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Ferrari may have arrived at their second home race of the year at Monza with all hopes of a world championship all but extinguished by the brutal speed and consistency of Max Verstappen and Red Bull, but everyone representing the Prancing Horse in the paddock this weekend – from mechanics and hospitality staff up to Binotto himself – was keen to demonstrate that the team retained that team spirit.
For 15 rounds in 2022, Ferrari have faced relentless scrutiny from all quarters. Every slip-up over every weekend provided easy fodder for content creators across the internet to mercilessly mock Maranello’s finest. Commentators openly chastising the team’s strategy calls every Sunday.
In Italy, so fiercely proud of Ferrari’s status as the most revered car brand on the planet, the frustration at their failures grew so strong that red stickers proclaiming ‘BinottOut’ were spotted on light poles, benches and other objects around the grounds of Monza.
No wonder, then, that Charles Leclerc had been so thrilled to have secured pole position for the race on Saturday afternoon. It had been a near-inevitability, with Verstappen due to drop five places on the grid for a fourth power unit and Carlos Sainz Jnr, Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez all set to be demoted to the back of the grid for similar technical offences. However, beating Verstappen on merit for the first time in four rounds gave Ferrari the best possible chance of victory on Sunday. What Leclerc now needed to do was to beat his fellow front row starter, George Russell in the sprint to the Rettifilo.
When the lights went out, the Mercedes’ getaway was just as good as the Ferrari’s. Russell’s front wheels were level with Leclerc’s rear wheels for just a second, before the Mercedes switched from the inside line to dive down the outside of the Ferrari under braking for the Rettifilo chicane. Russell held on around the outside of the right-hander but Leclerc had no intentions of letting him hog the inside for the second turn, with Russell bouncing over the kerbs over the inside runoff, emerging ahead of Leclerc.
“He just pushed me wide,” Russell protested as Leclerc gained the lead back on the exit.
As the field rounded Curva Grande for the first time, the pair led the two previous Monza winners with Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren in third and Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri. Behind, Verstappen was already up to fifth – two cars already dispatched before emerging out from the Rettifilo. Gasly’s fourth place lasted roughly 40 seconds longer, before Verstappen carved up the inside under braking for Ascari. His quest to reach the lead from seventh on the grid was already half-complete before the end of the first lap.
At the start of the lap two, Verstappen proved his higher downforce set up for the weekend would be no obstruction to his ability to overtake that afternoon, breezing past Ricciardo on the pit straight as if he was already lapping the McLaren.
“Good job Max,” Verstappen’s engineer Gianpiero Lambiase casually praised his driver. “That’s P3 for the moment.”
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Out front, Leclerc was already being warned of Verstappen’s progress. Only Russell now stood between the two, but with DRS activated, the Red Bull was enjoying a 20km/h speed advantage over the Mercedes. At the start of lap five, he used it to slip inside of Russell into the Rettifilo and move into second place.
Leclerc’s engineer Xavier Marcos Padros had to relay the bad news. “Now next car behind is Verstappen,” he reported to the leader, ominously.
Despite being easily passed, Russell managed to cling onto the back of the Red Bull and remain within DRS range, allowing him to be pulled along in Verstappen’s slipstream as the championship leader closed up on the leader. The trio were already six seconds clear of last year’s winner, Daniel Ricciardo, who headed up the remaining cars. Of those who started out of position at the back, Sainz was having by far the better recovery, having already gained seven places to 11th, while Perez had fallen one position to 14th and Hamilton had only moved up one spot to 18th.
Verstappen continued his steady march towards the back of the Ferrari. With the three leading cars on fresh soft tyres, they would all likely be looking to run as long as they could to make a one-stop strategy work, with Pirelli estimating that around lap 18-20 would be the best time to do so. But then, suddenly, the dynamic shifted when Sebastian Vettel began to report a loss of power on his Aston Martin at the end of lap 11, puffs of smoke coughing out of the rear of the car.
Vettel pulled off at the exit of the second Lesmo, leading to yellow flags as he began to climb out of his stricken car. When Ferrari warned the leader of the hazard half a lap ahead of him, Leclerc did not hesitate.
“Is the Safety Car window open?,” he asked, only for the Virtual Safety Car to be deployed just seconds later. “What do you think about boxing for Plan A?,” Marcos Padros asked his driver.
