Formula 1 cars famously produce enough downforce that they can drive
in the Monaco tunnel (provided there were two sections of Hot Wheels-style track to get them up and down from there). This downforce is produced by the angle of the various wings and fins on the cars and helps these highly-skilled racers take corners much faster than the typical road car. On the straights, however, this downforce is not needed, and can actually bring the cars ultimate top-speed down. Teams often talk about minimising 'drag', which slows the cars down on the longer straights you find, particularly on newer tracks.
Ask a team member what they should do when at Monza, and the answer is almost always the same: have as little downforce as possible. Ferrari's home country houses the fastest track on the F1 calendar, and while the old banking used in the early years might be out of use these days, the Italian track still has very few corners and plenty of straights. The perfect mix for ultimate speed. To compare, Lewis Hamilton's stunning record pole lap at Spa was at an average speed of over 150mph, the speed record at Monza stands at 162mph: the all-time record.
And of course, it never rains.
Well, almost never...
2008 was a very different time. Barack Obama and John McCain were both making their cases to become the 44th US President, Spain's football team had just won their first major international tournament since 1968, and Lewis Hamilton was chasing down his first F1 title in only his second season, having narrowly missed out to Kimi Raikkonen the previous year. The McLaren driver led Ferrari's Felipe Massa by just two points going into the final four races, and had just come from a tough race in Belgium where he was demoted from 1st to 3rd for cutting the corner at the chicane towards the end of that race.
Things weren't going to get better any time soon. Huge amounts of rain meant that Monza presented a challenge it had only posed three times before: a wet race. Low-downforce packages were thrown away and the stakes were raised again. The teams went into Qualifying with very few laps under their belt, and as more rain fell it started to become a guessing game of what tyres should the cars be on.
With Qualifying the same three-stage knockout format as we know now, it was vital for the cars to be out on the right tyres at the right time. Lewis Hamilton took a gamble on the standard wets towards the end of Q2, having not set a lap time in the session before. The choice proved to be wrong, and by the time the championship leader had come back to the pitlane to change to the extreme wet tyres, his brakes had cooled so much he was unable to get any heat into them, losing grip in treacherous conditions.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Vettel, only in his first full F1 season at the time, topped Q2, and was 3rd in Q1 to back it up. Driving for Toro Rosso, the young Vettel had already impressed on a number of occasions and soon took it to another level as he completed the Saturday job, putting his car on pole position. The Toro Rosso team still had a lot of association with former backmarkers Minardi, and the transformation by Dietrich Mateschitz and the Red Bull brand was clear to see.
Hamilton's team-mate, Heikki Kovalainen took 2nd place on the grid, with Massa 6th and Hamilton just behind Raikkonen in 15th. Sebastien Bourdais backed up the Toro Rosso's pace by qualifying 4th, showing that his podium near-miss in Belgium the previous week wasn't just a one-off.
Toro Rosso's bad luck at the start
The rain continued to fall so much that the race director decided to start the race under the safety car, meaning that there would be no formation lap and the race would start on the hour (2pm local) rather than after the cars had completed a formation lap. Unfortunately for Sebastien Bourdais, his car couldn't pull away from the grid, and he fell from 4th place down to last very quickly. The team were able to bring him into the pitlane, but by the time the four-time Champ Car champion had got back out on track, he was a lap behind. Jenson Button and Kazuki Nakajima had started from the pitlane after making changes to their cars to cope with the changeable conditions, a very clever move as they didn't lose much from their dismal qualifying positions, and a safety car start allowed them to be right behind the pack when the race started.
The safety car came in on lap 2, and Vettel immediately ran away from the championship-contending cars behind. 1.7 seconds ahead after the first lap of racing calls to mind his style from his Red Bull championship years. Clearly, the car was one the German was confident in! He continued to pull away from Kovalainen, building up a steady gap. Meanwhile, Hamilton and Raikkonen found themselves bunched up behind Giancarlo Fisichella's Force India, the spray behind the cars making it almost impossible to see and very dangerous. The Italian driver was doing brilliantly at his home race, the Force India car having a huge pace deficit to the cars around it but Fisichella held it steady in the opening 10 laps, despite both Hamilton and Raikkonen making their way through.
Bad luck struck again when Fisichella tried to get past the Red Bull of David Coulthard a few laps later. The cars made contact, dislodging Giancarlo's front wing, which hung on for a while longer before coming off and going underneath his car, skating it off the track and crashing gently into the barrier. His race was over, the first and only retirement of the race.
Hamilton hurries through the pack
Having overtaken Fisichella before his retirement, and Raikkonen shortly after, championship leader Hamilton was free to unleash the pace he had in his car. He climbed up the field, overtaking Nick Heidfeld, Timo Glock, Robert Kubica, Jarno Trulli and Nico Rosberg over the next 10 laps, gaining a few more places whilst others pitted to end up in 2nd place. His lap 15 move on Timo Glock pushed the Toyota driver off onto the grass at Curva Grande, showing how difficult it was to see those around you in the wet.
