A normal F1 season only has one Italian GP and Monza has been on the calendar since the beginning of F1. Even now, this fast-paced circuit manages to serve up a fair bit of exciting racing every now and then. The circumstances surrounding the 2020 F1 season have been far from normal and we actually have three races in Italy this time around with the first one being hosted at the iconic Monza circuit. Despite our low expectations going into the weekend, Monza delivered us the best race of the season so far. Let’s recap.
Mercedes’ W11 has been the most frustratingly dominant car on the grid. With Ferrari not even making it to Q3 because of the absolute pup they’ve made for 2020 and 2021, the 6-time champions are comfortably on the way for a seventh consecutive title. Driving the fastest car has allowed Lewis Hamilton to dominate the driver’s championships as well and the Brit has won 5 of the 7 races leading upto Monza. It was no surprise to see the Mercedes lock out the front row in qualifying yet again with Lewis claiming his 94th Pole position start. For everyone else, Saturday was typical chaos with cars jostling for the slipstream advantage towards the end of each session. In some ways, there was more racing during Q1 and Q2 than in the last two races.
The final session was relatively civilised and Carlos Sainz qualified third fastest with an epic final lap. He would be joined by Sergio Perez on the second row with the Racing Point’s Merc power unit advantage. Max Verstappen was only fifth fastest and will be lining up alongside Lando Norris. A clear step up in pace for McLaren with both cars qualifying so well. Daniel Ricciardo managed to set the seventh fastest time in qualifying and quicker than Lance Stroll, Alexander Albon and Daniil Kvyat. Sebastian Vettel got caught up in Q1 frenzy and couldn’t do a fast lap to try and move into Q2 while Charles Leclerc was only 13th fastest. A stark contrast to the Ferrari performance of 2019 at their home track.
When the lights went out on Sunday, Bottas was bogged down by a poor start which allowed Sainz to move into P2 as they headed into the first corner. Hamilton pulled away well enough to keep the lead. Monza’s Turn 1 is notorious for shunts and punts at the start but luckily no car found its nose embedded in anyone else’s diffuser. There was a close moment between Albon and Gasly though as the AlphaTauri got squeezed between the Red Bull on the outside and Stroll on the inside of Turn 1. Bottas’ nightmare start became a nightmare first lap as the Finn got passed by Norris on the exit of the second chicane, messed up the second Lesmo corner and was passed by Perez next. Ricciardo pulled off his signature late-braking dive down the inside to get past Bottas as they approached Ascari. In one lap, the Finn had dropped from P2 to P6 and now had Verstappen on his tail.
With no challengers, Hamilton was building a lead with the two McLarens running in the podium spots. Sainz had a relatively comfy lead over his teammate who was being chased down by the Merc-powered Racing Point of Perez as well as Ricciardo. By Lap 6, the front order remained the same but we were treated to a rather bizarre sight when the cameras cut to Sebastian Vettel ploughing through the foam barriers on the run-off area for Turn 1. While we’d seen plenty of drivers lock up or misjudge their braking point at the end of the long straight, they’d all zig-zagged their way around the foam blocks as they are meant to. The reason Vettel went through instead of around them is that he had no brakes. Brake failure. Luckily they went kaput after he lost SOME momentum or it could have been a much more dangerous situation, but that was the end of his race as he limped his broken SF1000 to the pits. Less than 10 laps in and one Ferrari had already DNFed at Monza.
The race seemed to have become another Hamilton snoozefest, even though we were excited to see Sainz and Norris in P2 and P3 respectively with Bottas and Verstappen nowhere near them. But the next retirement became the catalyst that turned everything on its head. On Lap 19, Kevin Magnussen’s car “broke” and as he was trying to get it to the pitlane entry, he decided to park it the grass just before it. We don’t know why or if he could have done something to avoid that but that is what happened. At first, they tried to move it off the track without much fuss but realised that the nearest exit wasn’t big enough for the car. Nearly a lap later, the Safety Car was deployed and since the retrieval plan was to push the car to the pitlane, the pitlane entry was closed. At this point, Lewis had a comfortable lead of more than 13 seconds over Sainz and his team brought him into the pits at the end of that very lap when everyone had to drive slow under SC conditions. (Un)fortunately, neither Lewis nor the Mercedes garage wall saw the steward’s message or the trackside signals that were informing them that the pitlane entry was closed. So, the No.44 car rolled in to change from the Softs to the Medium tyres but nobody else followed suit and Hamilton rejoined the track in P2. Well, that’s because everyone else followed the instructions and didn’t pit till the entry was declared open a couple of laps later. But once they did, it was quite the traffic jam of cars darting in and out of their pit slots with fresh tyres and ALMOST bumping into each other on the way out.
