It might be tempting to think Daniel Ricciardo’s unlikely Italian Grand Prix victim was the beneficiary of another boilover crash between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, but the Australian’s drought-breaking victory was on the cards long before the title protagonists banged wheels in the first chicane.
There was a steely determination about Ricciardo in Monza. During a weekend that he and his McLaren team will hope signifies a return to form after a wayward first half of the season, the 32-year-old perfectly managed his pace to see off Verstappen’s challenge early and teammate Norris’s challenge late and grind out an important personal victory.
And it was important for the team beyond its need to get the most from its star signing. This was McLaren’s first win since the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix almost a full nine years ago and its first one-two finish since Lewis Hamilton led home Jenson Button more than 11 years ago in the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix — before Ricciardo had even made his F1 debut.
It was a crucial marker in McLaren’s long journey back to the front of the F1 field from its 2015–18 nadir, proof that its systems are working on the precipice of a new regulatory era beginning next season.
But the promise of the victory exists in the long term; in Italy the story is of the perfect storm that cleared the way for Ricciardo and McLaren to strut their stuff on one of F1’s biggest stages once again.
QUALIFYING AND THE SPRINT
Monza was expected to be a Mercedes-friendly circuit, the W12 aerodynamic package better able to shed downforce to achieve peak straight-line speed, the core of performance at the temple of speed. The RB16B’s higher rake, on the other hand, limited its minimum drag level, giving it a decisive disadvantage.
This much proved true in Friday qualifying, with Valtteri Bottas taking sprint pole ahead of Lewis Hamilton and more than 0.4 second sup the road from Max Verstappen — and Verstappen had benefitted from a Sergio Perez team-ordered slipstream to keep in touch in the first place.
Indeed Mercedes was so confident of its superiority that it elected to give Valtteri Bottas a fourth power unit and drop him to the back of the grid for Sunday’s race safe in the knowledge that he would be able to recover a decent points haul regardless.
But that proved a first crucial mistake, for despite Bottas getting away cleanly from Saturday pole, Hamilton botched his launch and slipped to fifth, letting by title rival Verstappen and both Mercedes drivers.
Despite his car’s inherent pace, he couldn’t make a pass, and the top five finished in lap-one order. Verstappen inherited pole from the penalised Bottas, and with overtaking difficult in the Monza slipstream, suddenly the Dutchman looked certain to extend his points advantage over the Briton.
THE WINNING STRATEGY
Daniel Ricciardo’s sizzling launch rocketed him into the lead at the first chicane, from where he could control the pace of the race. His McLaren lacked performance compared to the Red Bull Racing machine through the corners, but he was fast enough down the long straights to keep himself out of reach in the braking zones.
Verstappen, though, wouldn’t be deterred from trying to pass the Australian. With Hamilton battling Norris behind for a spot on the podium, the Dutchman was determined to seize his opportunity to inflict maximum damage.
But sliding around in Ricciardo’s dirty air was killing Verstappen’s medium-compound tyres, and when the one-stop window opened after lap 20, it left him without a crucial weapon to attack McLaren with in pit lane.
The undercut is powerful around Monza, and McLaren was determined not to give Red Bull Racing the advantage of the first move. When the Milton Keynes team dummied in the pit lane at the end of lap 22, Ricciardo was hauled in for a switch from mediums to hards.
Verstappen was told to put his foot down and reply the following lap, but he radioed frustratedly that he’d used the best of his tyres already. His in-lap was slower than Ricciardo’s, and the McLaren driver was also undertaking a strong out-lap. By the time the Dutchman reached his pit box, the odds were already stacked in favour of Ricciardo retaining the lead.
But Verstappen’s afternoon was about to really unravel. He sat in his pit box for more than 11 seconds thanks to an error in the new pit-stop process that prevents wheel mechanics from pre-empting the fastening of the wheel nut, confirming Ricciardo’s lead.
The five-lap safety car intervention shortly afterwards for the Verstappen-Hamilton crash helped to bridge the tyre life disadvantage Ricciardo had compared to his post-caution challengers, and he was able to manage the gap to Norris and the pursuing Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas superbly to take the chequered flag.
Indeed so well had Ricciardo managed his tyres in the second half of the race, keeping enough in reserve to see off any possible assault, that he set the fastest lap of the race on his final tour, underlining his pace.
VERSTAPPEN’S RACE UNRAVELS, AND THAT SMASH
Verstappen’s slow stop had virtually guaranteed he wouldn’t compete for victory, but worse was that it had made him vulnerable to title rival Hamilton, who had been aiming to overcome fourth on the grid with the alternative hard–soft strategy.
The thinking for Mercedes was that the hard’s durability would be enough to overcut the McLaren cars ahead if he couldn’t get a jump on them at the start, while the medium tyre at the finish might give him enough of a pace advantage to launch a move on Verstappen late if he’d manage to keep in touch with the leader.
The first half of the race had gone very well for Hamilton in this regard. He had got stuck behind Norris, slowing his pace, but so too had Verstappen got caught behind Ricciardo, preventing him from escaping up the road, keeping a move for the lead in play.
And things then took a sweet turn when Verstappen’s stop was slow. Mercedes saw its chance to pit Hamilton earlier than expected and emerge ahead of the Dutchman, from which position its straight-line speed advantage would have been able to keep the Bull behind and perhaps even drop him in traffic.
However, Mercedes’s stop was also slow by around two seconds, which had two crucial effects.
The first was it counted him out of victory — he had been undercut by Norris, who had stopped a lap earlier, and it was extremely unlikely he be able to repass him and then pass Ricciardo in the remaining laps, especially with given his more delicate rubber would likely expire before the end of the race, as it ultimately did for Bottas.
The second was that rather than rejoining ahead of Verstappen, the two went into the first corner side by side.
The outcome is already infamous. Hamilton squeezed his rival to the apex of turn two but Verstappen committed to the kerbs rather than took to the run-off, virtually guaranteeing a smash.
Verstappen blamed Hamilton for not leaving him space, which was a fair criticism even if his decision had ultimately caused the double-DNF crash. But Hamilton responded that he’d already backed out of one dangerous Verstappen manoeuvre earlier in the race, when on the first lap Verstappen forced him to cut the Roggia chicane or take both out of the race.
Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.
The stewards judged Verstappen to be mostly to blame, handing him a three-place penalty for the Russian Grand Prix.
THE SECOND DRIVERS
With the Mercedes and Red Bull Racing team leaders out of the race, it fell to Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas to take up the slack. Sixth and eighth — up from eighth and 18th — before the pit stop windows opened, they were promoted to fourth and fifth behind the safety car, having taken their sole stop during the caution, and both battled quickly past Charles Leclerc at the restart.
Bottas had been on the same counterstrategy as Hamilton, and it had worked a treat, winning him 10 places in the first stint of the race, which he banked with the safety car stop. Now on medium tyres and with the field closed up, the race would well have been his.
But the Mercedes car lacked speed at the very end of the straight to make a move on Perez’s Red Bull even with the fresher rubber, thanks in part to a slipstream train starting with Ricciardo, moving through Norris and ending with Perez and Bottas. It effectively neutralised the top-four battle, and the longer they each ran in each other’s dirty air, the harder it was to keep the tyres in shape to launch an attack.
Bottas was eventually promoted to third when Perez served a post-race penalty for passing Leclerc off the track after the restart.