Leclerc brings joy to all at Monza

I don’t think there was a single person after the Italian Grand Prix who wasn’t happy for Charles Leclerc – even Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Toto Wolff deep down seemed to be happy for the young Monegasque star!

The win at the Italian Grand Prix was Charles Leclerc’s second consecutive one after the triumph in Belgium the previous weekend.   -  AFP

There are only certain days in this sport when we watch a driver win a race and it brings joy across the entire paddock. Sunday in Monza was one of those days. I don’t think there was a single person after the Italian Grand Prix who wasn’t happy for Charles Leclerc – even Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Toto Wolff deep down seemed to be happy for the young Monegasque star!

Qualifying was utterly bizarre and borderline comical. Every single driver was obviously chasing the slipstream, as it was worth about half a second. But what was confusing was that when Carlos Sainz crossed the second sector line, he had about 30 seconds to the flag. We knew that the final sector was about 26 seconds, so it became pretty clear that the rest were all going to miss the flag. This was simple for us to see just on the television screen, so quite how the teams with all their GPS software got it wrong is extraordinary.

Mercedes played a smart game strategically by splitting their options and getting Valtteri Bottas to go longer on the first stint than Lewis Hamilton (in foreground).   -  Getty Images

 

Anyway, Sunday delivered a truly brilliant Grand Prix. As Martin Brundle put it after the race, Mercedes threw everything at it with two cars in the fight against Charles, but he soaked up the pressure superbly. It was an old-school, edge-of-the-seat Monza thriller with the top three showing some very high quality driving.

Right from the opening lap, Charles and the Mercedes drivers settled into a high speed train around the Temple of Speed. While the first stint was all about settling in and thinking about who was going to blink first, the second stint was where it really came alive. Mercedes chose their moment to bring Lewis in perfectly, but equally Charles attacked on his in-lap and the Ferrari mechanics, with the whole of Italy watching them like hawks, delivered a great pit stop.

The decision to run their respective tyres came back to Friday, the lessons from Spa-Francorchamps and in general the design philosophy of the two cars. The Mercedes inherently has more downforce, which means that they can look after their tyres more. It also means that they can put more energy into the tyres straight out of the pits and light them up quicker than Ferrari. The fact that Ferrari weren’t as competitive on the mediums both in Spa and in Monza, and their tyres suffer more degradation because of the lower downforce led them to put the hard compound on Charles’s car.

READ | Once stopped at Maranello, now feted at Monza: The Charles Leclerc story

That’s when the race really came alive. Lewis on a set of mediums that were fully warmed up for attacking against Charles on a set of hard tyres that still had to fully light up. It was seriously high-quality driving from both the guys.

I thought Leclerc was particularly smart at the Parabolica on every lap, using a line where he went a bit deep, flirted with the edge of the track limits, but opened up the steering wheel and straightened the exit to launch himself onto the start finish straight. He was playing to his and Ferrari’s strengths and knew that if he broke away a few car lengths at the beginning of the straight, then despite the drag reduction system and slipstream that Lewis would benefit from, he would be okay.

Lewis got very close on one occasion into the second chicane of course, and I thought it was right on the edge of what was an acceptable defence from Leclerc. I really like the idea of the black-and-white warning flag from Michael Masi, the new race director for the season, and the stewards, and it was a good decision not to break up the fight but just warn Charles that he wouldn’t get away with such a robust defence on a regular basis.

Mercedes played a smart game strategically by splitting their options and getting Valtteri to go longer on the first stint. After several laps of Lewis piling on the pressure and Leclerc only making one real error into the first chicane, it was the five-time world champion who made an error himself at the same place. It showed just how hard they were all pushing and how tricky it was to stop the car at the end of the long straight in a bumpy braking zone. This mistake from Lewis allowed Bottas to pick up the baton and ramp up the pressure himself.

Sebastian Vettel’s spin at the Ascari chicane was the latest in a run of errors that began back in Hockenheim last year, but the way he rejoined the track and left Lance Stroll with nowhere to go was a serious misjudgement that could have had much bigger consequences for both drivers.   -  Getty Images

 

Once again Leclerc just soaked up the pressure, didn’t waste energy mirror-watching, and kept his head down. The Mercedes was visibly more planted through the Lesmos and the Ascari chicane, but the red car’s straight-line speed was enough to keep him in front.

Being under the podium at Monza is utterly brilliant. Watching Mattia Binotto and the team climb the fence and soak up the adulation from the tifosi showed just how much this meant to every single person in red on Sunday. As the boss of F1’s most famous team carrying the hopes of a nation, especially at Monza, he’s got the highest-pressure job in Formula One. Yes, across the season the Ferrari isn’t a fast enough car, and there’s a good chance they won’t win another race this year, but that makes Sunday’s victory all the more important to take the heat off him for the short term at least.

READ | Lewis Hamilton frustrated with Charles Leclerc leniency

The one man in a red shirt feeling less joyous though would be Sebastian Vettel. His spin at the Ascari chicane was the latest in a run of errors that began back in Hockenheim last year, but the way he rejoined the track and left Lance Stroll with nowhere to go was a serious misjudgement that could have had much bigger consequences for both drivers. The fact that Stroll then did more or less the same thing to the Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly stemmed from a frustrated young man who had just been robbed of a very good result. I’m not making excuses for Lance, but merely saying I can understand it a bit more than Vettel’s move.

It’s hard to believe that the European season is already over and we’re all off to Singapore next for the flyaways to countdown to Abu Dhabi. I fully expect Max Verstappen and Red Bull to be battling the Mercedes drivers around the streets of Singapore. Last year, Lewis delivered one of the greatest qualifying laps ever seen in F1, and I’m very excited to see if the Dutchman can beat him in a couple of weeks’ time!