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2008 Italian Grand Prix: Vettel Begins Assault on the Record Books with Historic win

The 2008 Formula One season featured one of the protagonists of this year’s championship, locked in a tight championship battle with a tense rival. While this year’s Formula One season has seen just three different winners so far, the 2008 season spawned no less than seven winners, three of them first-time winners. While it looks as if both Robert Kubica and Heikki Kovalainen will never win in Formula One again, the final first-time winner went on to take a further 38 victories, and will surely add to this tally. A further seven of the drivers achieved at least one podium finish in a year which was tightly contested between the two greatest Formula One teams of all, Ferrari and McLaren. Despite featuring in this, both were upstaged by a small Italian team which used to run as the tiny Minardi team. This is the story of the 2008 Italian Grand Prix, the race where Sebastian Vettel took a dominant first victory in terrible conditions.

The events of the previous round were highly controversial. At Spa, the home of the Belgian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren overtook Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari whilst going off of the track; Hamilton lifted off and gave the position back, but went and retook the place into the next corner. Hamilton was later given a drive-through penalty post-race, so 20 seconds was added onto his race time. This was controversial because of two reasons: the first being that at the time there was no rule stating that you are not allowed to overtake into the next corner after giving a place back, the second being that the penalty was appealed, only to be thrown out weeks later because ‘you’re not allowed to appeal a drive-through penalty’. To make things worse, this gave the win to Hamilton’s main title rival, Raikkonen’s team mate Felipe Massa.

Raikkonen’s future was also a big talking point leading up to the race. There were rumours that the Finn would retire, but he shunned these claims by signing a contract until at least the end of the 2010 season. The rain that affected the Grand Prix at Belgium seemed to have placed itself at Monza too as every single session over the weekend was affected by rain. Qualifying was marred by two catastrophic decisions, one by McLaren and one by Ferrari, to keep Hamilton and Raikkonen respectively on extreme wet weather tyres when the track was beginning to dry up. This left the two title contenders 15th and 14th on the grid. Another title contender, Robert Kubica in the BMW Sauber was 11th after a poor lap. Formula One had three Red Bull-liveried cars in the top 4, as Sebastian Vettel took his first (of many) pole positions in his Toro Rosso as the rain came down hard once again. Alongside Vettel was Hamilton’s team mate Heikki Kovalainen, who was looking for a good result. Mark Webber in the main Red Bull was third alongside the other Toro Rosso of four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais. Nico Rosberg’s Williams was a good fifth alongside Massa’s Ferrari. Jarno Trulli’s Toyota, Fernando Alonso’s Renault, Timo Glock’s Toyota and Nick Heidfeld’s BMW Sauber rounded out the top 10. Formula One had witnessed ‘The Finger’ for the first time.

Prior to the race, Jenson Button and Kazuki Nakajima chose to start the race from the pit lane as they wished to change the setup of their cars for the tricky conditions. All cars started the race on the extreme wet, and behind the safety car due to the conditions. Once the race started, Bourdais stalled and he went a lap down, ruining his chance of a podium. The safety car wasn’t out for that long as it pulled away at the end of lap 2. Vettel bunched the field up before launching himself around the tricky Parabolica corner, and he scurried away as quickly as he could. With the advantage of running at the front, Vettel was able to open up a 2 second lead right away. In the opening laps, Glock and Alonso were switching positions in a good battle between the two drivers. Further down the field, Kubica, Hamilton and Raikkonen all began their charge through the field. On lap five, Hamilton cut the second chicane whilst trying to pass Raikkonen. He gave the place back and didn’t challenge until later in the lap. The conditions seemed to get trickier, as Vettel had a wobble into the second chicane, Glock had a spin and Giancarlo Fisichella broke the front wing on his Force India after he hit the second Red Bull of David Coulthard, leading in retirement for the Italian, the only one of the race.

Hamilton had enough of being sat behind Raikkonen as the race went on, and overtook the Finn with a very late braking manoeuvre to put him just outside of the top 10 with just a handful of laps down. Massa meanwhile had a mighty duel with Rosberg which lasted for a few laps, before the Brazilian finally took fourth from the German. Hamilton was into the points by lap 19 as he passed Heidfeld, Glock, Kubica and Alonso in quick succession.

Vettel was the first to pit, on lap 18, from the lead. Kovalainen, Webber and Massa followed him in four laps afterwards. They all put the extreme wet tyre on again, and rightly so as rain began to fall on lap 26. The first driver to try the regular wet tyre was David Coulthard after he pitted on lap 28, this decision was shown to be the wrong one as he went straight on at the first chicane. By lap 36, most of the drivers had pitted for the regular wet tyre, with the two Renaults and two BMW Saubers making this their only stop of the day. Massa eventually found his way past Webber before the Australian went spinning; he was later passed by Hamilton, who was now the fastest driver on the track.

In the closing stages of the race, Kubica, Webber and Raikkonen were exchanging fastest laps, whilst Webber and Hamilton touched wheels with just three laps to go, the Australian unhappy with the British driver’s aggressive driving. Raikkonen found his way past Coulthard and Piquet in the closing stages of the race, but it was all in vain as he finished outside of the points. Kazuki Nakajima in the Williams attempted to find his way past Coulthard but only succeeded in ruining both drivers’ races.

Sebastian Vettel, aged just 21 years crossed the line to become the youngest ever winner of a Formula One Grand Prix and to stand on the podium of one, and with his pole position the day before, he became the youngest polesitter ever and the youngest driver to achieve both at the same weekend, a truly remarkable achievement. Heikki Kovalainen in second and Robert Kubica’s one stop helping him to third meant that the average age of the podium was the youngest in history. Alonso and Heidfeld were also helped by their strategy, ahead of Massa, Hamilton and Webber. Vettel’s win, a win for a team which races under an Italian license and is based in Italy was very well received by the Tifosi. It was the first win for a German-Italian partnership since Michael Schumacher retired for the first time and the first time an Italian team which wasn’t Ferrari won the Italian Grand Prix since Stirling Moss won the 1956 event for Maserati.

The result of the race meant that Kubica closed in on Hamilton’s lead in the championship by four points, whilst Massa closed in to just one point of the British driver. Raikkonen and Heidfeld both found themselves over 20 points behind now. Formula One headed into brand new territory after this race, as it raced its first ever night race, a race which was also highly controversial for completely different reasons to the race prior to this one. This race will go down as the race where Sebastian Vettel and Toro Rosso stunned Formula One’s biggest teams, and the birth of a new mega-star in our sport, though we weren’t aware of the scale of Sebastian Vettel’s arrival at the front at the time.

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