Lewis Hamilton's grasp on a second World Championship title slipped yesterday after the British driver crashed out on the opening lap of the Italian Grand Prix, leaving Fernando Alonso to give Ferrari their first win on home soil for four years.
Alonso has now closed the gap to 21 points on new championship leader Mark Webber, who finished sixth, the Australian deposing Hamilton.
For 36 of the 53 laps at Monza, Hamilton's McLaren team-mate, Jenson Button, seemed set to score a superb victory under the most intense pressure from Alonso. The Spaniard 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 Hamilton skidding into a gravel trap on the opening lap, while Webber's 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 bit of a mistake there."
When Alonso stopped on the 37th lap, he couldn't believe how fast his pit call was. Button was stationary for 4.2 sec; Alonso was ready to roll after 3.4sec.
"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."
Button conceded: "Pit stops are always tricky; I thought mine went pretty smoothly. 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 as 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 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 was much excitement at the start as everyone funnelled into the tight first chicane. There Button just hung on 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," Alonso 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 the 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 and negative."
But not the last 10. "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 OK to the first corner and I had seen Jenson some way back when I came out, but I forgot that he was coming at 300kph. That was a shock. I nearly spun when I got on throttle in first chicane, but it was OK.
"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. To be on the top of the podium with all these people supporting Ferrari has been great for me, and a big shock."
Perhaps almost as big a shock as Ferrari's victory was for their rivals.
"We didn't have the pace I expected, and the Ferraris were superfast the whole race," Button said. "I was never more than 1.4sec away from Fernando, and I was surprised they stayed so close in the corner. We had a very quick car but these guys had the edge. But second is OK. It's a happy day, and all three of us here have done very well for our championship hopes. But obviously you want to win."
Results and standings
FIA Formula One Italian Grand Prix, Monza, Italy (53 Laps): 1 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1hr 16min 24.572sec; 2 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:16:27.510; 3 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:16:28.795; 4 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:16:52.768; 5 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:16:54.514; 6 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:16:55.848; 7 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams 1:16:57.384; 8 R Kubica (Pol) Renault 1:16:58.600; 9 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:17:09.520; 10 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 1:17:28.785; 11 S Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:17:29.572; 12 V Liuzzi (It) Force India 1:17:30.678; 13 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:17:43.491; 14 P de la Rosa (Sp) BMW Sauber at 1 Lap; 15 J Alguersuari (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 1 Lap; 16 A Sutil (Ger) Force India at 1 Lap; 17 T Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing at 2 Laps; 18 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 at 2 Laps; 19 S Yamamoto (Japan) HRT-F1 at 2 Laps; 20 L di Grassi (Br) Virgin Racing at 3 Laps. Not classified: 21 J Trulli (It) Lotus F1 46 Laps completed; 22 B Senna (Br) HRT-F1 11 Laps completed; 23 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 0 Laps completed; 24 K Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber 0 Laps completed.
Drivers standings: 1 M Webber 187pts; 2 L Hamilton 182; 3 F Alonso 166; 4 J Button 165; 5 S Vettel 163; 6 F Massa 124; 7 N Rosberg 112; 8 R Kubica 108; 9 M Schumacher 46; 10 A Sutil 45; 11 R Barrichello 31; 12 K Kobayashi 21; 13 V Petrov 19; 14 N Hulkenberg 16; 15 V Liuzzi 13; 16 S Buemi 7; 17 P de la Rosa 6; 18 J Alguersuari 3; 19 H Kovalainen 0; 20 K Chandhok (India) HRT-F1 0; 21 L di Grassi 0; 22 J Trulli 0; 23 B Senna 0; 24 S Yamamoto 0; 25 T Glock 0.
Manufacturers standings: 1 Red Bull 350pts; 2 McLaren 347; 3 Ferrari 290; 4 Mercedes GP 158; 5 Renault 127; 6 Force India 58; 7 Williams 47; 8 BMW Sauber 27; 9 Scuderia Toro Rosso 10; 10 Lotus F1 0; 11 HRT-F1 0; 12 Virgin Racing 0.
Remaining races: 26 Sept Singapore GP; 10 Oct Japanese GP; 24 Oct South Korean GP; 7 Nov Brazilian GP; 14 Oct Abu Dhabi GP