Formula One: Fernando Alonso grinds down Jenson Button to win Italian Grand Prix at Monza
For 36 of the 53 laps at Monza yesterday Jenson Button seemed set to score a superb victory under the most intense pressure from Fernando Alonso.
The Spaniard, racing for Ferrari on their home ground, never gave him a moment's peace. It was, Button was man enough to admit, “mentally draining.”
But in the end it was Alonso who took the big prize with a stunning triumph that did much to erase the bad memories of team-mate Felipe Massa's enforced gift to him in Hockenheim, on a day when a clash with Massa sent championship leader Lewis Hamilton skidding into a gravel trap on the opening lap, and Mark Webber managed only sixth after his Red Bull was again sluggish getting off the startline.
The turning point for Alonso and Ferrari came with the pit stops, and Button's post-race mien suggested that he felt that was where McLaren lost the race. He'd been happy on Bridgestone's softer-compound option tyre but his engineers persuaded him that the harder primes were quicker. They were not.
“We pitted a lap early and that was possibly a mistake,” Button said. “The team felt that the prime tyre was better than the option, but getting up to speed on the out lap was, for me, where I lost time. I think it wasn't the right call. We made a little bit of mistake there.”
When Alonso stopped on the 37th lap, he couldn't believe how fast his pit call was. Button was stationary for 4.2s, Alonso was ready to roll after 3.4s.
“We had two possibilities, to stop one lap earlier than Jenson or one lap later,” he said, “and when we saw him coming in we knew we had only one lap because the prime tyre for sure was quicker. So I pushed 100 per cent and then the pit stop felt very good. I stopped, they changed the tyres, green light — I didn't even have first gear in or time to do anything with the buttons on the steering wheel! I think this race was thanks to mechanics and the team, they did a perfect job.”
“Pit stops are always tricky,” Button conceded. “I thought mine went pretty smoothly and I was happy with it. But when I got out I struggled on the primes and could feel straight away that the car was worse on them, so it wasn't just the pit stop.”
Clearly he wished he'd stayed out longer on the option tyres, and is it transpired they were good for virtually the whole race distance.
After an engine problem had cost Sebastian Vettel a place to Webber, Red Bull very cleverly kept the German out until the 52nd lap, then switched him to primes for the last one.
By then he had risen to fourth place as Nico Rosberg, Nico Hulkenberg and Webber stopped to change their rubber, and the strategy crucially kept him in that position by the flag.
As usual at Monza, there wasn't much on-track action and the most exciting part came at the start as everyone funnelled into the tight first chicane.
There Button just hung tough down the inside of Alonso as Massa tried to go round the outside of his team-mate until Alonso found better traction on the exit. It was, the winner admitted later, a very stressful moment.
“It wasn't possible for me to defend,” he said, “and as I tried to negotiate the first corner I touched Jenson's left rear with my front wing and my car jumped a little bit.
“When I landed I touched Felipe, so that was two touches within two metres of first corner! I thought probably something is damaged to the car, so in the first few laps I was checking how it was behaving, so for sure the first 10 laps were quite stressful.”
But not the last 10, which really counted. “Our car was quicker in the straights than Jenson's,” he continued, “so I kept attacking, but he was driving superbly, not making a single mistake, and it was not possible to overtake.
“After my stop I thought I was okay to the first corner and I had seen Jenson some way back when I came out, but I forgot that he was coming at 300 kmh! That was a shock. I nearly spun when I got on throttle in first chicane, but it was okay. After that, I had no problem to stay ahead. And to win here, at Monza, for Ferrari, is something I am only really able to compare with winning in Spain in 2006, a really emotional victory.”