Leclerc holds off unrelenting Mercedes pressure to triumph again

Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas were unable to find a way past Charles Leclerc, who made it two wins on the trot at Monza.

Ferrari's Leclerc is being given chase by Mercedes driver Hamilton at the Italian GP.   -  AP

Italy has a new hero. Ferrari has a new hero and he is just 21 years of age. Driving for the biggest team in Formula One in just his second year in the sport in front of the adoring Tifosi, Charles Leclerc set alight the Autodromo Nazionale Monza sending the crowd draped in red into a dizzy by winning the Italian Grand Prix under tremendous pressure.

Leclerc showed nerves of steel as he battled constant challenge throughout the race, first from Lewis Hamilton and then Valtteri Bottas, who threw everything they had in them.

However, it was not enough to deny the young Monegasque his biggest moment as he helped end Ferrari’s winless run in Monza that dates back to 2010 when Fernando Alonso won in his maiden season at the Italian team.

After securing pole on Saturday, Leclerc had to fight for the win, starving off a good-starting Hamilton into turn one but quickly built up a one-second lead after the first lap.

Hamilton triggered the first round of pitstops and Leclerc reacted to cover the undercut and the duo went toe-to-toe between lap 21 to 41. On a track where Mercedes' lack of straight-line power was hurting Hamilton, the Briton kept the pressure up and tried a move on lap 23 only for Leclerc to gently squeeze him out of the track much to Hamilton’s annoyance.

 

Leclerc then made a small error locking up into turn one but managed to retain the lead and did well to keep Hamilton at bay before the latter made a mistake of his own allowing teammate Bottas to second. The Finn was on seven laps fresher tyres to Leclerc and began to rapidly close on but messed up on two occasions just when he was within one second.

Once on lap 46, Bottas made a mistake into Ascari chicane just before the back straight losing half a second and then on lap 50 made a mistake into turn one when he was within striking distance.

The Renault drivers of Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg finished fourth and fifth, a brilliant result for the team in their fight against McLaren. Max Verstappen starting from the back of the grid could only finish eighth with Lando Norris in McLaren taking 10th and final points-scoring position.

Vettel, who is enduring a torrid season, had his car spun on his own accord into the Ascari chicane on lap six. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

 

But on a day when a new Ferrari star shone brightly, Sebastian Vettel produced his worst performance in ages. The four-time champion spun on his own accord into the Ascari chicane on lap six and rejoined the track dangerously like a driver with no racing experience would do and forced Lance Stroll into a spin. The German was given a stop and go penalty and had a lonely race to finish 13th.

Vettel has had a terrible season making numerous mistakes this season and has been beaten by Leclerc in recent times both in qualifying and races. 

And on Sunday, it was the proverbial passing of the baton from Vettel to Leclerc as the latter moved ahead of his illustrious teammate in the driver’s standings 182 to 169.

Speaking about the tense race especially towards the end, Leclerc said, "It was quite difficult because at no point the gap was more 1.5 or 1.7 seconds to Lewis. I knew he doesn't make a lot of mistakes. I made a few but it didn't cost me the position. Going over the line, I let all my emotions out. Probably no one can understand what I said. It is beyond all the dreams of my childhood."

"The last two laps, I started to see in the grandstands the fans were jumping and there was a lot of agitation. I then said to myself 'Charles stop looking at the stands. Look at the car and drive. It was difficult to focus on driving seeing how much movement there was in the grandstand."

(The writer is in Monza at the invitation of Petronas)