GP.

"Young people today won't sit and watch a race that's an hour-and-a-half long," Di Montezemolo proclaimed on Saturday night. "We need to have shorter races."

Alas, sport has been here before - shortsighted people, believing themselves to be blessed with foresight, once said the same sort of thing about Test cricket. Quite what the F1 teams would say about the prospect of travelling halfway around the world for, say, forty-five minutes work is another salient matter. And nobody is saying that a football match, played for over 90 minutes but almost always around two hours in length due to the half-time break and injury time, needs shortening.

F1 has a funny habit of doing itself down from time to time. Unnecessarily, too. Di Montezemolo's subsequent announcement that "fans need to be able to watch the races on their iPads and iPhones" would have resonated if only that need wasn't already catered for, and his call for races to begin at "shown at seven or eight or nine in the evening" was even more untimely than his demand for shorter races: starting races at any such hour would undo the twenty years of work F1 has just laboured in spreading its appeal to new and very profitable markets overseas.

Di Montezemolo, in mitigation, has never been one to sit on a fence and in July caused a considerable stir by apparently dismissing any prospect of Perez joining Ferrari for 2013. In fact, what di Montezemolo precisely declared was that he wanted to see "more experience and more results" from the youngster. Job done, surely, on that count, but Sunday's lingering irony is that had the race been run for the referenced hour-and-a-half, Di Montezemolo and the rest of the viewing public would have enjoyed the added entertaintment of witnessing a close-run finish and very probably a fairytale victory for Perez.

Lesson learnt: in F1, more is very rarely less.

Pete Gill

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