Glock may have also benefitted from good traction out of the first chicane. 2008 was the first year since traction control was banned, so the cars were naturally trickier to control even in the dry, and required a very delicate right foot when coming out of corners. Several other drivers were experimenting with different lines. Massa could be seen trying to cool his overheating tyres on the wetter parts as early as lap 13. With a lot of cars wanting to one-stop around the low-degradation circuit, the drying track was a problem.
Heavy rain forecast in the middle of the race played into the hands of those on two2-stoppers, who could push and then change for fresh wet tyres (the middle of the three wet compounds brought by Bridgestone), and have another chance to evaluate the situation later in the race. Vettel was one of these people, coming into the pits on lap 18 and changing to the wet tyres, coming out in 4th place behind Kovalainen, Webber and Massa, who would all come into the pits four laps later on lap 22.
Hamilton closed to within one second of Vettel on lap 26, clearly enjoying lower fuel load at the end of his stint. He pitted that same lap, looking to be challenging Vettel for the win. A little bit behind, Williams driver Nico Rosberg pitted from 3rd place, but trouble pulling the fuel hose out meant that Williams' 500th Grand Prix wouldn't finish as hopeful as it started. Seconds later, Red Bull pitted David Coulthard and put him out on the intermediate tyres, the least extreme of the three wet compounds. This was a clear gamble, as no-one else had the courage to try these tyres until that point. The Scotsman then went straight off the track, taking to the escape road on the first chicane mere seconds after his stop. Too early for inters at that time.
A tense climax
Despite Coulthard's mistake, it was clear that as no rain was actually falling (contrary to what the forecasts had predicted), and intermediate tyres would soon be the way to go. With those who had yet to stop (either those running a two-stop strategy or a long first stint on one-stops) looking to choose their tyres for the final part of the race, it would all be decided by the weather.
Championship contender Felipe Massa pitted for a second time on lap 33, changing onto the inters which were now widely acknowledged as the tyre to be on for the moment; Alonso had switched a few laps before and was the fastest on the track in his Renault. Australian Mark Webber pitted on lap 35, but couldn't get his tyres up to temperature quickly enough and was passed by Massa going into the Ascari chicane. To add to Webber's woes, he spun on the exit, losing him valuable seconds and leaving him vulnerable to Hamilton, who passed him a lap later for 7th place.
Vettel pitted on lap 37 to go onto the intermediate tyres, and had the entire length of the pit straight over Hamilton by the time he left. The McLaren driver decided to come in, changing his strategy to take on the intermediate tyres and fight back through the pack for what he could get. Pitting a second time had dropped him behind Massa, meaning the already tight gap at the top of the championship would get even tighter.
Hamilton kept pushing, but by now the pace was equalising out, and he was unable to get much of an advantage over his rival. On lap 49, Webber tried to retake the position he'd lost earlier but was squeezed onto the grass going entering the first chicane, bumping wheels and forcing the frustrated Aussie to give the place back after cutting the chicane.
With just three laps to go, Kazuki Nakajima and David Coulthard collided through the final turn, leaving debris from Coulthard's front wing on the racing line. The Williams car of Nakajima tried to pass for 12th place, and the resulting pit stop to repair the damage left Coulthard in 17th.
But out front, it was plain sailing for Sebastian Vettel, who took a brilliant victory 12 seconds ahead of Kovalainen. Robert Kubica came 3rd after an uneventful race, followed by Fernando Alonso, Nick Heidfeld, Felipe Massa, Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber in 8th rounding out the points scoring positions. Kimi Raikkonen showed his speed by taking another fastest lap, but was over 7 seconds off the points in 9th.
What it all meant
Sebastian Vettel had won on only his 22nd F1 start, in a car that despite its good performance in relation to the mid-field, should not have been in a race-winning position (especially considering the Toro Rosso was using Ferrari engines from the previous year). He'd cemented his position as a star for the future, and a great personality in the paddock.
I tell you, the kid's gotta change his attitude with the media. He's happy, he's friendly, he answers your questions, he shakes hands with with the sound man, he shakes hands with the camera man and the interviewer, and thanks you for the interview. He'll give Grand Prix drivers a bad name(!)
Martin Brundle, commentating for ITV
Sandwiched between 2 races known more for
the 2008 Italian Grand Prix can easily be forgotten. However, it was the first of many wins for a driver that went on to claim four consecutive championships, and is still regarded as being at the top of his game almost a decade later. If anyone doubts the talent of Sebastian Vettel, simply point them to this race and they will easily change their minds.