Two Key Factors Made Leclerc’s Monza Win A Bit More Special

Charles Leclerc wins Ferrari's home race in Monza, Italy in front of the tifosi
I pen my thoughts on the two key factors that made Charles Leclerc’s win at Monza a bit more special. 
  • Charles Leclerc, the Prince of Ferrari, delivered a dream result for Ferrari and the ‘tifosi’ – a victory on home soil
  • Hamilton did push Leclerc into making two mistakes – both in the first sector of Monza
  • While the tifosi were quick to boo Hamilton, his chase of Leclerc needs to be applauded

At the Temple of Speed, Charles Leclerc, the ‘Prince of Ferrari’, delivered a dream result for Ferrari and the ‘tifosi’ — a victory on home soil. The team and their legion of fanatic fans had to wait 9 years to see a Ferrari driver claim victory at Monza. Apart from the victory alone, it was the manner in which Leclerc claimed his second win in Formula 1 that enthralled fans alike — for those few moments after his win, it didn’t matter which team-driver one supported (1st). It was about celebrating a young driver’s childhood dream come true — a dream he worked mighty hard for over the 53 laps around the historic circuit of Monza.

Valtteri Bottas led Lewis Hamilton across the line as Mercedes claimed a double podium. The 2019 Formula 1 season seems well-poised, despite Mercedes’ comfortable position in both the championships. One wonders if Formula 1 is able to celebrate each individual race and the local battles that much more given that the championships are only a matter of time for Mercedes and Hamilton to claim. Since the infamous French Grand Prix in June, the season has taken an interesting twist with each of the top-3 teams winning two races each. At different races, different teams (okay, largely Red Bull Racing and Ferrari) are emerging as challengers to Mercedes’ dominance and in fact are able to convert their strengths into race wins. Long before Spa and Monza arrived, one expected Ferrari’s package to offer the team their best chance to win a (or both) race this season. But would they actually win? A legitimate question in everyone’s minds — especially after their near-misses in the first half of the season.

Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg delivered Renault’s best-result since their comeback to Formula 1 by finishing 4th and 5th respectively. The Red Bull Racing duo of Alexander Albon and Max Verstappen finished 6th and 8th, being split by the Racing Point of Sergio Perez in 7th. Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi did well to finish 9th and score points in his home race. Mclaren’s Lando Norris secured the last point by finishing 10th. In all, 7 out of the 10 teams scored at Monza, in a race where the long straights, DRS and the tow offered good battles throughout the grid.

Mercedes’s Hunt Of Leclerc’s Ferrari

For the entire race distance (53 laps) of the Italian Grand Prix, Leclerc was hunted down by a Mercedes. For the first 43 laps, it was Hamilton, who was ruthless and precise in his attacks. Like Spa, it was known from Friday’s free practice data that Ferrari had the edge over one-lap pace, but the Mercedes had stronger race pace. As Hamilton said after qualifying, “I think we can keep up with them (Ferrari). Whether or not we can close the gap and overtake them, time will tell. But we will have to push them till these tyres drop off the cliff.” However, unlike at Spa, Ferrari believed that they were closer to Mercedes’ race pace in Monza. “I think in FP2 the race pace was a bit more positive compared to the race pace that we had in FP2 in Spa,” opined Leclerc.

At the hands of Hamilton, Mercedes seemed like the faster of the two lead cars for those 43 laps. Mercedes’s Hamilton threw everything in their arsenal to try and topple Ferrari’s Leclerc from the lead of the race. In Ferrari’s praise, the team called it perfectly by opting to switch Leclerc to the hard compound while Mercedes chose the medium compound for Hamilton. Ferrari would’ve learned from their lessons from Austria, where tyre wear allowed Verstappen to close in and overtake Leclerc for the win. Likewise from the Italian Grand Prix in 2018, when Raikkonen’s tyres gave up while defending hard against Hamilton. It was only in Hungary when Mercedes-Hamilton used a better tyre strategy to claim the win from Verstappen in the closing stages of the race.

