Track Tales

Dawn of a New Era, or the End of Times?

September 14th, 2008 by Conductor

Sebastian Vettel, a 21 year old German Driver, just won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

What’s significant about this? Well, let’s go down the list.

  • He became the youngest Pole Sitter in Formula One history on Saturday.
  • He then became the youngest Race Winner in Formula One history by winning Sunday’s race.
  • His team, Scuderia Torro Rosso Ferrari, employs about 160 people.
  • McLaren International, the team that finished second, currently employs about 1000 people.
  • Not only did he beat McLaren, he also beat Scuderia Ferrari, the oldest and most successful race team in history. All four of McLaren and Ferrari’s cars were running in the race at the end.
  • His margin of victory (how far ahead he was of the other cars at the end of the race) was 12.5 seconds.
  • He did all this in very wet conditions which are challenging for road cars, much less F1 cars.
  • His win for Torro Rosso is the first for an Italian based team that wasn’t Ferrari since 1956.

Now just those stats alone should be impressive, but to those who’ve followed Formula One for a while, the accomplishment should have even more significance. Basically, he had the race well in hand from start to finish, and was only challenged briefly by McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, who had stormed through the field from his uncharacteristic 15th place start to come within 2 seconds of Vettel. His one stop strategy looked set to pull off an amazing come from behind victory that would leave the Italian fans at Monza heartbroken that McLaren won, yet, being the truly rabid race fans they are, appreciative of the accomplishment and still cheering wildly at the end. However, the weather, wet to begin with and looking to stay that way, didn’t cooperate. Everyone started the race on the full wet weather tires, which like the all season tire you may have on your car, has grooves to channel the water away from the tire for maximum grip. The track kept getting dryer, but not to the point where the cars could even think about using their dry weather tires. Instead, teams opted, one after another to try the Intermediate tires, which have a less aggressive tread pattern, and are made of more durable compounds that don’t wear out as quickly. Anyway, Hamilton’s race plan only required one pit stop to change tires and add fuel, so the 2nd stop for him (3rd for most of the field) relegated him to a 7th place finish. Vettel goes on to score his maiden victory at what is probably my favorite Formula One track, and one steeped in history like few others, including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Now, about his tiny little team. Scuderia Torro Rosso is currently the “Junior Team” to Red Bull Racing, which in itself is a team that in prior incarnations was Jaguar and Stewart F1. They’re basically owned and sponsored by the same group, and as such are part of the Red Bull empire. Torro Rosso = Italian for Red Bull. They use the same car design, but different engine packages – Red Bull use Renault engines, while Torro Rosso use Ferrari engines. Basically, the Renault is noticeably less powerful than the Ferrari engine, but the Renault may be the more drivable combination with the car design. At least that’s the case in dry conditions on tracks slower than Monza and last weeks race at Spa Francorchamps – another old school track that ties the past, present and Future of F1 together.

Before being bought out, the tiny 160 person Italian squad was known as Minardi Formula One, a team that had thrown everything they had into competing on the grand stage of F1 for 20 years without winning, a total of 38 championship points, and generally being on their best days a mid pack team, but more often than not just trying not to be last every week. That unrelenting passion for the racing and refusal to quit, despite the down right silly odds against them, plus their willingness to give young drivers a shot in F1, if only for a race or two, earned them a lot of respect, and a very loyal fanbase – people love an underdog, and teams like Arrows and Minardi defined it for Formula 1. So loyal in fact, that they protested long and loud against changing the name from Minardi to Torro Rosso. I myself admit that I still refer to the team as Minardi – it fits the teams style more than Torro Rosso does.

Earlier this year, the team formerly known as Sauber F1, a perennial mid pack team, now known as BMW Sauber, scored it’s maiden victory at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. That win was less surprising, as BMW has been the 3rd best team behind Ferrari and McLaren for a couple of years now. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the top 3 finishers were all first time winners this year. Vettel of course, followed by Heikke Kovalainen for McLaren, and Robert Kubica for BMW Sauber, who won the race in Canada.

Honestly, if you told me last week, or even last Thursday, that Torro Rosso would win at Monza, and 17 of the other 18 cars would be running at the end of the race, I’d have called you a damned liar, crazy, and laughed at you. Pole? Sure. Weird stuff happens in Qualifying, especially when it rains, but the race? No way. The big teams will crush that dream by the first pit stop. Only they didn’t and even better, they couldn’t, though Hamilton came close.

The only scenario less likely would have been Honda and Force India battling for the win.

To be fair, I picked Vettel’s teammate, former CHAMPCAR Champion Sebastian Bourdais (yeah, their drivers are both named Sebastian, must make for fun team meetings) in my Pick 6 pool (where you actually pick 8 now, but whatever) and I think that would have payed off had he not stalled the car at the start of the race. I knew the Ferrari motors would pay off at Monza, and I was right. Just picked the wrong Sebastian… Ah well.

Anyway, congratulations to Vettel and his team, they spanked the field fair and square, on the most intense stage of them all.

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