Nico Rosberg cut a distraught figure in the paddock after qualifying half a second adrift of teammate Lewis Hamilton at the historic Autodromo Nazionale Monza, but few doubted it was anything other than the resumption of normal service in the championship fight.
After winning the Belgian Grand Prix unopposed and ahead of Hamilton in third, Rosberg’s title fightback seemed to have already become derailed.
But on the calendar’s fastest circuit race permutations too change at a rapid pace, and prospects for the race were turned on their heads within seconds of the lights going out.
Hamilton bogged down off the line and lost five places by the first turn. Rosberg, whose start was better but by no definition great, needed only to fend off an advance from the fast-starting Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari to claim first place.
“From then on I was able to control the pace,” a jubilant Rosberg said after the race. “It was all down to the start.”
It was Rosberg’s first victory in Italy, but more pertinent was that the German has closed a 19-point deficit to Hamilton to just two points in the first two rounds since the midseason break.
“I’m feeling great. The race is on with Lewis of course – it’s always going to be a great battle, and I look forward to what’s to come.”
What is to come is the most mouth-watering part of the championship picture. Of the seven races still to come this season, in 2015 Rosberg won three of them and the remaining four were split between Hamilton and Vettel.
In stark contrast to the one-way traffic in Italy, where Mercedes’s horsepower advantage and infinitely refined car proved untouchable, the next race on the humid and twisty streets of Singapore will be a hotly contested three-team battle.
The Singapore Grand Prix will be run on Sept 18.
Meanwhile, Formula One learnt in Italy that it would be without two fixtures of the sport in 2017, with both Felipe Massa and Jenson Button confirming their exit.
Massa, 35, will start his 250th grand prix of a career that took him to the brink of a world title with Ferrari in 2008 at this year’s season-ending race in Abu Dhabi.
“I have so many great memories over the years, and I thank everyone in all the teams I have come through to help me get to where I am today,” said Massa. “My career has been more than I ever expected, and I am proud of what I have achieved.”
Button’s absence from the 2017 grid is more complicated, with McLaren announcing an ‘innovative’ driver strategy featuring Fernando Alonso and current test driver Stoffel Vandoorne racing full-time and Button in a reserve driver and ambassadorial role.
“To be clear, I’m very definitely not retiring,” Button said. “I’m contracted for both 2017 and 2018, I intend to work hard on car development, and I’m sure I’ll get behind the wheel of the new car at some point.”
McLaren CEO Ron Dennis was equally unequivocal when describing Button’s role.
“There’s no reason why he shouldn’t come back and race in 2018,” he said.
It would appear that Button’s contract in 2018 is an insurance policy against either Alonso deciding not to extend his contract past next season or the unlikely scenario of Vandoorne failing to convert his impressive junior career into top-level results.