It’s shoeys all round…except for the title rivals
Daniel Ricciardo won his first race since leaving Red Bull in 2018 on an extraordinary Italian Grand Prix weekend.
McLaren were legitimate challengers in Monza and took advantage of the leading teams’ messy weekends to claim a first victory since 2012, with Lando Norris making it a 1-2 for the papaya team.
After a poor start in the sprint race, Lewis Hamilton found himself fourth on the grid and, with teammate Valtteri Bottas starting at the back after taking a new engine, it was Max Verstappen and Ricciardo who lined up on the front row.
The Honey Badger nailed his getaway and comfortably beat the Red Bull to the first corner. From there, he never looked back.
Hamilton also got a good start, passing Norris for third and then challenging Verstappen into the second chicane of Variante della Roggia. The reigning champion got himself alongside the Red Bull but – not for the first time this season – was run out of road on the outside and rejoined the track behind Norris.
It would not be the rivals’ final meeting on track.
The first stint of the race was a tale of the two title contenders failing to pass the McLaren in front of them, largely thanks to their excellent straight-line speed and strong traction out of the final corner.
Ricciardo triggered the sole round of pit stops when he came in on lap 23, but the series of events leading to the biggest moment of the weekend began when Verstappen responded one lap later.
The usually flawless Red Bull pit crew suffered a sensor issue which led to a painful, 11-second stop for the championship leader and saw him fall behind Norris.
Mercedes – despite Hamilton having started on the harder tyre compound – knew this was their chance to jump Verstappen and brought car number 44 in two laps later. It was another poor stop, however – at a little over four seconds – and saw Hamilton rejoin right between Norris and Verstappen.
The Dutchman tried to stick it out around the outside of Turn One but ran out of road and bounced over the sausage kerbs. That sent him straight on into Hamilton and, as his right rear rode over the left rear of the Mercedes, he suddenly found himself sitting on top of his rival’s car.
Despite Hamilton’s efforts to reverse out from underneath the Bull which had so rudely mounted him, both were out of the race and the Safety Car was called.
The race restarted on lap 30 with Charles Leclerc delighting the Tifosi by having moved up into second with a cheap pit stop during the Safety Car period.
Not for long, though, as Norris bravely kept his foot in at almost 200 mph with two tyres on the grass through Curva Grande to retake the position from the Ferrari.
After a brief challenge on his teammate for the lead, McLaren decided to call the race off and focus on securing a scarcely believable 1-2.
Behind them, Valtteri Bottas continued his inspired charge through the field. The Finn had topped qualifying on Friday and won the Sprint on Saturday but started at the back for the main event after taking on a new engine.
He fought his way up to fourth on the road, which became a podium once Sergio Pérez was hit with a five-second time penalty for overtaking off the track. The Mexican also recovered well from a disappointing qualifying but would ultimately claim fifth – splitting the two Ferraris – once the penalty was applied.
Out front, though, it was all about the McLarens, who completed another wave of of orange celebrations – after Verstappen’s win at home seven days before – as they crossed the line in first and second.
What a tale of redemption for the team and their Aussie driver, who had struggled so badly to adapt to his new car in the first part of the season.
He appears to have succeeded in mentally resetting over the summer break and his eighth F1 victory will perhaps be the most satisfying of his career to date.
Now we wait to see what the Woking team can do with the regulations reset for next season. If they continue on their current trajectory, they could well be fighting for victories on a far more regular basis.
Breaking Down the Latest Hamilton-Verstappen Incident
Just as the battle at the front was becoming more amicable once again – with Hamilton appearing genuinely please for his rival’s home success – we get another flashpoint.
There was much debate over the culpability in their dramatic clash at Silverstone, and that will likely be the CASe again over the next fortnight.
Predictably, the drivers blamed each other. But the stance of Christian Horner – and even the ever-outspoken Helmut Marko – that it was a racing incident shows an effective admission of guilt on this one.
It usually takes just the slightest hint of accountability from Hamilton for them to go on the media warpath, encouraging their followers to raise their pitchforks to the sky.
There was an element or irony in elements of the Red Bull camp’s reaction in Italy. Firstly, Verstappen’s protestations that Hamilton should have left him more space are somewhat hypocritical, considering his approach to a very similar situation with the roles reversed on lap 1.
And, in hindsight, after having made such ridiculous accusations to the extremes of Hamilton having practically committed attempted murder in Silverstone, playing off an incident where their driver’s car struck Hamilton’s helmet as no big deal also seems a little incongruous.
The stewards decided Verstappen was predominantly to blame and have handed him a three-place grid penalty for the next event. Not that it will matter considering the likelihood of Red Bull taking an engine penalty in Sochi.
From this writer’s point of view, the penalty feels about right. The Dutchman entered the chicane behind Hamilton but his overspeed meant that he was probably justified in sticking his car on the outside initially.
However, despite Hamilton leaving just about enough space to do so, it was clear that the trajectory and speed at which Verstappen entered was only going to result in one outcome, unless Hamilton basically parked his Mercedes on the outside of the second corner and waved him through.
That is the point at which most drivers on the grid – including Hamilton himself earlier in the race – would bail out of the move and take to the escape road. But Verstappen is not most drivers.
His sheer bloody-mindedness means that he will almost never back out of a confrontation. Since joining the sport – even as a 17-year-old – he has epitomised the Ayrton Senna ‘back out or we crash’ mantra.
Personally, I would much rather see a hard battle over the course of a series of corners or laps, with two racers battling it out right on the edge.
Hamilton and Fernando Alonso demonstrated that in Hungary this year – and many times before – as have plenty of other drivers.
That is surely what we want to see. Whilst these monumental crashes are great for the drama, and will be spoken about for years, it is a shame that the most referenced points of this incredible season will be the leaders ending up in the gravel, rather than battles for the ages like Alonso and Michael Schumacher at Imola in 2005.
It almost brings a question to Verstappen’s wheel-to-wheel ability. The 23-year-old is clearly spectacularly fast, but at what point do we consider him to be poor in wheel-to-wheel combat? The instances of him forcing drivers off the road outnumbers his on-the-edge battles at an increasing rate.
He surely has the ability and spatial awareness required, but whether he chooses to do so is the bigger issue.
There is a very fine line between hard driving and poor driving.
Answering the Burning Questions
How will the Sprint Qualifying format play out this time around? Once again, we had a crazy weekend – but whether the format was instrumental in that is up for debate.
Will Mercedes dominate on a power-sensitive track? In terms of outright pace, probably. In terms of the race, it was actually a McLaren domination.
Will we get the usual Monza shenanigans in the regular qualifying session on Friday? Yep, as predicted it was all a bit cringeworthy at points.
The Race in 60 Seconds
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