Charles Leclerc put on a masters class in tenacity at Monza, holding his ground first against the withering attacks from Lewis Hamilton and then a late charge from Valtteri Bottas to take a scintillating victory in the 89th Italian Grand Prix.
With Leclerc’s win, Ferrari’s rising star brought the Scuderia its first home track title in nine years, just seven days after the youngster claimed his maiden Grand Prix victory at Spa.
Leclerc was left to do it all himself at Ferrari’s traditional home race after team-mate Sebastian Vettel spun at the Ascari chicane on Lap 6 while running fourth. Vettel’s resultant 10-second stop-go penalty dropped the German to the back of the field. He would finish outside the points in 13th.
Vettel’s fall allowed Mercedes to engineer tyre stops for both Hamilton and Bottas that aimed to put Leclerc’s own tyres under extreme pressure in both the middle and end of the race.
Leclerc neutralised Hamilton through the first stint but faced immediate pressure after stopping one lap later than his pursuer – and taking on hard tyres to Hamilton’s mediums.
Starting on Lap 22, Leclerc had his elbows out defending his lead, as Hamilton hammered on the young Monegasque over the next 20 laps. When the five-time world champion’s tyres gave out, Bottas took over Mercedes’ attack, but Leclerc kept his cool, taking the chequered flag by 0.835s – Hamilton took a distant third, 35.199s back after pitting for fresh tyres to set the fastest lap and score a bonus point.
Monza has always been an outlier in F1. From the beginning, it was the sport’s “Temple of Speed” and the “Heaven of Slipstreaming”. Even when the late 60s and early 70s F1 cars were festooned with wings, they were removed for the need for speed at Monza.
Why? Less drag. As such, qualifying at Monza has its peculiarities, and this season was no different.
One of the key determinates of a car’s terminal velocity is wind resistance (also known as drag), and the less a car generates, the faster it goes. Current F1 rules now require wings – trimmed down as far as drivers dare to stay- so the next most effective way to reduce drag is to follow another car and allow it to punch a hole in the air for you.
Charles Leclerc had been dominant during practice and Q1 and put in a stunning lap with his first run in Q3. What happened next was pure Monza.
Just like an ace in the Tour de France peloton, starting his charge to the front is easiest if he follows a pack until the last few seconds. Building on this idea, here was Monza, the “Heaven of Slipstreaming” with drivers slowing to a crawl as they waited for someone to break for a timed lap, who they would then follow for an aero tow.
Even though the FIA had warned teams ahead of the session that it would clamp down on anyone going too slowly on out laps, seven of the nine remaining drivers in Q3 (Kimi Raikkonen had already crashed out) failed to start their timed lap before the session clock reached zero.
As a result, they all missed out on an attempt to set a time at the end of the session when track conditions were at their best. Thus, the times set during their first Q3 timed lap stood.
“You don’t want to be at the front at all,” Red Bull’s Alexander Albon explained afterwards. “It was just one of those things, we talked about it in the briefing, and we knew it was going to happen. But to be honest, I don’t think anyone expected it to be that bad.”
Especially, the FIA.
Leclerc led away from pole position with Hamilton and Bottas in hot pursuit. Max Verstappen, starting last after a new Honda PU installation, got caught out by the slow queue waiting to traverse the chicane and punted the rear of Perez’ Racing Point The Dutchman’s Red Bull nose was broken, and he had to complete the entire lap to have it changed. He emerged a distant 20th.
Sebastian Vettel looped his Ferrari out of fourth place after striking the Ascari chicane kerb on Lap 6. Vettel rejoined the track, spearing the Racing Point of Lance Stroll, currently running seventh. Stroll spun.
Stroll recovered but rejoined as Pierre Gasly was exiting Ascari – which forced the Toro Rosso driver through the deep gravel.
Vettel received a 10s stop-go penalty for his unsafe return to the track, the harshest possible penalty short of disqualification, effectively removing him of any chance of a top-ten finish. Meanwhile, Stroll’s actions were deemed slightly less egregious, and he received a drive-through.
Hamilton was the first of the leaders to pit for tyres, with Leclerc stopping a lap later. Seeing Vettel out of the race story, Mercedes was busy crafting tyre plans for both Hamilton and Bottas that they felt would compromise Leclerc’s tyres in the middle and the end of the Grand Prix. What they didn’t take into consideration was the young Monegasques’ change of heart.
First off, while Hamilton was given the medium tyre, Leclerc was put on the hard tyre, which would last the remainder of the race. Trouble was, those same hards would probably last two more Grand Prix distances, as they were so hard to heat up.
Secondly, Leclerc crew was with the youngster all the way and produced a brilliantly quick tyre change that put the Monaco youngster out ahead of Hamilton to reclaim the lead.
Now up front again, Charles Leclerc had his head down and was motoring on. He was changed man since his trial by fire in Austria with an equally determined Max Verstappen.
Leclerc would later say, “Since Austria, it’s clear we can go a bit further in the way we defend and overtake and just the aggressiveness of us drivers.
“I believe that Austria helped me change my approach and today it’s also thanks to this that I managed to win.
Over the next 20 laps, Lewis Hamilton would personally experience what Austria had wrought.
First, on lap 23 of the 53, Hamilton saw Leclerc delayed trying to pass Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault at Parabolica. The Brit forced the youngster to defend into the first chicane – where Leclerc took to the run-off and stayed in the lead.
Leclerc countered Hamilton’s lunge at the into the second chicane by moving back across to the right. There was light contact as Hamilton was forced to inch over on the grass.
Leclerc received a black-and-white flag warning for that move, perhaps fortunate to get away with what Hamilton described as “dangerous” driving on lap 36.
By Lap 38, it became clear – as long as Leclerc came off the exit of Parabolica perfectly, his SF 90’s speed would keep Hamilton firmly in second place with 15 laps remaining.
The final straw was at the start of Lap 42. Approaching the first chicane, Hamilton locked his front left and took to the escape road. His tyres had been destroyed following the young Ferrari ace – now Bottas would move up to second place to see what he could do.
Three seconds behind, Bottas best attempt was three laps from the end, but he braked too late into Turn 1 and dropped back. He would get within DRS range on the final lap, but make a small slip at the second chicane while Leclerc held his line as if his hard tyres were the stickiest of qualifiers. He crossed the line 0.835s ahead of the Finn.
“Charly Cool” took his second Grand Prix in grand style, without a Ferrari “wingman” to hold off the Mercedes duo, on the hardest tyre offered, while in front of the most fiercely partisan crowd in racing.
That crowd’s adoration of Leclerc, his accomplishment and his promise for the future were overwhelmingly apparent as 150,000 fans flooded every inch of Monza’s fearsome front straight to convey their undying devotion to Ferrari’s newest star.
Behind him and his Mercedes pursuers, Daniel Ricciardo clinched Renault’s best result of the season in fourth with team-mate Nico Hulkenberg right behind in fifth ahead of Red Bull’s Alex Albon, giving Renault a massive haul of points.
Sergio Perez benefited from a well-timed virtual safety car around his pitstop window to finish seventh, despite starting 18th.
Verstappen made it back to eighth after stopping on Lap 1 for his new front wing, and Antonio Giovinazzi scored points in his home race in ninth.
Lando Norris salvaged a McLaren off-weekend in 10th, having started 16th.