Formula 1 returned to Italy to race at Monza, the Temple of Speed, this past weekend with a hotly contested world title in the balance. Even though it is a high-speed circuit much like Zandvoort from the round before, Monza has not favoured the Red Bulls for the entirety of the turbo-hybrid era of F1. With Ferrari out of the picture in their current form, the odds were in favour of Mercedes and McLaren. However, since the 2021 Monza GP would follow the sprint qualifying format, there was a lot of room for uncertainties and surprises.

Just a reminder to those who missed the Silverstone GP earlier this year, an F1 weekend with spring qualifying follows a different format. Friday hosts one free practice and regular qualifying which sets the starting grid for the sprint on Saturday after the second free practice. The final classification of the sprint decides the starting order of the race with no restrictions on the choice of starting tyres. A sprint qualifier is a short race, usually around 30 minutes or 100km of race distance. At Monza, that equated to 18 laps. 

Friday Qualifying

The Mercedes cars dominated on Friday through practice and then in qualifying as well. It was the race weekend following Valtteri Bottas announcing his departure from the reigning champions at the end of the season, and it seems that took a weight off the shoulders of the Finn. He also had the benefit of a new power unit in his No.77 W12 and the penalty would place him at the back of the grid anyway. But it seemed like none of that was going to put a dent in Valtteri’s mood that weekend as the Finn set the fastest time in qualifying. Lewis Hamilton was second fastest, slower by just under a tenth of a second, securing Mercedes another front-row lockout. The setup of the Red Bull cars was clearly not as quick around Monza as their rivals and Max Verstappen was only third fastest in qualifying, more than three-tenths behind Hamilton. But the real threat for the weekend was McLaren with both drivers only a few hundredths of a second behind Verstappen. Lando Norris was fourth fastest ahead of teammate Daniel Ricciardo, just six milliseconds between them. 

It was another strong qualifying result from last year’s winner at Monza, Pierre Gasly, clocking in the sixth-fastest time of the final session. The AlphaTauri outpacing the home team of Scuderia Ferrari who qualified P7 (Carlos Sainz) and P8 (Charles Leclerc). Sergio Perez did make it to Q3 this time but wasn’t able to do much with it, and qualified only ninth-fastest, just ahead of Antonio Giovinazzi. 

But this only decided the starting order for the sprint race on Saturday. Even though drivers are told to take it easy as there is more to lose than there is to gain during the sprint, it can ruin some driver’s Sunday while giving another a chance to start further up the grid.

The second practice session on Saturday ahead of the sprint was mostly uneventful except for Carlos Sainz’s big crash through Ascari. He was safe but the SF21 needed serious repairs in the space of just a few hours. Luckily the home team was able to get it ready for the sprint.

The Sprint Race/Qualifying

Lewis Hamilton had a shocker of a start on Saturday, a bit of wheelspin costing him multiple positions before reaching the Turn 1 chicane. Max, Daniel and Pierre got their nose ahead of the No.44 Mercedes W12 around the outside while Lando made his move down the inside.

Unfortunately for Gasly, he clipped the rear wheel of Ricciardo braking deep into Turn 1 which broke his front wing. The wing snapped off as he was rounding Turn 3 (Curva Grande) at full throttle, going under the car and sending Gasly through the gravel and into the wall. Fortunately, it was a side-on impact with a lot of speed being shaven off by the gravel trap and Gasly was safe but the incident did necessitate a Safety Car. By the end of the opening lap, Hamilton had dropped down to P5 while his championship rival was where he should have been in P2. 

The race…ehm, the sprint qualifying resumed on Lap 4 and Bottas was quick to put some distance between himself and Verstappen. The McLaren drivers stayed within sight of the Red Bull but didn’t look like they would be able to mount a charge. Norris, who had lost his position to his teammate at the start, was once reliving his Austrian GP experience and holding up Hamilton behind him. It is quite tricky to make overtakes around Monza without a significant pace advantage and the remaining 14 laps of the sprint were not enough for Hamilton to recover from his slow start. Further down the order, Perez had also lost some places at the start but was trying to make them back up as rapidly as he could. This involved a tussle with Lance Stroll that saw him cut Turn 2 to avoid hitting the Aston Martin. It wasn’t until he got the orders of team radio that the Mexican returned the position to the Canadian, only to execute the overtake manoeuvre the following lap. This time, he made it stick and stayed within track limits. While it is almost a given that any driver who gains a lasting advantage by exceeding track limits needs to return the position to the driver they overtook, it seems Perez was willing to risk a penalty over it.

