In the midst of a Formula One season that's been anything but ordinary, how would you envision an ideal race to unfold? Ferrari and McLaren back on top? The two teams are responsible for most of the championships over the course of the past couple of decades, after all. The title-leading Brawn GP team taking another dominant victory? They've won over half the races so far this season. A new underdog to pull a surprise performance out of its hat? Nothing would surprise us at this point. Maybe some exciting wheel-to-wheel action and surprise spin-outs to shake up the order at the last minute?
How about all of the above? Because that and more is this weekend's Italian Grand Prix at Monza had in store for race fans in one of the most exciting, surprising and pivotal races so far this season. Follow the jump to read how it unfolded.
Related Gallery2009 Italian Grand Prix
Those who tuned in on Saturday for the results of the qualifying sessions were met with a surprising starting grid for race Sunday. Defending champion Lewis Hamilton took a commanding pole position. Fresh from back-to-back-to-back podium finishes in the last three races, Kimi Raikkonen lined up third on the grid. But the big surprise came from Force India, the underdog team which took an impressive second place finish with Giancarlo Fisichella before trading him off to Ferrari to fill in for a recovering Felipe Massa, and whose second driver Adrian Sutil took a shocking second place on the grid next to Hamilton.
McLaren's #2 Heikki Kovalainen qualified in an impressive fourth position, with the leading Brawn GP duo of Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button next to and behind him in the fifth and sixth spots respectively. With all eyes now fixed on Force India, the returning Vitantonio Liuzzi, now promoted to the race Fisichella's vacated race seat, qualified a solid seventh, next to two-time champion Fernando Alonso's Renault.
With the stage set, the lights flashed green and the cars raced off down the long straight towards the first corner. Hamilton held his position while Raikkonen demonstrated his aptitude with the KERS boost to overtake Sutil for second. Over the course of the race distance, Kimi would try his darnedest to shake the Force India, but Sutil held on to his tail for the entire race distance in a shockingly strong performance...the second in so many races for the little team that could.
By the fifth lap into the race, Hamilton had opened a three-second gap ahead of Raikkonen and Sutil. Kovalainen disappointed the commentators who tipped him to be a force to be reckoned with at Monza by dropping down the order while the Brawn duo worked their way up the field.
What really made the difference, though, was the supreme strategy set out by Ross Brawn. While the three leaders ran on two-stop strategies, Barrichello and Button had only one stop to make apiece. The strategy meant they had to qualify and start the race with heavier fuel loads, but while Hamilton, Raikkonen and Sutil were in the pits – ultimately re-emerging in the same order – Barrichello and Button were out firing off one hot lap after another. The duo pulled off remarkable drives, but after orchestrating championships at Benetton, Ferrari and now for his own team, Ross Brawn has emerged as the most dominant force in Formula One racing.
As the race rounded the half-way mark, struggling drivers began dropping like flies. Black-flagged with a dangling front-left wing element, BMW's Robert Kubica was forced to pit, only to retire to the garage a few laps later. Following Red Bull's Mark Webber, who was knocked off the track in the opening laps, Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari retired on lap 20. His team-mate Sebastian Buemi would be forced to retire as well, rounding off a disappointing day for the two Red Bull teams, which scored only a single point thanks to Sebastian Vettel's eighth-place finish. Those four were hardly the most surprising early retirements, however. In his first race back on the grid, Tonio Liuzzi drove an impressive first half of the race, only to retire from fourth place with engine problems. But even that would pale in comparison to the dramatic final lap.
Re-emerging from the second round of pit stops, Lewis Hamilton proved unable to catch up to Button, who in turn closely trailed his wingman Barrichello in the lead. Raikkonen and Sutil went into the pit lane together, and following minor foul-ups that saw both drivers knocking down members of their own pit crews, both came out at the same time as well, Raikkonen leading an unrelenting Sutil back out onto the track. But on the very last lap, the world champion McLaren driver lost control of his tail end, sending the car spinning into the tire wall and ending his race within less than a lap of the finish line.
Barrichello took the checkered flag under a yellow one, Button right behind him in second, and Raikkonen surprisingly promoted to his fourth consecutive podium in as many races. Sutil took an impressive fourth ahead of Alonso, who advanced his eight-place starting position to a fifth-place finish. Kovalainen ultimately crossed the line in sixth place, ahead of BMW's remaining driver Nick Heidfled and Red Bull's remaining Sebastian Vettel.
As for Ferrari's new acquisition Giancarlo Fisichella, he finished a decent ninth place – better than Luca Badoer but still outside the points. However the back of the field still held its own measure of excitement as the Toyotas battled against each other along with Kazuki Nakajima in the closing laps. Knocking wheels with Nakajima on lap 48, Jarno Trulli bounced off, only to knock wheels again with his wingman Timo Glock, who subsequently tossed him into the gravel in a dramatic display of aggressive driving between the three Toyota-powered cars.
Further reinforcing the notion that a driver's team-mate is his chief rival, the race results put the Brawn duo farther ahead of their rivals, but bring Barrichello – who has now won two grands prix this season – closer to his team-mate Button in the drivers' championship. Tune in again in two weeks for our post-race coverage of the night-time Singapore Grand Prix.