Congratulations to Pierre Gasly and AlphaTauri for grabbing a surprise race win in fine style.
No disrespect to Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari who had won the last 146 consecutive races between them, and who didn’t appear on the podium at all for the first time since Hungary 2012, but in this relentless, rapid-fire Formula 1 season we needed a Grand Prix surprise just like Monza produced for us at the weekend.
It was one of those days where so many drivers would have woken up on Monday morning feeling that they wasted, or at least missed, a rare chance. Even Carlos Sainz in second place and Lance Stroll in third. Maybe especially so.
- Italian GP driver ratings
With Valtteri Bottas having surely one of his most disappointing races at Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton had it so under control out front that he was asked not to protect the engine too much with short upshifting for fear of other issues. He was truly in a class of one, but about to encounter the perfect storm in the Monza sunshine.
A safety car was brought out for Kevin Magnussen’s stricken Haas, which he sensibly parked near a marshals’ post. But with Monza being a very old-school circuit this was not automatically a vehicle access point. I remember saying in the commentary box they would have to move their picnic table but, in fact, there was no intention to pull the car behind the barriers there. It would have to be pushed down the grass to the pit lane, a clumsy but in the end essential solution.
Hamilton was perfectly positioned on the track whilst approaching the final corner to make his one and only stop. Except that 12 seconds before he entered the pit lane it was ‘closed’ by race control. Two boards on the outside of Parabolica, the final corner, were flashing with crosses, exactly as the Race Director’s event notes had explained.
It’s very unusual for the lane to be closed in F1, but this was in preparation for the inelegant pushing of the stricken Haas.
Alfa Romeo made the same mistake with Antonio Giovinazzi but all the other cars, including Bottas’s side of the Mercedes pit wall, noticed this closure because they had more time. It’s a mandatory 10-second stop-and-go penalty in your own pit box for such an offence, meaning about a half a minute total loss, including navigating the pit lane at 50mph. The FIA played this by the book.
Hamilton’s perfect storm would then turn into a full tempest with a subsequent red flag when Charles Leclerc launched into the Parabolica barriers at high speed. Charles got as high as fourth with a timely pit stop and passing the Alfa Romeos on the safety car restart but pushing on hard compound tyres proved too much for the handling of his Ferrari.
Sebastian Vettel was already out in the sister car with brake failure to compound Ferrari’s misery.
The pack would now have a standing restart once Leclerc’s car was recovered and the barriers healed, with Hamilton still burdened with his stop and go. He also now has eight penalty points on his licence too of the permitted 12 over a rolling 12 months before a one-race ban is applied.
It was immediately clear that we could well have a surprise winner. In fact, we had a surprise top four because Bottas simply couldn’t pass Lando Norris’s McLaren all race long. He’d had a poor start and engine overheating issues in traffic, but nonetheless despite his half-minute penalty Hamilton would finish only 10 seconds and two places behind the other Mercedes, having overtaken nine cars.
The curious red flag rules allow teams to repair damaged cars with identical parts and fit new tyres, which made second place Stroll, with a totally free pit stop and fresh tyres, the favourite for victory. A poor second start put paid to that.
As Hamilton peeled off to serve his penalty under green-flag conditions, Gasly led beautifully, and now the spotlight and pressure was on the Red Bull evictee in the sister AlphaTauri B team. He was pumping out the laps and looking fully in charge of his car.
Once clear of traffic Sainz set about closing a four-second deficit to Gasly in his McLaren. Sainz had been on great form all weekend, qualifying third, and I expected him to close down Gasly and challenge for the win.
He was one lap short of the opportunity and, as I fully expected, he didn’t punch the air with pleasure at a podium, he seemed nearer to tears at not winning. His time will come.
Stroll is somewhat of a Monza specialist and rounded out the podium to move into an impressive fourth in the drivers’ standings. Norris was only six seconds behind the winner in fourth place, cementing a great afternoon for McLaren.
It was a race which the cards could have fallen much better for Renault, and both Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon will be disappointed with sixth and eighth respectively.
Only Ferrari had a worse day than Red Bull. Max Verstappen had a poor start and then dropped out on lap 30 with technical gremlins, and Alex Albon had a few skirmishes with other cars in his run to 15th of the 16 runners, whilst having to soak up Gasly, the man he replaced, winning the race.
A bitter-sweet day for the Red Bull team very similar to when Vettel won the 2008 Italian GP in a Toro Rosso, I would expect.
Williams were tantalisingly close to a championship point with Nicholas Latifi in 11th place as a farewell present to the Williams family, who bowed out of Formula 1 leaving the team in new hands. Nothing stops this world of ours relentlessly turning the pages.
Seeing normally front-running cars out of position and fighting through the pack made me immediately think again about occasional reverse championship-standing Saturday qualifying races in order to set the main race grid, which I have written about before.
This would give the smaller teams some oxygen out front for a while, would force teams to design cars which are better at overtaking instead of just aero-optimised for speed, and make for some fascinating must-watch action.
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