Bottas won the sprint, earning three championship points and a shiny new medal. Even though Verstappen finished second, Bottas’ penalty and Hamilton’s mistake would now place him on Pole for the real race on Sunday. It was exactly the kind of luck he and the Red Bull team needed for their title challenge this season. Ricciardo’s P3 finish in the sprint was his best result for McLaren yet and a boost for the Aussie who’d had a rough first half of the season in his debut season for the team. The result would also place him on the front row for the Grand Prix and given that McLaren was as quick if not quicker than Red Bull at Monza that weekend, he was within reach of the podium or even a win. 

The biggest loser from the sprint was AlphaTauri who had one driver in the wall and damage to the other car as well. After the win in 2020 and an unbroken run of point-scoring finishes in 2021, the Italian team would have their worst stroke of luck yet. Yuki Tsunoda did not even start the race while Gasly would retire the car after just two laps.

The Race

When the lights went out on Sunday, Max got off the line well but Daniel had an even better start. The former Red Bull driver had moved up into the lead before the first corner while Hamilton was able to pass Norris down the inside. Lewis got slipstream from Max as they rounded Turn 3 and got alongside on the outside line for the second chicane ( Variante della Roggio). The Dutchman understeered wide on entry forcing his title rival off track and over the bumps to rejoin the track, cutting the second half of the chicane but retaining P3. This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen these two butt wheels on the opening lap and it certainly won’t be the last. This move was unpunished as there is leniency on the first lap as long as the blame does not lie solely with one of the two drivers involved. This allowed Norris to get closer to Hamilton and get past before the end of the lap.

Giovinazzi got a good start as well from seventh on the grid and was alongside Leclerc for P5 as they approached the second chicane. The Italian driver went wide around Turn 4 and went over the bumps to rejoin the track. But he did not see/pay attention to his mirrors and got collided with Sainz who was alongside his rear axle at the exit of the chicane. While the Alfa Romeo got spun around and lost its front wing, it recovered and resumed racing. The Italian also got penalised for his unsafe return to track which caused the incident.

Ricciardo was able to stay ahead of Verstappen, the McLaren’s straight-line pace being too much for the Red Bull even with DRS. Norris was busy holding up Hamilton in a similar manner which put them a few seconds behind the front runners. The Mercedes W12 may have been quicker than the McLaren MCL35M, but in the dirty air, Hamilton just could not get find the pace on his Hard tyres to get past. 

All the other front runners had started on Mediums and the race leader was the first to pit on Lap 23 and switch to the Hard tyres. Red Bull responded by pitting Verstappen the following lap but in a rare mishap for the fastest crew in F1, their stop was a total disaster. It was unclear what the issue was exactly as the car was held up even when no mechanic was working on it but Max was not cleared for release by the sensor-based electronic release signal. In the end, the No.33 Red Bull had been stationary for 11.1 seconds which had pretty much ruined his race and any hopes of a podium, let alone a race win. It seems that Max’s cursed luck at Monza persists. 

On the lap that Max pitted, Hamiton was able to get past Norris around the second chicane. With a comfortable gap to his title rival, Mercedes pitted Lewis on Lap 26, responding to Norris’ stop the lap before. But this was a slow one as well as the car stood still for 4.2 seconds. Despite being more than 50% quicker than Max’s stop, the power of the undercut at Monza is quite strong. As Lewis was exiting the pit, his rival was bombing down the main straight, just behind Norris. The McLaren got past while the Red Bull got alongside as the title contenders entered the braking zone. 

