Monza 2008: How Vettel and Toro Rosso pulled off their fairytale F1 win

Monza will forever hold a special place in Sebastian Vettel’s heart as it was here in 2008 he piloted a Toro Rosso to one of Formula 1’s most incredible underdog victories. Luke Smith recounts that history making feat on this day, 14 years ago.

Monza 2008: How Vettel and Toro Rosso pulled off their fairytale F1 win

When Sebastian Vettel hangs up his helmet and retires from Formula 1 at the end of the year, few circuits will hold fonder memories for him than Monza.

Vettel’s farewell to the Tifosi, the adoring fans who once heralded him as their star, and still keep him close to their hearts, was the only highlight from what proved to be a fairly miserable final Italian Grand Prix on-track for the four-time world champion last weekend.

“The fans were great, which was nice, so we’ll take that,” said Vettel, having retired just 10 laps into the race. “Coming into the track was definitely nice, but obviously the driving wasn’t a highlight.”

But it was not in Ferrari colours where Vettel enjoyed his greatest high at Monza. On this day (14 September) in 2008, he stunned the paddock and staked his claim as a future star by scoring his first grand prix victory for Toro Rosso in heavy rain, going down as one of F1’s great underdog victories.

The combination of the low-drag aero efficient Toro Rosso STR3 and the might of its Ferrari engine meant Monza was always likely to be a good race for Vettel, who had been picking up regular points since the 2008 chassis was introduced five races into the season.

Vettel propelled former Minardi team Toro Rosso to its first F1 win

Vettel propelled former Minardi team Toro Rosso to its first F1 win

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

But wet qualifying at Monza meant Vettel had a real chance to cause an upset. A set-up change ahead of final practice gave the 21-year-old a confidence he’d lacked through Friday, before the changeable conditions then played into his hands - and against others. Lewis Hamilton’s gamble on intermediates caused him to drop out in Q2, meaning he would start 15th just behind Kimi Raikkonen. Felipe Massa could only muster sixth in the sister Ferrari, leaving Hamilton’s team-mate, Heikki Kovalainen, as the only driver from a front-running team to try and beat Vettel. The Finn fell eight-hundredths of a second short, owing in part to a more heavily-fuelled car, leaving Vettel to delight in becoming F1’s youngest polesitter.

“I was joking with my engineers, we were saying if it is wet, then we have to go for pole position,” said Vettel. “It’s unbelievable. The conditions were so difficult today, a lot of water. You never knew how much water to expect.

“I never dreamt of being on pole. Unbelievable. This is our home grand prix. There are two Italian teams. The bigger one is Scuderia Ferrari but I think now the people know the small one: Scuderia Toro Rosso. So it is unbelievable.”

Vettel had gone back to his roots to hone his wet-weather driving skills just a couple of weeks before Monza, heading to Michael Schumacher’s go-kart track at Kerpen before the Belgian Grand Prix. He had insisted on driving in wet conditions on slicks despite being told not to. “They said, 'no, you are mad!' and I said, 'I need some practice if it rains in Spa,’” recalled Vettel.

Karting in the wet on slicks weeks beforehand helped Vettel come the race

Karting in the wet on slicks weeks beforehand helped Vettel come the race

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Few thought it would be Monza where the decision really paid off, yet it helped Vettel stay composed as he opened up a healthy lead in the early stages to Kovalainen behind. Bar a brief moment on lap eight where Vettel caught a snap after taking too much kerb at the Roggia chicane, he held his nerve at the front and gradually edged clear of Kovalainen. By the time Vettel came in to pit on lap 18, he was 10 seconds clear - a big enough buffer to negate the difference in fuel loads.

It meant Vettel cycled back to the front once Kovalainen pitted four laps later, but it was the second McLaren of Hamilton who was now becoming more of a threat. McLaren had fuelled him heavily to try and make up for the qualifying setback, allowing him to tear into Vettel’s lead as he neared the end of his stint. With more heavy rain expected, McLaren brought Hamilton in for another set of full wets and fuelled him to the end, knowing Vettel still had to pit once more. If the rain came, Hamilton was in the pound seat for victory.

But the rain never hit with the kind of intensity that was expected. Vettel had been able to keep the gap to Kovalainen at over 10s, giving him enough of a buffer to let McLaren blink first on the switch to intermediates. For a driver leading a grand prix for the first time and the smallest team on the F1 grid, they were acting like seasoned pros.

The unplanned second stop took Hamilton out of contention for a fightback win, meaning all Vettel had to do was count down the laps, the enormity of what he was about to achieve gradually setting in. “Sometimes I was thinking, ‘there is still P1 on my board, how can it be?’” he admitted after the race. “I am fuelled to finish, there is nothing, no pitstops, so just keep it together.”

And that’s exactly what Vettel did. Showing the kind of clinical precision that would make him so hard to beat in his future heyday with Red Bull, he crossed the line 12s clear of the pack to score a remarkable maiden victory. At 21 years and 73 days, Sebastian Vettel was the youngest winner in Formula 1 history.

“When I crossed the chequered flag, I realised I had just won the race, it was unbelievable to see all the people going crazy around the circuit,” said Vettel. “It was the best lap I ever did in Monza. Obviously it was not the fastest, but for sure it was the best one.”

Heavy rain not materialising helped in Vettel's bid to keep Hamilton at bay

Heavy rain not materialising helped in Vettel's bid to keep Hamilton at bay

Photo by: Sutton Images

Vettel fought to hold back the tears as the German national anthem rang out over the F1 podium in his honour for the first time. It was a routine he had seen so many times watching as a child, revelling in the success of his hero, Schumacher. Today, it was all for him.

Yet it was also a monumental day for Toro Rosso, a team that had evolved from the minnow Minardi operation less than three years earlier. Celebrating on the start/finish line under the podium, fans decked in Minardi gear wept and kissed the circuit. Their tiny little team had won on home soil.

Although the Faenza team would go on to score a second miracle win at Monza in 2020, under its AlphaTauri guise courtesy of Pierre Gasly, a lot had changed by then. Back in 2008, it was still an incredibly small operation going up against free-spending manufacturers.

“Compared to BMW or McLaren-Mercedes or Ferrari we haven't got that amount of manpower at home 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 would always hold a special place in Vettel’s heart because of that day in 2008. Ahead of the 2010 championship showdown in Abu Dhabi, Vettel’s race engineer, Guillaume Rocquelin, 'Rocky', took a permanent marker and wrote “MONZA” in big capital letters on his balaclava. It was a reminder of what Vettel was capable of and would serve as a lucky charm for his first championship win, which would later be recalled with his helmet for the 2018 race.

Vettel’s F1 career looks set to end without adding to his haul of 53 race victories, but where does Monza 2008 rank? He admitted last week it was “quite a luxury” to have so many to pick from (only Hamilton and Schumacher have more wins) and that comparing was always tricky.

“But I would say the first one is very special,” said Vettel. “Also the circumstances: it was a bit of a miracle and fairytale, pulling it off with a pole and then the race win. So yeah, it was very special.”

Looking back, Vettel describes his first win as

Looking back, Vettel describes his first win as "very special"

Photo by: Sutton Images

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