MONZA, Italy — It’s been a long nine years, but finally a Ferrari driver has visited the top step of the podium again at an Italian Grand Prix.
Charles Leclerc was the man to do it, seven days after his emotional maiden F1 win at the Belgian Grand Prix. But it was a day of wildly contrasting fortunes for Ferrari.
Ferrari’s new hero
It might not have been flawless, but Leclerc’s drive to victory at Monza was mighty impressive given the pressure he had to withstand from Lewis Hamilton and then, to a lesser extent, Valtteri Bottas.
A couple of errors helped Hamilton get close, notably on lap 22 when he tried a move around the outside at the second chicane. Leclerc refused to yield and Hamilton dipped two wheels onto the grass, forcing the world champion to go straight on across the run-off area. Leclerc was shown a black and white flag — effectively like showing a footballer a yellow card, in a new warning system recently reinforced by the FIA — and kept the lead. Hamilton’s pressure continued.
“A lot of emotions, obviously it was very, very difficult during the race,” Leclerc said. “Lewis was behind me and I think the biggest gap there was, was maybe 1.7 or 1.8s so he was always right behind me.”
He then went on to refer to his next notable error, saying: “I did a few mistakes, which never cost me a position, once was very, very close”.
It was on lap 34, with Hamilton looming larger and larger in his mirrors. Leclerc missed his braking point and went straight on at Turn 1. Hamilton sensed the opportunity and tried to pass around the fast right-hander, Curva Grande, leading to the corner he had been denied earlier in the race. Leclerc slammed the door shut in Hamilton’s face before he had a chance to size up another overtaking move.
It was on the limit, and Leclerc was warned by Ferrari about moving under braking, but it was the kind of display the tifosi adores. Nigel Mansell gained cult status as Il Leone (The Lion) during his two-year spell at Ferrari for similar displays of fearlessness and grit; Leclerc’s aggressive defensive moves against Hamilton drew loud roars of delight from the packed grandstands and embankments around the Monza circuit.
While it delighted the home faithful, it also showed Leclerc has learned a harsh lesson from his debut season at Ferrari. On the final lap at the Austrian Grand Prix earlier this year, Leclerc was barged out of the lead by Max Verstappen. The Red Bull driver’s move went unpunished.
“I think since Austria it is clear that you can go a bit further in the way we defend and overtake and just the aggressiveness of us drivers,” Leclerc said. “I believe that Austria helped me to change this approach and today, it’s also thanks to this that I managed to win.
“It was obviously very on the limit but I’m happy to race like this.”
Judging by Sunday’s reaction, the tifosi are more than happy for him to keep racing like that, too.
Vettel’s Monza nightmare
As he heard the Monegasque and Italian national anthems play out at Monza, Sebastian Vettel must have wondered how his race, his weekend and, indeed, his whole season had gone so wrong. Since joining Ferrari in 2015, Vettel has had his sights set on achieving his childhood dream of winning the title with the Italian team. But with one year left on his contract, and over a year since his last race win, that dream has never looked so distant.
Just below a Ferrari championship on his wishlist would have been victory at Monza in red — but that too may never happen. Perhaps most frustrating of all for Vettel was that he had the pace to win this weekend. Had he got a slipstream in qualifying, he would have likely beaten Leclerc to pole position, and from there he would have been the driver controlling the race. Instead he qualified fourth, lost a position at the start, gained it back but spun five laps later while chasing down Valtteri Bottas for third place. Given the car at his disposal, his performance couldn’t have been much worse. But what followed was totally inexcusable.
As a driver with well over a decade’s experience in Formula One, he should know the dangers of rejoining the track on the apex of one of the fastest corners on the calendar. Yet after spinning at the Ascari chicane, he attempted to rejoin directly in the path of the oncoming Racing Point of Lance Stroll. Thankfully the cars only brushed one another, pitching Stroll into a spin, but considering the speeds and trajectories involved, the incident could have been much, much worse.
Asked if he saw Stroll, Vettel said: “No. I struggled a couple of times to get the car going and get the car going in the right direction so I didn’t see him.”
Vettel was given a drive-through penalty for the incident and three penalty points on his superlicence (bringing his total to nine in a 12-month period and just three from a race ban). There’s an argument he should have been given a race ban for Sunday’s incident alone, and perhaps he would have been if the consequences had been more serious.
But the long-term effect on Vettel could be the biggest consequence of the 2019 Italian Grand Prix. He has now dropped 13 points behind teammate Leclerc in the championship and it’s a gap that looks set to widen based on the current form of the two drivers.
All year the question of Vettel’s future has hung over him, and after Sunday’s performance it was one of the first fired at him after the race.
Party time…sort of
Monza has the best podium in Formula One, no argument. It sits above the start-finish straight, allowing hoards of fans to stand and celebrate underneath. It’s always a great sight to witness whether stood within the crowd or from a vantage point elsewhere.
To amplify that atmosphere this time, the podium turned into a DJ booth after Leclerc and the Mercedes drivers had finished spraying champagne and had left to conduct TV interviews down below. DJs Dimitri Vegas and Like Mike were in the midst of a set which appeared to be going down very well with the fans, when the power suddenly cut out.
No matter — you won’t have to walk far from the main paddock complex to find the nearest Ferrari party on Sunday evening.
Penalties and punishments
It was a race featuring several penalties. Here is each of them below and the stewards’ reasoning behind each one.
Sebastian Vettel: 10 second stop-go penalty (served in race), five points on superlicence.
Vettel spun at the Ascari chicane and started moving again into the path of Racing Point’s Lance Stroll. Contact damaged Vettel’s car and made Stroll spin.
The rationale was: “The stewards reviewed video evidence and determined that Car 5, left the track at turn 9 and rejoined the track in an unsafe manner. In doing so it collided with Car 18. The Stewards considered this to be a dangerous incident.”
Lance Stroll: Drive-through penalty (served in race), two points on penalty licence
This incident occurred immediately after Stroll had been hit by Vettel. Stroll rejoined and forced Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly into evasive action. He was given a slightly less harsh penalty than Vettel.
The report said: “The stewards reviewed video evidence and determined that Car 18, left the track due to the collision at turn 10 however rejoined the track in an unsafe manner forcing Car 10 off the track.”
It did not include the “dangerous incident” line which had been included in the report on Vettel’s decision.
Kimi Raikkonen: 10 second stop-go penalty (served in race)
Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo did not start the race on the tyres used to set his fastest Q2 qualifying time (mandatory for anyone who qualifies in the top-ten shootout). Despite it not being a driver error, this carries with it a significant penalty to stop teams doing it. Raikkonen did not receive any penalty points on his superlicence for this reason.
Alexander Albon: Five second time penalty (served in race)
Albon forced Haas’ Kevin Magnussen wide during the race at the Roggia chicane. The stewards report said they had “reviewed video evidence and determined that Car 23 left the track into turn 5 and rejoined gaining a lasting advantage.
“We note the Race Director advised the team that he would authorise the driver giving back the place however the team declined on the basis that it believed that Car 23 [Albon] had been forced off the track. Nevertheless, the Stewards believe that the actions of the driver of Car 20 [Magnussen] were consistent with the current approach to driving standards (“let them race”).
• McLaren fined 5,000 Euros
This was for for the unsafe release of Carlos Sainz. The Spanish driver’s car left the pit box with an incorrectly fitted front-right tyre, forcing him to retire at the pit exit.