The Incident

Lewis left Max just enough room for Turn 1 entry as the two rounded the corner, still side by side. The Red Bull never got ahead of the Mercedes, so Hamilton tried to close the door on him as he cut back for the second part of the chicane. Max opted to hold his ground instead of avoiding Lewis by cutting the corner and going over the speed humps. The two collided but that wasn’t the cause of the incident. On the inside of Turn 2, there is a “sausage kerb”. The front-left went over it okay but still unsettled the car and when the rear-left went over the kerb, it bounced Red Bull’s rear towards the Mercedes. Their rear wheels rubbed each other in such a way that it sent Max into the air and right on top of Hamilton. Literally. The Mercedes wore the Red Bull as a hat as they went into the gravel at the exit of the corner. Worse yet, their momentum saw the RB16B on top slide forward and its rear tyre hit Hamilton’s helmet on the way, before stopping with its wing wedged in the gravel. The halo and rollover structure had stopped the body of the car coming down on Lewis’ head but the wheel got through the driver aperture. It looked really bad in slow-mo but it became evident that Hamilton was okay when we saw his W12 kick up some gravel, possibly in an attempt to reverse out from under the RB16B.

The consensus from F1 fans saw it as a racing incident resulting from neither driver giving the other any room to breathe. However, soon after the race, it was announced that Verstappen was handed a 3-place grid penalty for the next Grand Prix. The FIA stewards’ ruled that Max’s overtaking attempt was too late into the corner to justify his “right to racing room” through the chicane. Even though both drivers were responsible for the incident, they judged that Max was more to blame than Lewis. 

Personal opinion: The two best of the grid butted heads and neither got the benefit of it. In the end, Max came off worse for it in terms of the championship battle due to the penalty. It might work out for Red Bull as his car was due a power unit penalty anyway and they might as well take the hit at Sochi, a track where Mercedes’ dominance remains unchallenged. Expect these two to have more incidents in the remainder of the season, but hopefully nothing too dangerous. I suspect FIA also felt they had to hand out a penalty for the Monza situation simply because it ended with a driver getting hit in the head by the tyre of another car as it landed on top of him. 

The Satisfying Conclusion

The incident at Turn 1 brought out the Safety Car while the rest of the field took this opportunity to make stops at the end of Lap 26. Since Daniel Ricciardo had already made his stop, he stayed out and regained his position at the front of the pack. The starting order of the race restart saw Leclerc in P2 ahead of Norris, Perez, Sainz and Bottas. The Finn was one of the few drivers who was making overtakes to move up the grid that weekend and was already in P6 before the SC came out. 

Daniel wasted no time in zooming off from the pack as they rounded the final corner to resume racing on Lap 31. Norris took the risk of going wide on the exit to get a better run down the main straight and it paid off as he got the extra pace to catch up Leclerc. The two were side by side towards Turn 1 but Charles defended the outside line, Norris’ front connecting with the Ferrari’s rear as through the second corner. This affected the Ferrari’s exit speed and allowed the McLaren to close the gap even before they approached Curva Grande. Norris made a brave move by dipping into the grass to get the faster inside line to pass Leclerc and move up into P2. McLaren was running 1-2 at Monza with Ricciardo in front!

While we would have loved to see a Ferrari on the podium in Italy, it was not to be. The SF21 simply did not have the pace to compete with McLaren, Red Bull or Mercedes. The following lap, Perez tried to overtake Leclerc through the second chicane by going around the outside. As the Monegasque defended on the cut-back for the second part, the Mexican had to cut the corner and go over the rumble strips. Checo rejoined the track ahead of Charles, and it was almost a replay of his incident with Stroll during sprint qualifying the day before. The Red Bull driver believed he had been forced off the track and so did not have to concede and was also not instructed to by the team. It seems he had not learned the rule still and was inevitably handed a 5-second penalty for it.

Bottas passed Sainz on Lap 32 and then Leclerc on Lap 34. The man who had started his 2021 Monza GP from last on the grid was now within reach of the podium, exactly as he promised on Saturday. However, Charles did not make it easy for Valtteri. The two had a close battle on Lap 33, exchanging places before the Ferrari got passed down the main straight into Turn 1. The battle for P3 had allowed Ricciardo and Norris to pull away from the pack. 

Perez and Bottas were now fighting to get their teams crucial points for the Constructor’s championship and catching up with Norris. The young McLaren driver had previously checked with his team over the radio if he could fight his teammate for the win as he felt he was quicker. Lando’s request was politely declined and Daniel picked up the pace to make his teammate’s life a bit easier. Checo had a brilliant exchange with the Finnish driver on Lap 43 and held onto P3, Leclerc staying in range of the duo to seize any opportunity that might present itself. Bottas backed off a little towards the final laps, as did all the front runners it seemed, confident of his podium result due to Perez’s penalty.

