Italian Grand Prix: Safety First
For the loyal hordes of the Tifosi, Monza represents a homecoming of sorts and a celebration of all things Ferrari. In this case, 75 years of the prancing horse, hosted by a passionate nation that celebrates motorsport and has it coursing through every vein.
And to add to the party mode, we were celebrating 100 years of Monza. The banked corners form the meat of the sandwich between the crowd and the modern circuit. Reminders of those that came and paved the way for the contemporary battleground we see today. Men like Sir Stirling Moss, Phil Hill and Jim Clark proved their mettle on the original, heavily-banked speedway in less protective conditions. They sure don't make them like they used to.
Qualifying was the ever messy affair with drivers at risk of not making the delta speed limit for an out-lap (there's a rule about that). The usual tactics you're going to witness at Monza. Leclerc deservedly snatched pole from Verstappen, with Carlos Sainz in 3rd. Honourable mention to the debutant, Nyck De Vries: Even with the short notice, every reserve driver expects an emergency call-up. De Vries already proved it in the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year, but F1 would be a different story altogether.
Friday's free practice had arrived, and the news was that Alex Albon had contracted appendicitis and wouldn't be making the GP weekend. De Vries had already tested the Aston in FP3, which was planned, but getting the call-up for Williams wasn't. The Dutchman quickly set out to make the most of his opportunity. He was quickly getting up to speed and, in the process, raising an eyebrow or two in the paddock. More on that later...
Surprisingly Drama-Free Start
Lights out and the start at Monza, especially, is always something to be wary about. The current grid penalty system meant that anyone who went over the allocated allowance for replaceable parts would suffer demotion down the grid. Many, including the commentators, got dizzy from keeping stock. The system needs addressing as the fastest drivers aren't necessarily in the correct starting positions, which can lead to problems at some point. So far, it hasn't, but we don't want a multicar pile-up thanks to this.
Everyone got off the line well, apart from Norris, who had a race start he'd sooner forget, losing four places after his Mclaren bogged down at the beginning. Add to that a botched pitstop costing him precious time, and the young Brit was on the backfoot fighting hard. His grit and determination meant that his first stint before the pit needed to be good, which he delivered with some of the best driving we've seen from him. Determination personified.
Verstappen quickly carved his way through the field, passing cars like they were looking for parking. All that without the assistance of the Drag Reduction System. He effortlessly passed Russel, who put up no fight whatsoever. It needs to be noted, though, that Mercedes knows it didn't have the pace to keep up with the sensationally-quick Red Bull — it's far from ideal in the competition context.
Further down the order, Sainz too was making his way through the field, joining the mid-pack fight. Not for long since the Spaniard carefully threaded his way past, doing well not to spoil anyone's race or get tangled up. He used the straight-line speed of the Ferrari, much to the delight of the Tifosi fans. Starting 18th, he made his way to P5 by lap 12. Vamos, Carlos!
Ferrari's been criticised in the past few races for some shocking strategy calls. I find the radio calls for getting an opinion from Charles Leclerc on strategy somewhat odd. Why divvy up responsibility when you have a job to do as a strategist? Have the confidence to decide and let the driver veto if he feels strongly against it. Binotto has communicated differently.
A Virtual Safety Car saw Leclerc taking advantage, and pitting for mediums. The hope was that it would last 40 laps, given lady luck wasn't playing along and Verstappen missed the opportunity to pit. The second part worked out for Ferrari, for once, but the first part… Hmm, it was touch and go. Leclerc retook the lead on Lap 27 after Verstappen pitted.
Daniel Ricciardo too looked to be moving along quite well from the start, hoping to deliver some success from the previous year when he won before being pitted to test out the hard compound tyres for the team. He and Perez have clearly taken to the roles of laboratory subjects to gift the other drivers with the best possible odds. Looking at the bigger picture is the business of it all, right?
On lap 34, Ferrari made the call to pit. The idea was to swap the mediums for a new set of soft tyres to cull some of Red Bull's speed. Verstappen had closed the gap, and Leclerc would have never made it. The lead swung back to Verstappen with Leclerc on the hunt, 18 seconds behind and 19 laps remaining. It was always going to be a mammoth effort.
Like we've seen before, the race hit somewhat of a steady lull. Until the Virtual Safety Car was deployed and then, thanks to last year's race winner, Daniel Ricciardo's stricken McLaren, a Safety Car on lap 47. Flashbacks to Abu Dhabi, anyone?
All signs pointed to an incredibly exhilarating restart, with Charles Leclerc attacking Verstappen. But it never came. Instead, we got the anti-climax of the year so far. Given the opportunity, I know of a few Land Cruiser owners with tow ropes who'd've got that Mclaren out in a flash. But it was learnt afterwards that the Mclaren was, in fact, stuck in gear. Anyway.
Debutant of the Day
We said we'd reconvene on the Nyck De Vries story. De Vries deservedly got driver of the day, finishing P9, scoring points and outscoring Nicholas Latifi, who is yet to grab a point even with an extremely slippery Williams. This must be the final straw for the Canadian, who hasn't quite cut it in F1 despite being the only one who gave De Vries a go when the Dutchman won the F2 championship back in 2019.
Ultimately, it wasn't the ending we deserved but the ending we got. Leclerc can't be upset with the result in the moments preceding the Safety Car. He hadn't been able to undo the 18-second gap between him and Verstappen to improve on his second place, with Russell continuing his consistent form and taking third place.
For the travelling circus, this was the last event on the European continent before the grid heads to Singapore. Russia's off the calendar thanks to their imperialistic desires with the war in Ukraine. With Verstappen's win, given his prolific form, he already has one hand on the championship trophy and won't need the rest of the season to put the other hand on it. As for the rest, it's become an almost second championship fighting for the best of the rest in the standings. Such has been the dominance displayed by Max. See you all at the next one on the 30th of September, 2022.
Words: Brent Van Der Schyff