It’s time to say goodbye to the European season of Formula One at Monza, the track where racing looks like racing footage on stimulants. It was everyone’s last chance to stop the Red Bulls. But tell that to Sebastian Vettel, not about to be stopped. Warning: spoilers.
Good tracks have character and none so than Monza, this ancient, terrifying, glorious shrine to speed. Monza is speed on an entirely different level, for while Spa may be fast and Silverstone may be fast, Monza requires flat, insubstantial, Monza-specific wings which turn grippy modern Formula One cars into hypersonic waterbugs, holding on to dear life in the track’s few corners.
Then there’s the history, bloodier than the Nürburgring. On every lap, you can see the flat expanse of gravel where Jochen Rindt skidded to his death, the gentle banking where Wolfgang von Trips plowed into the spectators, the corner where Alberto Ascari died in a Ferrari sports prototype.
The Italian Grand Prix is time travel, a race as a six-year-old would imagine it, flat out, flat out, flat out, playing chicken with the throttle in the Parabolica, slipstreaming battles that go on for twenty laps, it is the pure essence of motor racing, and it was therefore at once uncanny and very satisfying to see Sebastian Vettel get pole in his otherwise super-grippy Red Bull, nominally unsuited to this ancient sort of racing. And what a pole it was, the 25th of
his career. After a lap which nobody else could touch, after a followup lap where he oversteered in the Lesmo curves and executed one hell of an opposite lock save, he ran one last lap half a second faster than everyone else, making even Lewis Hamilton shrug and admit defeat.
The one question about Vettel’s genius has always been about his ability to fight his way to the top. What he did against Fernando Alonso on lap five was all the more amazing in light of his less-than-stellar performances this year on the few occasions when he was not leading the race. After Alonso executed a magnificent start from fourth and elbowed his way into the lead by the Variante del Rettifilio chicane, Vettel stayed on his tail, then—after the safety car came out following a pile-up in said chicane—passed him on the outside line of Curva Grande, his wheels on the grass at 200 mph, skidding and powering his way to the lead in a rooster tail of dust. It was a Hamiltonesque-Alonsoesque moment of sheer aggression, completely unexpected, and he would stay in the lead for the rest of the race, extending it to a comfortable pitstop’s worth, then maintaining it with millisecond precision. Not that his team was in the mood for comfortable pitstops: The Red Bull crew dipped below 3 seconds in his last visit to the pits.
The Oz end of the Red Bull team was quite the opposite. Starting from fifth on the grid, Mark Webber tangled with Felipe Massa in the Variante del Rettifilio, lost his front wing, and couldn’t make it back to the pits. After tiptoeing around the circuit, his car’s radically modified aerodynamics sent him into the tire wall outside Parabolica. Not a pleasant interlude in a season where he could never make the most of his car, but he will have another chance next year.
Jenson Button showed his fearsome intelligence yet again. Keeping watch from a 1.5-second distance on a Hamilton–Schumacher battle ahead of him for a few laps, he edged in closer when he sensed weakness, then promptly passed both on lap 16 and drove home second. Sebastian Vettel may be competing in a formula all his own, but Jenson Button has developed into something wonderful this year. His two wins and five podiums show brains and consistency all season, and he now leads Lewis Hamilton by nine points, who spent most of the race fighting Schumacher, eventually finishing fourth.
Rounding out the podium was Fernando Alonso, who won here last year after a great battle with Button. It was about as good a result as possible with his Ferrari, a car he transcended with that blitz zoom into the lead from fourth on the grid. He was altogether very pleasant to watch, and he shared in what is probably the most dizzying podium experience in the world, right on par with Le Mans. The podium is suspended above the start-finish straight, and the fans are allowed to take to the asphalt after the race, a sea of jubilant humanity in red expanding to Curva Grande and beyond. Three years after he won his first ever race right here, Sebastian Vettel was back up on the top step, and he cried. It was win number eighteen. And if he wins again in Singapore and Alonso doesn’t join him on the podium again, he will be world champion again.
There was one more instance of time travel. Eighteen years after the 1993 Australian Grand Prix, a Senna finished in the points again. Driving the Renault from tenth, Bruno Senna finished ninth, his first points in Formula One, and a sign that dropping Nick Heidfeld was a rather inspired move on the part of team principal Éric Boullier.
The European season, three and a half months after the Barcelona race, is now over, bookended by Vettel wins. The endgame begins in Singapore, then moves on to Suzuka, South Korea, the new track in India, Abu Dhabi, and Interlagos. It will not be a nail-biting endgame like in the past five seasons. From now on, Sebastian Vettel can win the championship in any race, and one gets the sense he will not wait around for too long. See you in two weeks, at Disneyland with the death penalty.
Illustration by Peter Orosz. Gallery curated by Natalie Polgar. Photography by Mark Thompson/Getty Images, Vladimir Rys/Getty Images and Paul Gilham/Getty Images.