Feature: Talking points from the Italian Grand Prix
Ferrari finally savoured victory on home turf courtesy of Charles Leclerc, but it was another bad day for Sebastian Vettel. Motorsport Week takes a look at the key discussion points from the Italian Grand Prix.
From protégé to leader
‘The little prince becomes the king’ was how Italy’s leading sports newspaper reacted to the country’s grand prix, and judging by the reaction throughout the weekend Charles Leclerc is no longer the protégé, but now the anointed leader. Leclerc’s rise through 2019 has been little surprise to those that tracked his career through junior single-seater competition, with the Monegasque not only exceptionally rapid, but mentally strong, while possessing the fortitude to analyse and accept weaknesses, adapt, without losing the inner confidence that drivers require. Ahead of the race he sits on the grass, knees bent, resting up against the wall, unflinching at the throng of photographers and well-wishers who crowd in a semi-circle. Ice cool. Leclerc was not completely perfect at Monza but on the two occasions that he needed to defend against Hamilton he did so in a robustly borderline manner, pushing the envelope to secure the win the home fans craved. After his Austrian GP defeat he has shown more of a steel to prove that he is no pushover. Hamilton will have made a mental note of that. There was also an interesting development during qualifying. Sebastian Vettel gave Leclerc a tow during the first Q3 runs and that was to be repaid during the second Q3 laps, only for the drama to unfold as everyone slowed. Vettel was fuming, but still potentially could have made it across the line had Leclerc not passed him along the back straight. Leclerc claimed after he had approval from the team to do so. Vettel appeared unimpressed. A frank discussion was allegedly held thereafter. Mattia Binotto radioed “I forgive you” to Leclerc on the slow-down lap post-race. “It means that whatever happened in the last days that we discussed, that is something that will remain between us three,” said Binotto. Perhaps it would have been a bigger post-race talking point had it cost Ferrari the win. But Leclerc, having admitted to being initially overwhelmed at the scale of Ferrari, has already flexed his muscles internally. And, having now out-qualified Vettel seven times in a row, and taken two wins (which could have been four), it is difficult to argue against the balance being well and truly shifted. Leclerc delivered the victories that Ferrari desperately needed in order to salvage its season. He is getting better and better and still has the capacity to improve further. It would be remiss of Ferrari not to consider him its number one now.
Walking a tightrope
As Leclerc was proclaimed Italy’s new hero, receiving adulation from the fans that packed beneath the podium, Vettel trudged away almost unnoticed. What has become one of his most difficult Ferrari seasons took another turn for the worst with another unfathomable error. The circumstances could not have been much worse. Vettel needed to stake his claim to be seen as Ferrari’s leader but instead he fumbled – and not for the first time. Since mid-2018 he has made an average of one sizeable mistake every three races, a strike rate that would raise concerns over a rookie let alone a four-times World Champion. Vettel’s contemporaries have backed him to recover but the trend shows no sign of stopping. What’s worse is that whereas most previous errors have come in wheel-to-wheel battle, this one was entirely of his own accord, while his subsequent antics upon re-joining could have resulted in a cataclysmic accident. Many felt his 10-second stop-and-go penalty was light. It is another black mark for a driver whose status has been questioned, his future pondered, and his legacy evaluated amid a string of setbacks. It also means he is now on nine penalty points. It is not the first time that has happened, for after the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix he was also moved on to nine, and he survived the next round in Austria unscathed, after which he dropped points. This time around he will be on nine until October 19, meaning he must navigate the upcoming three events cleanly. Even then, he will be on seven until next June. It is a sorry state of affairs for a driver who was hired to bring back the title to Maranello, but who instead is being shaded by his younger team-mate after only 14 rounds.
Mercedes did all it realistically could
Mercedes can consider itself satisfied that, assisted by Vettel’s woes, it has left Belgium and Italy with a pair of double podiums, and its title advantage extended to the extent that it can undergo a coronation later this month in Russia. In Italy, once Vettel removed himself from the equation, it gave the team a strategic advantage, and it took such an approach, pitting Hamilton first before waiting another seven laps before bringing in Bottas. Hamilton relentlessly kept up the pressure on Leclerc and it must be satisfying for the Briton to have a Ferrari adversary who can go toe-to-toe with him and not capitulate upon an ounce of pressure. A rare mistake from Hamilton, on increasingly worn rubber, gave Bottas the platform, and he took tried all he could. Considering the straight-line speed advantage of the Ferrari at a circuit which is fundamentally an exhibition of power, Mercedes can be pleased to have been such close contenders in the game. It will surely be favourites for the next rounds in Singapore, Russia and Japan, where aerodynamic prowess is a substantially larger requirement.
