The second half of the Italian Grand Prix was not about the man who won, nor about a driver in contention for the world championship. It was, not for the first time this season, about a young Mexican storming to a surprise second place finish and leaving all with the distinct impression that he could, and perhaps should, have won.
There was a small period in the race where projecting the current laptimes to the end of the race had Perez as the predicted winner. But that was in the window between the retirement of the McLaren rear-gunner and the emergence of Perez in second place as the main threat to Hamilton’s victory. Before Jenson retired, and after the Perez threat became of concern, Lewis’ pace was about 0.3s faster – enough to prevent a serious challenge. But remember that Hamilton started from the pole, and his main challengers in the race (as it turned out) started from the fifth and sixth row, giving Lewis a buffer which allowed him (as in Hungary) to race as fast as he needed to go. His trace shows evidence of faster and slower patches, depending on the threat, but we can’t see if he was ever going as fast as he could.
Let’s have a quick look at the race history chart, before we do some playing to see how much of a threat Perez (or indeed Alonso) could have been had they started at the front. I’ve left out all the cars who did not affect the races of the podium finishers (so no Massa, Schumacher et al.). At the end of the first stint, all the cars of interest are in clear air, and give a good picture of their pace on the medium (Hamilton, Alonso) and hard (Perez) tyres.
Once clear of Raikkonen, we can see that Perez pace on the hard tyres was close to that of Alonso and Hamilton on the medium tyres (about 0.3s per lap down). It wasn’t until the McLaren and Ferrari stopped that we found out that the pace of these cars was about 0.2s (Hamilton) and 0.3s (Alonso) slower than Perez had been. Once Button retired, Hamilton eased off (by about 0.3s per lap), and Alonso’s pace became clear once past Vettel. There were claims of damage, but I’d be surprised if we’re talking more than 0.1s per lap based on Massa’s relative pace before and after. It’s not clear whether Alonso’s early stop resulted in his tyres going off at the end or whether he realxed in a safe third place at the end – but we do see a similar effect in Massa’s trace. No other car shows this behaviour, which suggests it could be something to do with the way the Ferrari uses its tyres.
It was when Perez passed Raikkonen that the fun began. Perez was then running more than one second per lap faster than Alonso and Hamilton on the medium tyres as his tyres were both faster and newer. If we fuel-correct this, we get that had a genuine 0.3s per lap pace advantage over the title contenders on both tyre types. Impressive stuff – and so he really was the fastest.
We can demonstrate that this is the case by manipulating the race history chart to put the trace of Alonso and Perez on top of Hamilton’s at around the end of the first stint.
The dashed lines are the intelligentF1 model pace fits, and they match very closely at lap 1. Perez is clearly the fastest car over the race, his simulated race finishing over 10s before Hamilton’s. Lewis would have needed 0.25s per lap (on our best guess at his real pace) to beat the Sauber, but he was faster than the Ferrari. If Perez can stick the Sauber near the front (and not be assaulted by an errant Lotus), then we could be in for a surprise (except that it shouldn’t be a surprise) victory. I just wonder if the team have any idea why he was suddenly 0.7s per lap faster than Kobayashi, and if they can predict when it is going to happen.