Only his own gearbox offered a threat to Sebastian Vettel today, as he produced a faultless drive to take victory at the Italian Grand Prix, with Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber joining him on Monza’s iconic podium.
It is Vettel’s sixth win of 2013 and the 32nd of his career, putting him on a par with Championship rival Alonso at joint fourth in all-time victories.
But after today, the prospect of his Championship rivals other than Alonso has been extinguished and even Alonso’s chances are slim; Vettel extended his Championship lead to 53 points over the Spaniard, more than two race victories, with seven races to go. At this strike rate he could clinch his fourth consecutive world title in India or Abu Dhabi.
Lewis Hamilton, now 81 points behind, told the BBC that his challenge for the title was over while Kimi Raikkonen fell to 88 points behind after an uncompetitive showing.
The German had several problems to manage today; in addition to his tyre issue, he had to short shift as the gearbox again showed signs of frailty. Red Bull had been given permission to replace the 5th, 6th and 7th gear ratios before the race by the FIA, due to damage.
It had seemed prior to the race that only rain could disrupt Vettel’s rhythm and offer those behind a chance of a race win. But a small shower in the build-up to the Grand Prix quickly evaporated and allowed for all cars to begin the race on dry tyres.
From the start, Vettel looked to make a slower start than Webber alongside him. But as Webber’s path was closed by the polesitter, he came under pressure from a pair of fast starting Ferraris.
Felipe Massa made a brave move around the outside of the first turn and slotted in behind Vettel for second place. Alonso, from a fifth place start disposed of Nico Hulkenberg but could not make his way past Webber.
Once DRS was enabled, Alonso was able to close on Webber. With an excellent move around the outside of the Roggia chicane, Alonso took third place and set about chasing Massa for second.
He made the move with little resistance from Massa at turn one. Massa confirmed that he had been ordered to let his team mate through.
Throughout the opening stint Vettel opened up a lead of five seconds over the chasing Alonso, before the single stop that the race necessitated.
Vettel had to manage the front right tyre carefully, having flat spotted it with a rare mistake in the first corner; under pressure from Webber and Massa he locked up into the first chicane and he was told throughout the first stint to look after the right front tyre.
After pitting for fresh tyres on lap twenty-three, Vettel could unleash the pace of the Red Bull and began to stretch his lead over the longer-running Ferrari of Alonso. Alonso opted to remain on track until lap twenty-eight, losing time to Vettel in the process and almost losing second position to Webber. But his tactic was to have fresher tyres at the end.
The second half of the Grand Prix saw Webber close on Alonso but never offer a serious threat to his close friend. This was due partly to the Red Bull pair being told to short-shift and avoid putting unnecessary strain on their engines.
It was Webber’s best finish in the Italian GP at his final European race in Formula One.
Beyond the top three, Felipe Massa had a strong drive to fourth place. He handed second to Alonso before his stop and lost third through an under-cut by an early stopping Webber for third place.
Completing the top six was Hulkenberg and Nico Rosberg. Hulkenberg was a candidate for driver of the weekend; third on the grid and fifth at the finish in a mediocre Sauber provided the best possible job aplication to Ferrari ahead of their crucial decision on second driver this week.
He was able to match the pace of those around him for the duration and impressively kept Rosberg at bay in the closing laps. The Mercedes driver scored important points for team on a day which saw Ferrari leap-frog them for second place in the Constructors’ Championship.
Ferrari are now three points ahead of Mercedes, but sit 104 points adrift of leaders Red Bull.
It was a strong weekend for the Toro Rosso pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne; both were in the top ten until an engine issue saw the latter retire from the race. Ricciardo brought the car back in seventh place after keeping a charging Romain Grosjean at bay.
Grosjean, in eighth, in turn came under pressure from Lewis Hamilton in the closing laps. Hamilton started on the hard tyre but was forced in to an early pit-stop due to a slow puncture. From there he completed two stints on the medium tyre, showing impressive pace.
He managed to claw himself back in to the points with late moves on Raikkonen, Perez and Button.
ITALIAN GRAND PRIX, Monza, Race, 53 Laps
1. Vettel Red Bull 1h18m33.352
2. Alonso Ferrari + 5.4
3. Webber Red Bull + 6.3
4. Massa Ferrari + 9.3
5. Hulkenberg Sauber + 10.3
6. Rosberg Mercedes + 10.9
7. Ricciardo Toro Rosso + 32.3
8. Grosjean Lotus + 33.1
9. Hamilton Mercedes + 33.5
10. Button McLaren + 38.3
11. Raikkonen Lotus + 38.6
12. Perez McLaren + 39.7
13. Gutierrez Sauber + 40.8
14. Maldonado Williams + 49.0
15. Bottas Williams + 56.8
16. Sutil Force India + 1 lap
17. Perez McLaren + 1 lap
18. van der Garde Caterham + 1 lap
19. Bianchi Marussia + 1 lap
20. Chilton Marussia + 1 lap
1. Vettel 222 pts
2. Alonso 169
3. Hamilton 141
4. Raikkonen 134
1. Red Bull-Renault 352pts
2. Ferrari 248
3. Mercedes 245