A deserved result for Renault
Renault has endured a troublesome campaign, failing to make the desired leap forwards, but at Monza it underlined its strength at low-downforce circuits, as it had done in Canada. The R.S.19 was a competitive force throughout the weekend, with Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg a fine fourth and fifth respectively. It earned Renault its best overall result as a manufacturer in more than a decade. “Canada was not too deep into the season but it has taken a bit of time to get this second big result,” outlined Ricciardo. “This sort of stuff feels good. Obviously, it is not a podium, I don’t have champagne, but there is still a lot of self-fulfilment in this.” The result propelled Renault up to fifth in the standings, just 18 points behind customers McLaren.
Qualifying shenanigans need resolving
The events which unfolded during Q3 in Italy were utterly inevitable, laughable and made a high-tech multi-billion-dollar spot look, neatly summarised by Lance Stroll, “a bit of a comedy show.” Drivers tootled around in an attempt to find a slipstream, with no-one willing to head the queue, meaning that seven of the nine remaining participants missed out. It was a shambles entirely of everyone’s own making. Should there have been penalties? The Formula 3 drivers who were sanctioned for driving unnecessarily slowly certainly felt so, but after much dithering a handful of drivers were given a reprimand. It was a silly show while the post-session investigation was the latest in a string of discussions that have taken hours to resolve this year. Football referees make snap decisions, as in tennis, rugby, and cricket (where even allowing for TV reviews it can take just minutes), so why on earth has it become accepted that drivers, a team representative and a panel of stewards stay in a room long into the evening to discuss matters. On some occasions with major decisions some time may be needed, but the Sebastian Vettel case – whether or not he exceeded track limits – should be a 10-second decision. He either did, or he didn’t. Waiting until 9pm to determine something like that is a ridiculous state of affairs.
F3 accident finally wakes up the FIA
There was a certain contrast to events taking place on Saturday morning. The FIA was very keen for as many people as possible to attend a gathering in the paddock at which ex-footballer Didier Drogba was present to be unveiled as a new Road Safety representative. It’s an admirable cause and the FIA should be applauded for initiatives that can have a positive influence outside of motorsport. But, fundamentally, the FIA has developed into a motorsports-orientated organisation. It is Formula 1’s governing body, a role it also takes on in Formula 2 and Formula 3. The accident that befell Alex Peroni in Formula 3 was one that had been coming for years. Drivers do not like sausage kerbs. They are effectively launch pads. We have had near-misses and a couple of dramatic incidents before, most notably the one involving Konstantin Tereshchenko at Spa five years ago. Peroni was fortunate to walk away with a minor back injury, while it is also lucky that no present marshals were injured when the car came flying into the fence. The evolution of circuit safety has resulted in drivers abusing run-offs and there does need to be a deterrent. But a launch pad is not the answer. Sagely the kerb in question was removed for the rest of the weekend, though concerningly they are likely to remain in place elsewhere.
Monza has a five-year deal. Now improve the place.
Monza is a wonderfully historic circuit that just oozes atmosphere and there are few people disappointed that its future has finally been secured through to 2024. But behind-the-scenes it is lacking compared to many venues. Its facilities are not adequate for the modern era and the organisation borders on the shambolic. Without being stereotypical, it is very Italian. Organisers are limited by the layout of the Royal Park, as well as its protection status, and it is not flushed for cash. But it now knows it will be hosting Formula 1 until at least 2024. A bit of money being spent on improving facilities firstly for fans and then for Formula 1 personnel – rather than recruiting so many superfluous jacket-wearing mini-dictator ‘security’ guards – would be welcome. A bit of drizzle turns the car park into a quagmire, which isn’t the image a world-leading sport should really be giving out.
Remembering Anthoine, wishing JM well
The back-to-back nature of Belgium and Italy meant little time had passed since the tragic events that claimed the life of Anthoine Hubert and left Juan Manuel Correa hospitalised with severe injuries. Hubert was remembered poignantly by the Arden team for which he raced, as the crew placed a front wing at the front of the garage, left a space for the car, and had a picture of his France Sprint Race win celebrations at the back of the awning. The Formula 2 drivers conducted themselves immaculately and honoured their fallen colleague on the podium, agreeing to play the French national anthem after the usual ceremony for the victor, in this case Nobuharu Matsushita, who wore a Renault cap on the rostrum in tribute. Hubert has not been forgotten, while everyone is sending their best thoughts to Correa.