Charles Leclerc secured pole position in a shambolic qualifying session on Saturday afternoon, but Ferrari failed to lock out the front row, putting the prospect of a first home win since 2010 in jeopardy.
As was the case at last weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, Ferrari’s powerful engine and lack of downforce ensured it was best placed to start at the head of the grid. However, while Leclerc benefitted from Vettel’s slipstream on his first run to record what turned out to be the pole time, Vettel was unable to do likewise during the second runs — indeed he, as did all bar two other attempting drivers, failed to set a second time in the first place thanks to a too-slow out-lap.
It allowed Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to slot into second and third respectively ahead of Vettel in fourth — and Ferrari faithful will remember what a Mercedes two-to-one advantage did to what appeared a nailed-on shot at victory this time last season.
But Ferrari managed to get the job done despite a similar disadvantage in Belgium last week. Can it do the same again at Monza?
|2019 ITALIAN GRAND PRIX GRID|
|8||Alexander Albon||No time|
|9||Lance Stroll||No time|
Distance: 5.793 kilometres
Lap record: 1:21.046 (Rubens Barrichello, Ferrari, 2004)
Tyre stress: Very high
Lateral load: Low
Asphalt grip: Low
Asphalt abrasion: Medium
Downforce: Very low
Safety car probability: 10 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 417.8 kilometres
Pit lane time loss: 18.801 seconds
Fuel loss: 0.3 seconds per 10 kilograms
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta: C2–1.0 second–C3–0.9 seconds–C4
Assuming Vettel can’t jump at least one Mercedes off the line — remember what happened when he attempted the same this time last year — Leclerc will be faced with the unenticing prospect of contending with two Mercedes theoretically faster over a race distance on both the soft and the medium tyres.
|C4 (6 laps)|
|Red Bull Racing||1:25.108|
It’s a similar situation Ferrari confronted last week. While its lack of downforce and qualifying engine modes make the SF90 unstoppable over one lap, over several tours with the engine in race mode it can’t keep its tyres sweet for extended periods of time.
Mercedes, on the other hand, turns its downforce-related qualifying weakness into a strength when it needs to manage Pirelli rubber over a race distance. At Spa-Francorchamps it allowed Hamilton to chase down Leclerc for the lead in the final laps.
This will be particularly true if conditions remain cool and cloudy for the race as forecast. Just as mixed conditions aided Mercedes on Friday, they’d likely do so again on Sunday.
Rain may play a role, but the forecast suggests the worst of the weather will leave the circuit vicinity by midday.
Learning from last week, the timing of the sole pit stop will be key. Hamilton would’ve had a better shot at snatching victory had he stopped before or at the same time as Leclerc; instead he gave up the undercut advantage and had more work to do than necessary closing the gap in the second stint.
|C3 (6 laps)|
|Red Bull Racing||1:24.956|
But, unlike last week, the hard tyre could make an appearance. Leclerc undertook some serious analysis of the hard tyre during Friday practice, and the lap times suggest there’s little difference between the hard and medium compounds when bolted to the Ferrari. An earlier switch to the hard could allow him to guarantee first-mover advantage without compromising his overall race time.
However, Mercedes’s numerical advantage remains, and Bottas could easily cover an early Leclerc stop to allow Hamilton to execute the fastest soft-medium strategy, or he could be used as he was last year to hold a fresh-shod Leclerc back and unduly wear his tyres, making him easy meat for Hamilton later.
The equation boils down to one of track position for Leclerc. If he’s in the lead, he’ll be very difficult to pass, as Spa demonstrated, but if Mercedes can strategise itself ahead in pit lane, it could lean on its tyres more heavily to in the few key braking zones to frustrate the Monegasque’s
To see Vettel forced into a number-two role from fourth place would be no surprise in these circumstances, allowing Leclerc to pass while holding up whichever Mercedes is in pursuit. A late blast on the medium tyres could then give him a chance to recover time late and perhaps snatch a podium were Mercedes to compromise strategy to win track position.