“Err, yeah,” Leclerc replied, mulling the question over in his mind. “It will be tight, but it’s probably the best solution, yeah?”
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Ferrari agreed, calling their man in at the end of the 12th lap to switch not to hard tyres, but to mediums – leaving him with a tough challenge to make his tyres last until the end of the race.
“How many laps are we short?,” Leclerc asked, wondering just how much he would be asked to take his mediums over their expected lifespan. “Six laps short,” came the reply.
Unfortunately for Ferrari, Vettel’s car was now already cleared. As he entered the pit lane, the VSC period was ending. At almost the exact same time that Leclerc dropped the clutch to leave his pit box with his shiny new set of mediums, the green flags flew and new leader Verstappen resumed at racing speeds. Luckily, Leclerc emerged third – just as Ferrari predicted – avoiding the train behind Ricciardo. But the restart timing had cost them a handful of seconds they otherwise would have gained.
“With hindsight, we believe it was the right decision,” Mattia Binotto later explained after the race.
“We knew that Charles has got good pace, but Max got better tyre degradation and he was already faster to us and staying on the simple same strategy of him, he would have beaten us sooner or later. So the only chance for us was somehow try to move the strategy on two stops and not staying one and pitting at the time of the Virtual Safety Car.”
A total of 17 seconds separated Leclerc on his fresh tyres from Verstappen. After carefully bringing his new mediums up to temperature, Leclerc began to chip away at that advantage, as concerned with preserving the life of his tyres as he was bridging the gap to the leader.
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However, Ferrari knew that even with the benefit of a stop under VSC, they would still struggle to beat Verstappen in a straight fight with the pair on a one-stop strategy. Instead, Ferrari pivoted to “Plan C”, likely committing to a two-stop strategy in order to give themselves some kind of alternative form of attack.
Approaching the midway point in the race, Russell was informed that Mercedes were considering the hard tyre for his upcoming stop having observed how well it appeared to be working for the many cars behind him who had already switched to it. “I’d feel probably more comfortable on that,” Russell informed his team, who took his feedback onboard by pitting him onto the compound at the end of lap 23, moving Leclerc up to second place.
Two laps later, it was Verstappen’s turn. But rather than hard tyres, he stuck with mediums. As Leclerc zoomed by the pit lane and back into the lead, Lambiase was quick to stress to his driver that he could take his time, rather than commence an all-out attack straight out of the pits.
“You’ve got a 14-lap advantage on Leclerc’s tyre set, so bring these in gently,” Lambiase instructed his driver. “Still a 28-lap stint to go – you’ll need them.”
“I’m not very happy on this tyre,” Russell reported. “I don’t feel the grip – sliding. I’m just going to go as fast as I can.”
Leclerc’s lead shrank as Verstappen went ever faster, taking a full second out of the Ferrari on the 32nd lap. In response, Ferrari pulled the trigger and Leclerc was in at the end of the next lap, bolting a new set of softs on his car and sending him back out just ahead of Russell to hold second place. With just 19 laps now remaining, Verstappen’s lead sat at 19.6 seconds. To win, Leclerc would have to take just over a second per lap out of the Red Bull, then find a way past.
Instead, it took five whole laps before Leclerc could get Verstappen’s lead under 19 seconds at all. Even with faster tyres that were nine laps younger, it still was not enough to allow Leclerc to make any kind of reasonable progress on the leader. Five laps later, the gap remained north of 17 seconds. Just as he had for the four previous races, Verstappen appeared to be totally at ease at the front of the field without needing to even consider glancing in his mirrors at any point.
As Verstappen started the 47th lap, he overtook Ricciardo’s eighth-placed McLaren into Rettifilo for the second time in just over an hour – although this time he actually was putting him a lap down. But as Ricciardo rounded the first Lesmo, his car suddenly cut out completely.
“I’ve lost the engine,” Ricciardo reported. “I’ve lost the engine.”
Unlike Vettel earlier in the race, Ricciardo was unable to pull off past the second Lesmo to the access road and instead had to stop on the side of the track between the two right-handers. As the yellow flags waved, Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes each put their top three drivers on standby to pit the moment they saw any Safety Car or VSC indication. Verstappen and Leclerc passed the pit lane, but there was no such call. Until, exactly one minute after the first yellow flags, the Safety Car was indeed deployed.