Daniel Ricciardo took the chequered flag in Monza and even set the fastest time on that final lap to make his long-awaited race win that much sweeter. Lando Norris crossed the line next for his best F1 finish to date and secured McLaren’s first one-two finish since 2010, for a fantastic result that reflected the team’s great form over the weekend. The Aussie had had a rough start to his time at McLaren, being constantly outperformed by his younger teammate who’d also picked up two podiums in the season ahead of Monza. But the Honey Badger was feeling rested and feisty after the summer break in August, and proved to us all: he never left.

It was an even more significant moment for the team that had not won a race in over 9 years. After all their hardships with different engine partners, the progress they’d made over the last two years and their strong form in the current season so far, they finally did it. McLaren were race winners again. The one-two finish not only made it perfect but also reflected the collective effort of the team to get the best result possible. 

The final podium spot went to Valtteri Bottas, another driver who did not put a foot wrong all weekend. He was fastest in qualifying, won the sprint, and got P3 after starting last. What a way to celebrate the week that you put in your papers to move on to happier things next year. The Finn also gave us the best meme of the weekend when asked to respond to his teammate’s incident as it was replayed on the screen behind the interview area in parc ferme:

It was just another epic, unforgettable, emotional roller coaster of an F1 race at Monza. Last year, it was won by Pierre Gasly in an AlphaTauri who was almost beaten by Carlos Sainz in a McLaren, and the year before it was won by Charles Leclerc driving for Ferrari. This place is just that special.

The podium celebrations for McLaren kept going with lots of champagne being sprayed around and plenty of shoeys. Both Norris and team boss Zak Brown did one too while Bottas was able to dodge that fate for the time being. This picture sums up some of the joy that the McLaren F1 crew was feeling that Sunday afternoon:

Charles classified P4 after Checo’s penalty while Sainz crossed the line in P6. A solid performance from the home team given their lack of race-winning pace but with McLaren winning the most points, they are fourth again in the constructor’s championship. 

Lance Stroll finished P7 earning valuable points for his team but at a cost. He forced teammate Sebastian Vettel wide on the opening lap and the German was unable to recover enough positions to finish in the points. Fernando Alonso scored points for Alpine yet again, finishing P8, as did Esteban Ocon who cross the line in P10. George Russell got the benefit of the SC to move up a few places and scored points for Williams for the third time this season by finishing P9. His teammate had a strong race up until the SC but classified P11 at the end. 

Even though this was Max Verstappen’s third DNF of the season, he stays at the top of the driver’s table with a 5-point lead over Lewis Hamilton. The incident was Lewis’ first DNF since Austria 2018 and the first crash-related DNF since 2016. Meanwhile, Mercedes has increased their lead over Red Bull to 18 points thanks to the efforts of Valtteri Bottas. 

The next round favours the Mercedes cars: Sochi. The defending champions would be keen to maximise on their rival’s compromised weekend due to the penalty and should walk away with the race win and possibly a 1-2 finish. The real question is, can Perez cover for Max by grabbing P3? Will Red Bull give Max a new power unit and start from the back of the grid? Or will we see McLaren cause another upset at a high-speed circuit? Don’t expect much overtaking at the Russian GP but there’s plenty to be excited for nonetheless! Stay tuned and don’t forget to subscribe to the blog for more F1 and automotive content.

Final Standings

  1. D. Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes — 1:21:54.365
  2. L. Norris McLaren Mercedes +1.747
  3. V. Bottas Mercedes +4.921
  4. C. Leclerc Ferrari +7.309
  5. S. Perez Red Bull Racing Honda +8.723
  6. C. Sainz Ferrari +10.535
  7. L. Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes +15.804
  8. F. Alonso Alpine Renault +17.201
  9. G. Russell Williams Mercedes +19.742
  10. E. Ocon Alpine Renault +20.868
  11. N. Latifi Williams Mercedes +23.743
  12. S. Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes +24.621
  13. A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +27.216
  14. R. Kubicka Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +29.769
  15. M. Schumacher Haas Ferrari +51.088
  16. N. Mazepin Haas Ferrari DNF
  17. L. Hamilton Mercedes DNF
  18. M. Verstappen Red Bull Racing Honda DNF
  19. P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda DNF
  20. Y. Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda DNF

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