Was Leclerc Too Aggressive Against Hamilton?

Hamilton’s chase did push Leclerc into making two mistakes — both in the first sector of Monza. On lap 23, Hamilton made his first serious attack for the lead at the second chicane — only to find a hard and borderline defensive move from Leclerc. The FIA were quick to wave the black-white flag for Leclerc, Formula 1’s version of the ‘yellow card’ a la Football. Here too, depending on which driver one would be supporting, FIA’s ruling would either classify as controversial or sensible. For us, the ruling was sensible and the correct one for the sport. It warned Leclerc to not repeat the move again whilst still allowing the two drivers to continue racing — a good deflection from the FIA’s previous hardball stances in similar situations (often using the infamous 5 second time penalty). Of course, it was only natural to see Hamilton-Mercedes disagree with the ruling.

On lap 35, Leclerc made his second error — misjudging his braking point for the first chicane. The Ferrari driver straightlined the corner only to find Hamilton perilously close at the exit — lurking at his gearbox and lining up his second attack for the lead. In the run down to the second chicane, Leclerc made a last-second switch in his racing line, stopping Hamilton in his ranks. All Hamilton could then do was radio the team that there was “some dangerous driving going on.” As for Leclerc, he openly admitted once again that it was only after the FIA ruled in Verstappen’s favour in Austria that he upped his on-track aggression.

The Mighty Lewis Hamilton

While the tifosi were quick to boo Hamilton, his chase of Leclerc needs to be applauded. In Canada, his chase of Vettel led the Ferrari driver to make a mistake while under pressure to protect his lead. In Italy, Leclerc made two, and was lucky to still retain his lead. In contrast and on fresher tyres, Bottas was unable to pressure Leclerc as much in the last 10 laps. Such was Hamilton’s chase, the reigning World Champion ran out of tyre life and was required to pit for new rubber in the closing stages of the race. Luckily, he had ample room between himself and the Renaults that followed to make the stop and go chase the extra point for the fastest lap of the race.

The race also showcased Ferrari’s straightline speed advantage for the second race in a row. Over the weekend, Ferrari’s Team Principal Mattia Binotto admitted, “We will not close the gap (in the corners) from now till the end of the season. But we will try to keep our advantage on the straights and reduce the gap in the corners.” Leclerc did exactly that — used the advantage, especially on the long pit straight. Basis our numbers, a gap of 0.400 seconds was just about comfortable for Leclerc to maintain his lead in the braking zone at the end of the straight.

Is Leclerc Ferrari’s New #1 Driver?

In the last 7 races, Leclerc has out-qualified Vettel while finishing ahead in the races five times out of seven. While Vettel remains winless this season and has one pole position to his name, Leclerc has scored both of Ferraris wins while scoring 4 pole positions. In the Drivers’ Championship, Leclerc’s wins in Spa and Monza have propelled him to 4th place — 13 points ahead of Vettel. In fact, Verstappen is only 3 points ahead of Leclerc. Basis current form, it would be hard for Ferrari to ignore Leclerc’s rise through the ranks. However, given that Ferrari aren’t in the championship hunt this season, one would assume that the team would back the faster driver in the remaining 7 races of the season — possibly the easiest way to arrive at such a political decision.

While Leclerc had the best weekend of his Formula 1 career till date, Vettel’s was the exact opposite and possibly his worst. The messy final minute in Q3 meant that Vettel (and 7 other drivers) missed his second attempt in qualifying. Worse, after giving Leclerc a tow in the first run, he lost his chance to get the tow back in return in the second run. As a result, Vettel was out-qualified by the Mercedes drivers despite being faster. Come Race Day, Vettel spun on his own while running in 4th place — behind Leclerc, Hamilton and Bottas. It was one more error to add to his list of errors over the last 15 months as the German took a bit too much of the inside kerb on the first corner of the famous Ascari chicane. If the spin was embarrassing, it was Vettel’s re-joining that added much to the embarrassment and put the sport at a risk for a few moments.