By this point, Hamilton was being investigated for his infringement but since he already had the fresh tyres, he stayed out on track. The only other benefactors of this chaos were Lance Stroll and Pierre Gasly who were in P8 and P14 respectively. While Racing Point decided not to pit the Canadian, the Frenchman had made his pitstop just before Magnussen’s retirement. Kimi Raikkonen had pitted even earlier while Giovinazzi was guilty of the same mistake as Hamilton and they stayed out on track as well. Leclerc and Latifi had also pitted early and benefitted from the SC too. The lineup of cars when the Safety Car period ended at the end of Lap 24 had Hamilton in the lead followed by Stroll and Gasly while Sainz and Norris were now running P8 and P9, still ahead of Bottas in P10.
However, the racing was brought to a halt pretty soon when Leclerc lost the rear at Parabolica and was brought to an abrupt stop by the tyre wall. Luckily, the Ferrari driver was okay but he’ll sure be feeling that impact G-force for a few days. It was another Safety Car for sure but when the officials dislodged the Ferrari from the tyre wall, they saw that it needed repair before racing could safely resume, hence it was red-flagged. It is more proof of the safety of modern F1 cars that even with that level of impact, the driver is protected enough to walk away and return to the paddock. Also, it just made an odd race even more unusual because it’s not often that an F1 race gets red-flagged. I also learned that in this situation, everyone is allowed to change tyres while parked up in the pit lane. Teams are also allowed to make basic repairs as long as the parts are exactly the same as those fitted on the car at the start of the race.
While waiting for the race restart, both Hamilton and Giovinazzi were awarded a 10-second stop-go penalty for entering the pitlane when it was closed. Mercedes and Lewis protested given the tricky circumstances and the fact that there is no sign for that at the actual entry, but it was visible on camera that the driver did not take note of the flashing lights on the right side of the Parabolica and the crew didn’t see the message in time either. In conclusion, it would be a sprint race till the chequered flag and the mighty Mercedes is going to be at the back of the pack after the first lap. This meant Stroll and Gasly would be battling it out for the win and both had a fresh set of Medium tyres for the restart.
Hamilton opted to switch to the Hard compound tyres for his stint and Kimi, who was starting P4, was on a fresh set of Soft tyres. When the lights went out for a second time, this it was Stroll who had an awful start and ended up losing a few places heading into the first turn. It seems that spot on the grid just doesn’t offer enough grip. This put Gasly effectively in the lead and Raikkonen was almost able to pass him heading into the second chicane. Stroll locked up and went onto the slip road for the second chicane but rejoined the track without gaining/losing any positions. I’m not sure why that’s okay but I’m assuming it’s like first lap leniency: it’s fine as long as they don’t gain positions and they used the slip road to avoid any accidents.
At the end of the lap, Hamilton dove into the pits to serve his penalty and rejoined the race in last with lots to do. This meant that for the first time in a long time, the other Italian racing team of AlphaTauri (formerly known as Toro Rosso) was leading the Italian Grand Prix. The last and only other win for this team was also at Monza, back in 2008 with then upcoming driver Sebastian Vettel. This time, it was Pierre Gasly who had the opportunity to make his mark in the record books of F1 and his team.
Kimi had made a strong start on the softer compound but the down-on-power, Ferrari-engined Alfa Romeo was dropping back after a few laps. Meanwhile, Red Bull had to retire Verstappen on Lap 31 due to a mechanical fault. This meant this would be the first podium in many years that would not feature ANY of the top 3 teams. It was a sad realisation but I didn’t ponder on it too much. We had a race on our hands! Pierre Gasly was leading the Italian GP in an AlphaTauri while being chased down by the McLaren of Carlos Sainz!! My heart starts fluttering just remembering it as I type it.
Gasly was probably driving his heart out to stay out of DRS range from Sainz, lap after lap. The McLaren would seem to close the gap entering the corners but the AlphaTauri would get a better exit and pull away again. Stroll wasn’t making ground on those two while running in P3 but was able to pull away from Norris who was busy fighting Bottas and Ricciardo to hold onto P4.
We were treated to some team radio of McLaren telling Sainz to be careful and not gamble away a P2 result in the chase for the win but four words from Carlos gave us exactly what we wanted to hear: “I want this win”. It was only on the last lap that Carlos was able to be within DRS range of Pierre as they rounded the Parabolica and down the main straight. But the McLaren didn’t have enough pace to get close enough into Turn 1 and once again, the AlphaTauri seemed to be quicker out of the corners. Sainz’s last chance was gone when he was still too far back as they rounded Parabolica and towards the chequered flag. In the end, Pierre Gasly finished just 0.415s ahead of Carlos Sainz to take his first-ever F1 victory.
