When Vettel hangs up his helmet and retires from Formula 1 at the end of the year, few circuits will hold more memories for him than Monza .
Sebastian Vettel’s farewell to the tifosi, the Italian fans who hailed him as their star, and who still hold him in their hearts, was the only highlight of what turned out to be a disappointing final Italian Grand Prix on track for the four-time champion. in the world last weekend.
“The fans have been very good so we will accept this weekend,” said Vettel, who retired after just 10 laps of racing. “Getting on the track was definitely great, but obviously the driving wasn’t the highlight.
But it was not with the colors of Ferrari that Vettel enjoyed his best day in Monza. On September 14, 2008, he surprised the paddock and became a future star by taking his first F1 victory, with Toro Rosso and in heavy rain, which is considered one of the greatest victories in history.
The combination of the low-drag Toro Rosso STR3 and the power of its Ferrari engine made Monza a track where Vettel, who had regularly scored points since the 2008 chassis was introduced after the first five races of the season, fulfilled.
But qualifying in the wet at Monza meant Vettel had a real chance to spring an upset. A set-up change before the final practice session gave the 21-year-old the confidence he lacked on Friday, before changing conditions worked to his advantage – and against others.
Lewis Hamilton’s bet on the intermediates made him fall in Q2, so he would start 15th, just behind Kimi Raikkonen. That year’s other title favorite, Felipe Massa, could only finish sixth in the second Ferrari, leaving Hamilton’s team-mate Heikki Kovalainen as the only driver from a top team who could beat Vettel. The Finn fell eight-hundredths of a second back on Saturday, due in part to a more fuel-laden car, leaving Vettel the youngest driver in history to take a pole position.
“I was joking with my engineers, we said if it was rainy then we had to go for pole position,” Vettel said. “It’s unbelievable. The conditions were very difficult, there was a lot of water. You never knew how much water there was going to be.”
“I never dreamed of being on pole. It’s amazing. This is our home grand prix. There are two Italian teams. The biggest is Scuderia Ferrari but I think now people know the little one: Scuderia Toro Rosso. So it’s amazing “said Vettel on that triumphant weekend in 2008.
Vettel had gone back to his roots to hone his wet driving skills a couple of weeks before Monza, going to Michael Schumacher’s go-kart track at Kerpen ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix . He insisted on driving in wet conditions on dry tires even though he had been told not to. “They told me: ‘no, you’re crazy’, and I said: ‘I need to practice if it rains at Spa,” Vettel recalled.
Few thought it would be at Monza that the decision would pay off, but it helped Vettel maintain his composure as he opened up a good early lead over Kovalainen. Except for a brief scare on lap eight in which Vettel was surprised by a sharp curb at the Roggia chicane , he kept his nerve in front and pulled away from his pursuers. By the time Vettel pitted on lap 18, he had a 10-second lead, a large enough margin to negate the fuel load difference.
That meant Vettel was back in front once Kovalainen made his stop four laps later, but it was Hamilton’s second McLaren F1 that now became a threat. The English team had put a lot of fuel into it to try to make up for the qualifying setback, allowing it to cut Vettel’s lead as he neared the end of his stint. And with heavier rain forecast, McLaren had Hamilton ride another set of extreme rain to go all the way, knowing Vettel still had to pit once more. If the rain came, Hamilton had a chance to win.
But the rain never came with the intensity that was expected. Vettel had been able to maintain the difference with Kovalainen in more than 10 seconds, enough cushion for McLaren to bet earlier on the change to intermediates. For a driver leading a grand prix for the first time and for the smallest team on the F1 grid, they were acting like seasoned professionals.
The second unscheduled stop put Hamilton out of contention for victory, which meant that all Vettel had to do was count the laps remaining, and the enormity of what he was about to gradually achieve. “Sometimes I thought: ‘it still puts a P1 on my board, how can that be? I just have to drive to finish, there is nothing, there are no pitstops, so just keep calm.
And that is exactly what Vettel did. Showing the kind of clinical precision that would make him so hard to beat in his future Red Bull heyday, he crossed the finish line 12 seconds ahead of the pack to score a remarkable first win. At 21 years and 73 days, Sebastian Vettel became the youngest winner in Formula 1 history.
“When I crossed the checkered flag, I realized that I had just won the race, it was amazing to see all the people going crazy on the circuit,” said Vettel. “It was the best lap I’ve done in Monza. Obviously it wasn’t the fastest, but it was the best for sure.”
Vettel fought back tears as the German national anthem was played on the F1 podium in his honor for the first time. It was a routine he had seen many times as a child, reveling in the success of his hero, Schumacher. That day, everything was for him.
However, it was also a monumental day for Toro Rosso , a team that had evolved from the Minardi program less than three years earlier. Celebrating at the finish line under the podium, fans decked out in Minardi clothing wept and kissed the circuit. His small team (despite the change) had won at home.
Although the Faenza outfit would go on to claim a second miraculous win at Monza in 2020, in the guise of AlphaTauri with Pierre Gasly, much had changed by then. In 2008, it was still an incredibly small team going up against big-spending manufacturers.
“Compared to BMW, McLaren-Mercedes or Ferrari, we don’t have that many staff in the factory,” Vettel said. “We get a lot of help from Red Bull Technology, but still we have about 160 people working in Faenza. Everyone today feels very special and can feel very special.”
Monza will always hold a special place in Vettel’s heart for that weekend in 2008. Before the 2010 championship showdown in Abu Dhabi, Vettel’s race engineer, Guillaume Rocquelin , “Rocky”, grabbed a permanent marker and he wrote “MONZA” in large capital letters on his balaclava. It was a reminder of what Vettel was capable of and would serve as his lucky charm for his first title, which he would later remember with his helmet for the 2018 race.
Vettel’s run in F1 looks set to end with a haul of 53 wins, but where is Monza 2008? He recently admitted that it was “quite a luxury” to have so many to choose from (only Hamilton and Schumacher have more wins) and that comparing them was always difficult.
“But I would say the first one is very special,” Vettel said. “Also because of the circumstances: it was a bit of a miracle, and a fairy tale to get pole position and then win the race. So yeah, it was very special.”