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Exiting the Parabolica, Russell had to react instantly to the signals to pull into the pits. He had a set of used softs fitted to his car and was released still in third, as fourth-placed Sainz also stopped behind. Verstappen and Leclerc were both called in with the pair also reassured that they would not lose track position by doing so, making their stops at the end of lap 48.
Half a lap behind, Russell had caught the Safety Car. But while he was not the leader, he was also not getting the signal to pass the Aston Martin Vantage. After checking the situation with his race engineer Ricardo Musconi, Russell held back:
|Musconi||So you can go by. You’re not the leader. You can go by the Safety Car.|
|Russell||Are you sure? I can overtake the Safety Car?|
|Musconi||If there’s a green light on top.|
|Russell||There’s a yellow light on top.|
|Musconi||They should wave you through.|
|Russell||Copy that – I will overtake the Safety Car.|
|Musconi||Stay behind, stay behind. When the lights are green, they should wave you through.|
But the lights did not go green. Instead, Russell remained stuck behind the Safety Car for two more laps until being eventually released along with the queue of cars behind him on lap 51 – by which time Verstappen had caught the rear of the train that he was supposed to be leading.
As 10 cars peeled away to complete a lap, Verstappen took his correct place behind the Safety Car but had Valtteri Bottas and Yuki Tsunoda still between him and Leclerc in second, who was now increasingly agitated.
“How many laps left?,” Leclerc enquired. “Two laps left,” he was told. A few moments later, Leclerc received the news he did not want to hear.
“And we will finish the race behind the Safety Car,” Marcos Padros disappointedly informed him.
“Oh, come on!,” Leclerc groaned, gesticulating his disgust out of the cockpit. “It’s clear!”
“Bullshit!” he raged. “It’s cleared now. It’s a joke. It’s a joke. It’s a big joke. The track was cleared, come on! We are in Formula 1. What are we doing?”
Denied a chance to at least try and fight Verstappen over a shootout of a lap or two, Leclerc could only cruise around the final 5.8 kilometres and look on as his rival crossed the line ahead of him to take the chequered flag first for the 11th time in 2022.
“Obviously I really wanted for this race to start again,” Leclerc said after the race. “From the car, I didn’t understand because the last time we passed through, the track was clean. So, I really thought that we will restart again. But it didn’t happen. So maybe there are things in the background that I didn’t know that didn’t make the restart possible.”
But Leclerc knew he could have no complaints about the victor, who continued to demonstrate near unstoppable race pace to overcome his latest grid handicap of five place for his fifth straight win.
“We had a great race,” Verstappen said. “On every compound, we were quickest.
“I was just controlling the gap at the end, but of course then the Safety Car came out. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a restart. But overall, we had again a really good day.”
Russell was satisfied with third. Sainz made the best of a bad starting situation to end up fourth at the finish, ahead of fellow rear starters Hamilton and Perez, the latter having lost places to both of them. Lando Norris took advantage of a poor race for Alpine to take modest points out of Alpine’s lead over McLaren in their battle for fourth in the constructors’ championship, while Pierre Gasly finished eighth.
On his unexpected grand prix debut, Nyck de Vries claimed a highly impressive ninth place, having to be carried out of his car due to the strain on his shoulders. The strain of holding off 10th-placed Zhou Guanyu for the majority of the race appeared to take a toll, as the Alfa Romeo driver ended his team’s six-race points drought.
But while Red Bull had secured yet another victory in Ferrari’s back garden, at least the Scuderia had shown some fighting spirit with their most important of VIPs watching on from the garage with no major errors or mechanical failures to embarrass them further. Ferrari could at least hang their heads high in the knowledge that they had not lost this race – Verstappen simply had won it.
“It’s not difficult, it’s impossible to beat the fastest car,” conceded Binotto.
“Normally you win if you’ve got the fast car and you may only make it wrong with strategies and lose the race if you’ve got a fast car, with strategy. So I think today he was faster – whatever has been the strategy, he would have won.”
Leclerc, resigned to the near-certainty this will not be his year, could take solace in the unwavering support from the fans as he looked out over the sea of red from the Monza podium – even if not from as high an angle as he’d prefer to have done.
“It’s always incredible,” he said.
“Starting from pole, I wanted to get that – and we didn’t. So it’s not the best day, but the podium makes it a lot better.”
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