TO the outside world he was being hounded by the super-impressive Sergio Perez in the final stages of an Italian Grand Prix which he had dominated at Monza, motorsport's cathedral of speed. But Lewis Hamilton, who had painted an Italian flag on his helmet especially for the tifosi fans, said he had other thoughts in his mind in the closing stages.
"In the final laps I was driving round thinking just what a great circuit this is, and about all the greats who have won here," he said. It was the first time he had stood on the top step of Formula One's oldest circuit, which first opened its gates in 1922, and he was savouring every moment.
"It's an incredible experience to come to Italy, a place that I love. I've been here many years since I was 13 in karting, and I genuinely love the people, the culture and the food. I put the flag on my helmet as a sign of respect.
"I was cruising for the last 20 laps. I knew that Felipe [Massa] was going slower than me, then I heard that Fernando [Alonso] had passed him and was pushing, so I started to match his time. Then I heard that Sergio was catching me by a second a lap so over the last four I started pushing a little more just to maintain the gap. To finally get a win here is the icing on the cake. Very, very special."
Despite Perez's fight, Hamilton made it look like a walk in the park as he took an immediate lead from pole position as Massa separated him from his McLaren team-mate Jenson Button. As the three of them began to pull away, Alonso scrabbled past Paul di Resta, Kamui Kobayashi, Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher to take the fight for fourth place to Sebastian Vettel. From the sixth lap, the two enemies from the 2011 race, where Vettel accused Alonso of putting him off the road, duked it out. Back then it was the Spaniard who had obliged the German to put two wheels on the grass exiting the Curva Grande; this time it was Alonso who got the bouncy ride on the green stuff. And he wasn't happy.
"Okay, okay, that's enough," he said over the radio, "he needs a penalty now."
An engineer replied: "Okay, everybody saw what happened, he is destroying our race."
The stewards, already keen to crack down on driving discipline after the first-corner debacle at Spa seven days earlier, handed down a drive-through penalty to Vettel, who thus dropped out of the picture before dropping out of the race altogether with a Renault engine failure.
As the sole pit stops for the main runners left Hamilton and Button clear of Massa, the road was clear for Alonso to close in on his team-mate. On the 40th lap the hapless Brazilian duly capitulated to team suggestions that he should "manage his tyres," which was clearly euphemistic as soon after the switch had been made he was told to pick up the pace in a vain effort to stave off Perez.
Then the gods of Monza handed Alonso a present on the 33rd lap when Button's McLaren glided to a silent halt down the back straight, with fuel pick-up problems. This elevated the Ferrari driver from that 10th grid place to second. For a while he chipped away at Hamilton's lead, but soon it became clear that Perez, who had led the 24th to 28th laps after Hamilton's pit stop, was flying. Sauber had cleverly reversed everyone else's strategy, starting their man on the harder Pirelli tyres. The Mexican had done well to get them to last until the 29th lap, and now he had a definite advantage in a fuel-light car on the grippy medium compound.
First Perez dealt with Lotus's Kimi Raikkonen, who proved no pushover as they swapped places several times before Perez made it stick. Then Michael Schumacher (one of the few to make two pit stops). Then, as Vettel served his drive-through, he dealt with Massa with no problem. By the 46th lap, Alonso saw the Ferrari-powered Sauber in his mirrors, until Perez swept majestically ahead before the Ascari chicane. But could he close down Hamilton?
In the end the answer was no, as Hamilton still had 4.3sec in hand by the flag, but it was a superb performance from Ferrari's customer team and a man widely tipped as a future Ferrari driver.
"It was great strategy from my team," Perez said, grinning, "and really enjoyable, one of those races where you have the pace and were the one attacking. It was crucial that my first stint went so long but it wasn't easy at all. Then in the second stint I managed to go maximum attack and was able to have an advantage with the tyres.
"I've had second and third places this year," the hero of the Malaysian GP added, "and I am really determined to win before the end of the season."
Alonso was very happy with a podium finish, after starting so far back due to suspension trouble in qualifying, and still leads the world championship with a 37-point advantage over Hamilton, who bounced back to second ahead of Raikkonen, Vettel and Mark Webber.
"It was a perfect Sunday for us," the Spaniard declared. "The win was not in reach because when you are starting 10th it is not easy to think of victory. If you cannot win, a podium is the next target. Today was much better than I expected, once Jenson and the two Red Bulls were out of the race."
FIA Formula 1 Italian Grand Prix, Monza, Italy
Final Positions after Race (53 Laps):
1 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1hr 19mins 41.221secs
2 S Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari 1:19:45.577
3 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:20:01.815
4 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:20:10.888
5 K Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus F1 Team 1:20:12.102
6 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:20:12.480
7 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:20:14.771
8 P di Resta (GB) Force India 1:20:22.278
9 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber-Ferrari 1:20:25.119
10 B Senna (Br) Williams 1:20:29.365
11 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams 1:20:29.903
12 D Ricciardo (Aus) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:20:31.537
13 J d'Ambrosio (Bel) Lotus F1 Team 1:20:57.082
14 H Kovalainen (Fin) Caterham at 1 Lap
15 V Petrov (Rus) Caterham at 1 Lap
16 C Pic (Fr) Marussia at 1 Lap
17 T Glock (Ger) Marussia at 1 Lap
18 P de la Rosa (Sp) HRT-F1 at 1 Lap
19 N Karthikeyan (India) HRT-F1 at 1 Lap
20 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull at 2 Laps
21 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Force India at 3 Laps
Not Classified: 22 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 47 Laps completed, 23 Jenson Button (GB) McLaren 32 Laps completed, 24 Jean-Eric Vergne (Fr) Scuderia Toro Rosso 8 Laps completed.
1 F Alonso 179pts
2 L Hamilton 142
3 K Raikkonen 141
4 S Vettel 140
5 M Webber 132
6 J Button 101
7 N Rosberg 83
8 R Grosjean 76
9 S Perez 65
10 F Massa 47
11 M Schumacher 43
12 K Kobayashi 35
13 P di Resta 32
14 N Hulkenberg 31
15 P Maldonado 29
16 B Senna 25
17 J-E Vergne 8
18 D Ricciardo 4
19 H Kovalainen 0
20 V Petrov 0
21 J d'Ambrosio 0
22 T Glock 0
23 C Pic 0
24 N Karthikeyan 0
25 P de la Rosa 0
1 Red Bull 272pts
2 McLaren 243
3 Ferrari 226
4 Lotus F1 Team 217
5 Mercedes GP 126
6 Sauber-Ferrari 100
7 Force India 63
8 Williams 54
9 Scuderia Toro Rosso 12
10 Caterham 0
11 M arussia 0
12 HRT-F1 0
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