It was a fantastic drive from the young Frenchman who has had a tumultuous 18 months in Formula 1. Sure, he wouldn’t have been in that position on merit alone but it was his racing skill that allowed him to finish the job. One more lap and Sainz would have had him but the fact that a P2 finish was his expected result anyway speaks volumes about his racecraft and how far McLaren has come with their car. Lance Stroll was able to collect his second F1 podium with a P3 result even though he had the same chance as Gasly to be leading the race once Hamilton pitted for his penalty. I know the Canadian gets a fair bit of flack wherein he may seem undeserving of some of his opportunities thanks to family financing, but it was still better to see him up there than any Merc or Red Bull driver for a change. These three drivers made for a much more exciting podium than any race of 2020 so far and I am so glad I witnessed it.
Another entry for the records is that Pierre is the first French driver to win an F1 race since Olivier Panis won the Monaco GP in 1996. The best way to tell how much that means to his fellow country folks is to hear how the French commentators covered that tense last lap…
Grosjean’s reaction to finding out Gasly won were sporting too…
Lando Norris was able to hang onto P4 giving McLaren their best team result since coming back to F1. I don’t think Mercedes expected to be leaving Monza with their results. Bottas ended the race in P5, being stuck in the middle order for the whole race and not being able to make any meaningful overtakes in either leg of the race. Radio messages suggested he was running a lower engine mode for engine durability and could be seen driving out of slipstream when possible to keep the engine from overheating. Even with Lewis Hamilton driving like a man possessed, once clear of the slower teams and getting a free pass from Albon’s mistake, the Brit also seemed to struggle in the dirty air of the cars ahead. He did manage to secure P7 and set the fastest lap on his way for those crucial championship points. Once again, Mercedes seem to be very much exposed with the W11 struggling in dirty air. Too bad that no rival team has the pace to beat them in qualifying this season to capitalise on that weakness.
Splitting the Mercedes was the Renault of Daniel Ricciardo who finished P6 while teammate Esteban Ocon finished P8. However, radio messages at the end of the race revealed that this particular Frenchman was not too happy with his result and believed there was clear potential for a better result with a different strategy. Ocon was looking to vent but was told sternly by his team to keep it off the air and save it for the team’s private debrief. However, we did see Ocon congratulate his contemporary and countryman on his win which was nice to see.
Daniil Kvyat put in another strong performance to finish P9, adding to his team’s point tally from the race. The last point scoring position was secured by Sergio Perez who lost out from the first Safety Car as well as the race restart. Williams, in their last race as a family-run F1 team, came tantalisingly close to a championship point with Nicholas Latifi finishing P11 while teamate George Russel ended his race in P14. The Haas of Romain Grosjean came P12 which was the highest-result of the weekend for any Ferrari-powered car while Kimi’s final result was P13. The third and final Ferrari-engined car was that of Giovinazzin in P16 after serving his penalty as well. No Ferrari finished the Monza GP and both drivers were struggling to break into the top 10 when they were in the race. It’s hard to imagine how it could get any more embarrassing for Italy’s proud racing outfit but we have two more Italian races to go, so might be too soon to call it.
Effectively, it was Alex Albon in last place running P15 as he crossed the finish line. It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly where it went wrong for the young driver, once again. He had that close call with Gasly at the very beginning with him in the outside line into Turn 1, making contact with the sister car and going over the kerbs which cost him a couple of places and he made contact with Grosjean at the same turn the following lap. Red Bull was clearly struggling for pace too considering Verstappen wasn’t able to make much progress in the first half of the race either. But that second seat does seem cursed at this point. Even Gasly struggled to get the expected results which led to his mid-season demotion in 2019. But since then, the Frenchman has found himself in the right spot to capitalise on other people’s mistakes and in the space of less than a year, he’s had one podium and now his first race win. While some are eager for Pierre to get another go in the Red Bull crew, it might just be better for him to stay with AlphaTauri until there is an opportunity with a different team altogether.
For the next race, the F1 crew don’t have far to travel as they head from Monza to Mugello for the Tuscan GP. An iconic circuit in other motorsports is making its F1 debut. While we cannot anything close to what we experience from the Monza GP, I’m looking forward to the scenery and maybe some close action in the middle order.
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Final race standings
- P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda — 1:47:06.056
- C. Sainz McLaren Renault +0.415
- L. Stroll Racing Point BWT Mercedes +3.358
- L. Norris McLaren Renault +6.000
- V. Bottas Mercedes +7.108
- D. Ricciardo Renault +8.391
- L. Hamilton Mercedes +17.245
- E. Ocon Renault +18.691
- D. Kvyat AlphaTauri Honda +22.208
- S. Perez Racing Point BWT Mercedes +23.224
- N. Latifi Williams Racing Mercedes +32.876
- R. Grosjean Haas Ferrari +35.164
- K. Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +36.312
- G. Russell Williams Racing Mercedes +36.593
- A. Albon Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Honda +37.533
- A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +55.199
- M. Verstappen Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Honda DNF
- C. Leclerc Ferrari DNF
- K. Magnussen Haas Ferrari DNF
- S. Vettel Ferrari DNF