In the final round of the triple header, we headed to Monza, Italy.
This weekend we saw the return of the sprint race format, following the first at Silverstone. This means, qualifying had been moved forward to Friday evening, and having a 100km ‘sprint’ race on the Saturday which sets the grid for the Grand Prix on Sunday. Kubica returns for Alpha Romero, in place of the recovering Kimi Raikkonen, who’s confirmed positive with COVID-19 before last week’s race. At Monza, similar issues were seen, as with Zandvoort, traffic was a problem during Q1 which caused frustration between the drivers, showcased by Pierre Gasly, calling it a ‘joke’. However, by the end of the session, it was Pierre’s teammate, Yuki Tsunoda who found himself unable to escape Q1 for the 8th time in 14 races, showing just how hard it can be to make the step into Formula 1, despite having a good car, ending up P17. The Haas duo of Schumacher and Mazepin qualifying P18 and P20 respectively, sandwiched Kubica in P19, with the final victim being Latifi in P16, who has been signed on to continue racing for Williams for 2022, along with the returning, formerly of Red Bull Racing, Alex Albon.
Moving into Q2, George Russell, who has been announced to be joining Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes for 2022, placed his Williams in P15, with the Alpine pair of Ocon and Alonso ending the session in P14 and P13 respectively. They follow just behind the double Aston Martins’ of Lance Stroll in P12 and Sebastian Vettel in P11, who could be disappointed following their impressive FP1 session, with Stroll ending P4. Unlike the usual race weekend, this did not allow the two to prepare to run on the alternate medium tyres to start the race on due to the sprint session, leaving them very much on the back foot.
With Monza’s long straights, having a tow off another car was said to be worth around 7 tenths of a second during qualifying, meaning nobody wanted to be the first driver on the track, and teamwork would be crucial in the fight between Verstappen and Hamilton for pole position. Perez did his part, being able to tow Verstappen to P3, following some worrying times in Q1 and Q2 which had the Red Bull closer to the McLaren’s than to the Mercs. Sergio did suffer for this of course, only being able to manage P9, ahead of Giovanazzi at his home race in P10. This is another strong qualifying performance for the Alpha Romero man, who at this point is still unsure about his position within the team, with his contract expiring at the end of the season. Expectations were high for Ferrari in front of the Tifosi, however a power issue for Leclerc throughout qualifying limited him to P8, with teammate, Carlos Sainz, ending in P7, a huge improvement on last year when the Prancing Horses were unable to escape Q2. Gasly was able to put his Alpha Tauri into P6, the 11th time he’s managed a top 6 finish this season. Ahead of him, Daniel Ricciardo in P5, making this just the second time in the the top 5 for McLaren, sitting behind teammate Lando Norris in P4. A Mercedes P1 and P2 was no surprise, however, Valterri Bottas was the man sat in P1, ahead of 7 time world champion Lewis Hamilton.
Moving into Saturday, and the second ever F1 sprint race was gearing up to be full of intrigue, especially with the Mercs and Max lining up with the medium tyres, whereas the McLaren’s had on the faster, soft tyre aiming to make up places quickly and defend for the 18 laps. This is exactly what happened, following a poor start for Hamilton which allowed Verstappen and the McLaren duo to get ahead after the first chicane. Gasly was even alongside Lewis exiting Turn 2, however clipped the back of one of the McLarens’ rear end, causing his front wing to drop off and put him out of the session, bringing out the safety car. With his championship rival down in 5th, Max looked to get past Bottas in order to maximise the points advantage ahead of Hamilton, with P1 getting 3, P2 getting 2 and P3 getting 1 point towards the championship. Fortunately for the Brit, Bottas was able to hold off Max on the restart, having a 1.5 second gap to the Dutchman by the end of the lap, a gap which was left undisturbed as Valterri went on to win Pole Position. Sadly, Vaterri had taken on a new engine for the weekend, which would relegate him to the back of the grid for the race, leaving Max and Daniel Ricciardo to take the front row. Sergio Perez was able to pass Stroll going into Turn 1, who overtook him prior to the safety car, for P9. This was until his engineer instructed him to return the place in order to avoid a penalty for an illegal overtake by going off track. This didn’t deter Sergio, as he made a legitimate pass going into the same spot on the next lap. Hamilton was left frustrated, being unable to pass Norris following the McLaren’s swapping positions on the opening lap.