The quadruple World Champion, who claimed to be unsighted, possibly assumed that the gap between the front-runners and midfield drivers was large enough for him to rejoin at the apex of the second corner at Ascari — the fastest chicane at Monza. The move was senseless and dangerous, especially after the events from last weekend’s Formula 2 race in Spa. Luckily for Vettel, Racing Point’s Lance Stroll (running in 7th) managed to avoid a crash while driving over Vettel’s front wing elements before spinning himself. Similar to Vettel, Stroll’s rejoining of the circuit was questionable and this time, it was Pierre Gasly who was the victim. The FIA were prompt in penalising both drivers, Vettel receiving the most-severe in-race penalty — 10 seconds stop-go. The spin and penalty meant that Vettel’s race was over and the tifosi would’ve switched full focus to cheering the race-leading Leclerc.

Leclerc Won Without A Wingman (2nd)

In fact, it was Vettel’s absence at the front that made Leclerc’s win that much more worthy. At Spa, Vettel played the role of an able wingman who held up Hamilton long enough to help his team-mate score the win. At Monza, apart from the tow that helped Leclerc claim pole position on Saturday, Vettel’s involvement in his team-mate’s race was negligible. After Vettel’s spin and loss of place in the leading pack, Ferrari would’ve felt on the back-foot when it came to tyre strategy. Expectedly, Mercedes experimented with different tyre strategies for both their drivers, but in vain.

In the mid-field, Renault’s form in Monza was impressive — through qualifying and in the race. The expectation was that at least one Red Bull (that of Albon) would finish ahead of the two black-yellow cars. The scrap between Sainz-Albon in the opening laps compromised Albon’s charge through the field, but in his second race for Red Bull Racing, the Thai-British driver finished 6th. After taking a new and upgraded power unit, Verstappen was relegated to start from the back of the grid due to the penalties incurred from this change. The expectation in Sunday’s race was to see Verstappen charge his way through the pack and onto the podium or thereabouts, but the Dutch driver could only manage an 8th place finish.

The Masterclass That Wasn’t — Max Verstappen

After a questionable move in Spa, Verstappen made one more error in Monza. At the start, he approached the first corner with a bit too much speed and planned to take the grassy road to avoid rear-ending his rivals (mainly Perez). However, Verstappen ended up clipping his front wing on Perez’s rear tyres, requiring an unscheduled early pit-stop. After that, it was the power of Perez’s Mercedes power unit that kept Verstappen at bay and away from 7th place in the closing stages of the race.

The notable exclusions from the race were Carlos Sainz Jr., Daniil Kvyat and Kimi Raikkonen. Sainz was running a strong race till a loose wheel brought a premature end to his race also triggering one of the two Virtual Safety Car periods. After consistent performances in the first half of the season, this was Sainz’s second consecutive ‘did not finish’ — both related to car issues. Daniil Kvyat’s Honda-powered Toro Rosso suffered from an oil leak after his pit-stop, while Raikkonen was forced to start the race from the pit-lane after a driver error saw him crash out and damage his gearbox in Q3 of qualifying. After changing several components on his Alfa Romeo, the Sauber mechanics fitted the wrong tyres — prompting the FIA to rule a 10-second stop-go penalty for the Finn. The race for the ‘best of the rest’ (7th place) in the Drivers’ Championship heated up at Monza — Sainz holding a 24-points advantage to Ricciardo-Albon-Kvyat-Hulkenberg-Raikkonen — all separated by 3 points.

As we look forward to the next race in Singapore, it would be worth remembering Sergio Marchionne — the late Ferrari CEO who took the bold decision in summer last year to promote Leclerc straight from Alfa Romeo to the works Ferrari team. Given Leclerc’s quick learning skills, temperament and humility, there’s no denying that he’s already a force to reckon with in the world of Formula 1. As for the 2019 Italian Grand Prix, we finally got a glimpse of what fans hoped for in 2019 – a genuine fight between Ferrari and Mercedes, on-track and on the pit wall.,

This post was first published on Firstpost

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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