Sunday, race day. With Bottas dropping to the back, all eyes would logically be on the Mercedes man to see how well he could make up places in order to help his teammate, however, the two Alpha Tauri’s were in a much worse predicament, as Tsunoda was unable to start due to problems found with the breaks, and Gasly retired just a handful of laps in, meaning that the only team to score points in every race this season had lost its’ streak, no more a painful place to retire at their home race. Following an underrated qualifying and sprint race, Daniel found himself starting P2, with former teammate Max Verstappen the only man in between him and Turn 1. As the five red lights go out and the cars jump off the line, it’s the Aussie which looks to get the better start as he gets up alongside the Red Bull, and even gets ahead of Verstappen getting into the chicane. Further back, Hamilton, strangely starting on the hard tyres in P4 had a lightning start, getting ahead of Lando after turn 2. Lewis continued his charge forward, even being able to challenge Max for P2 until the Red Bull pushed the Brit wide, keeping his place and allowing Lando to retake P3. On the same corner, Giovanazzi, following another very impressive qualifying and strong sprint race which allowed him to hold P8, ahead of Perez, made an attempt to pass the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc, after getting passed Sainz off the line. Gio was unable to stay on the track and went over the curbs and re-joining the track unknowingly along Sainz which caused the two to touch, sending the Alpha Romero into a spin and ending his second straight week of potential points.By lap 11, with the top 5 remained unchanged, and Perez making hard work of the Ferrari duo, all eyes were on Bottas who was charging up the field, who had been making moves constantly on the straight heading into Turn 1, most recently on Alpine’s Esteban Ocon for P11. Hamilton’s frustration from Saturday as he must have been having some deja vu, again being stuck behind Lando, trying to find a way past at any opportunity, but the young McLaren prodigy was able to place his car expertly in order to remain ahead. On lap 15, Valterri passed the high flying Latifi in the Williams for P10. Two laps later he passes Alonso, and it only takes him until lap 22 to pass the James Bond themed Aston Martin of Lance Stroll for P8.
The leader, Ricciardo pits on lap 23, being stationary for less than 3 seconds, as Max does the same the following lap. Usually, Red Bull are known for their record breaking pit stops, however, this time, Max is held for 11 seconds, bringing Lando and more importantly, Hamilton into the fight. Lewis is finally able to pass the McLaren on Curva Grande, while Max is pitting. Lando comes into the pits on lap 25 and comes out ahead of the Red Bull, effectively giving McLaren a 1-2 once Lewis pits. Despite being on much more durable tyres, Lewis pits lap 26 in order to take advantage of Verstappen’s slow stop. After a slightly slow 4.1 seconds Lewis comes out of the pitlane convincingly behind Lando and right alongside his championship rival going into the first corner. Hamilton looks to be ahead coming out of the chicane, but Max still tries to force his way through which ends in the Red Bull sitting on top of the Mercedes on the gravel trap off the side of the track, leaving both of them out of the race, leaving the McLaren pairing as firm favourites for the win. As the safety car slows the pack down, drivers who are yet to pit, dive in for a change of tyres. This leaves the top 4 as Ricciardo, Leclerc, Norris and Perez. Lando is able to pass the Ferrari on the restart of lap 32, closely followed by Perez who makes a move which mirrors his overtake on Stroll on Saturday. This time, he is given a 5 second time penalty which pretty much ends his fight for the podium. Bottas passes Charles on lap 34. There is a slight lull until lap 41, when Lando asks if he can push for the win himself, however is told to hold position, to which he does, showing the maturity and professionalism of the 21 year old. Thanks to the safety car, George Russell found himself up in P9, holding off a late push from Ocon, scoring yet again for Williams, further securing their place ahead of Alpha Romero and Haas in the Constructors Championship. It took until the final laps for Perez to be able to put over 5 seconds between himself and Sainz, meaning he finished P5, with Bottas inheriting the final step on the podium, capping off a very impressive weekend for the Fin. Leclerc finished P4. The Alpine combination of Ocon and Alonso ending P10 and P8 respectively, while Russell finishes in P9 and Stroll ends his inconsistent weekend in P7. But none of this compares to the outstanding result of Ricciardo’s first win in the sport since Monaco 2018, back when he was alongside Verstappen. This time, beside him is Lando Norris, with his best result to date in P2, making his 5th podium of his career.
Overall, a very exciting race, with the unexpected win of Daniel Ricciardo, and the drama between Max and Lewis. Despite this fantastic result, my personal Driver of the Day has to be Valtteri Bottas, coming from the back of the grid to stand on the podium, on a track which can have some issues when it comes to overtaking, is an unbelievable performance, truly showing the kind of driver Mercedes will be letting go at the end of the year. A strong weekend for the Prancing Horses with good points finishes for both cars, however the undisputed winners of the weekend has to be McLaren, taking their first win in 9 years, and putting that little bit of daylight between themselves and Ferrari, retaking 3rd in the Constructors, and in a season which seems to be being determined by small margins, this victory could be crucial for the papaya outfit.