Often F1 fans and pundits have hypothesised what the sport would look like released from the iron grip of the frontrunning teams. The Italian Grand Prix delivered us the thrilling answer, with Pierre Gasly taking an emotional maiden victory.
For a time it seemed this was a race no-one wanted to win.
Poleman Lewis Hamilton was penalised for making his sole pit stop while pit lane was closed. Valtteri Bottas took himself out of contention with a shocking first lap. Red Bull Racing’s already off-pace weekend was compounded by damage to Alex Albon on the first lap and a power unit problem taking Max Verstappen out of the race.
A red flag reset the race with the midfielders at the head of the second grid. Lance Stroll should have inherited the lead from Hamilton but botched his start, paving the way for Gasly, an unexpected beneficiary from a quick series of safety cars, to glide into the lead.
But Carlos Sainz, aggrieved to have fallen to sixth at the red flag despite running comfortably second in the first part of the race, was on the move and hunting him down with his faster McLaren. The race went down to the wire, but Gasly perfectly judged his final lap on badly worn tyres to beat the Spaniard to the flag by just half a second. Lance Stroll followed them over the line in third to complete the podium.
In what was essentially two sprint races deliberate strategy played only so much a part in the result, but some key decisions in the first half of the race had enormous implication on the podium once the grand prix began unravelling from that fateful lap 20.
The context of much of the weekend was that the Italian Grand Prix was the first to take place under the new ban on qualifying engine modes. Team are now forced to run their internal combustion engines in a single mode from Q1 until he chequered flag in a move aimed at helping the FIA police engine regulations — here’s looking at you, Ferrari 2019 — but was also thought likely to close the field in qualifying by reducing Mercedes’s substantial one-lap advantage.
But while the FIA may indeed be happy from a regulatory compliance perspective, those teams that lobbied for the change in the hope of moving closer to the front saw their plans spectacularly backfire. Not only did Mercedes lock out the front row my more than 0.8 seconds, but the team was free to run a substantially more aggressive engine mode for the race that would have seen Lewis Hamilton record a comfortable victory.
But ironically the incontrovertible pace of the Mercedes package may have incidentally hindered the team in the race. Valtteri Bottas’s recovery from sixth after his atrocious start was hamstrung by an overheating engine borne of insufficient allowance for cooling. Perhaps if the team had known Bottas would spend the race in traffic rather than clear air with Hamilton at the font it would have configured the car less aggressively.
An important if somewhat tangential subplot was Ferrari’s ongoing woes. The home team did play a key role in proceedings, but only by suffering particularly painful weekend. A Ferrari power unit failure in Kevin Magnuseen’s Haas at pit lane entry triggered the safety car and pit lane closure that led to Hamilton’s penalty, and a crash by Charles Leclerc red-flagged the race and delivered the thrilling end result.
Pierre Gasly’s race-winning move came in the first half of the grand prix with an early pit stop on lap 19 to defend against an undercut from Kimi Raikkonen. He successfully kept himself ahead but was devastated when the safety car was deployed on the following lap for Magnussen’s stopped Haas.
It would ordinarily be bad luck, giving everyone else a cheap pit stop, but the positioning of the stricken car necessitated a pit lane closure. No-one could take their stop until lap 22, by which time the field had been bunched up. It cycled Gasly up third behind leader Hamilton and Lance Stroll, who hadn’t stopped yet.
An extra slice of luck was due to the Frenchman. Hamilton had made his stop on lap 20, neither the Briton nor his team realising pit lane was closed. He would later be handed a 10-second stop-go penalty, effectively promoting Gasly to second.
But the safety car resumption lasted only one lap before a red flag was called to clear up Charles Leclerc’s wrecked Ferrari. Suspending the race worked in Gasly’s favour on two counts: first, it allowed him to switch off the hard tyre onto the faster medium; and second, with standing restarts required after a red flag, he now had a golden opportunity to jump ahead of Stroll, whose Racing Point was too fast in a straight line to pass in a traditional safety car restart.
Gasly seized his chance. The Frenchman slipped Stoll at the first corner to tuck in behind Hamilton. At the end of that lap the Mercedes car served its penalty and dropped to last, blessing Gasly with a clear track ahead of him to manage his way through the 26 laps to the flag.
He did so perfectly, crossing the line with a half-second buffer for a famous victory.
Without taking away from Gasly’s race win, Mercedes would have comfortably won this race had mistakes not been made on both side of the garage.
Hamilton’s was the most obvious tactical error, with stopping in a closed pit lane a slam-dunk stop-go penalty. The driver missed the flashing trackside lights adjusting settings on his steering wheel to prepare for his stop, while the team lamented that the message notifying for a rare pit-lane closure appears on an additional page of the race control messaging system no-one ordinarily monitors in preparation for a pit stop.
A strategist working from Brackley was the first to see the message and notify the pit wall, but by then Hamilton had already entered pit lane and his fate was sealed.
Alfa Romeo also committed the same error with Antonio Giovinazzi, who took the restart from third on the grid before dropping to last.
Valtteri Bottas should have been there to pick up the pieces, but a shocking start, falling from second to sixth on the first lap, meant he was long out of contention managing an overheating engine and unable to break through the train of upper-midfield cars all running in DRS range of each other, neutralising the system’s advantage.
The red flag restart allowed teams to switch tyres without making a pit stop. With half the race still to run, the medium tyre was the obvious choice for most. Hamilton was a notable exception, choosing the hard knowing he would be pushing aggressively to make up for his stop-go penalty.
But Esteban Ocon (P12 at the restart) and Kimi Raikkonen (P4) went for the soft in an ambitious attempt to make it to the end.
It was a mistake on both counts, particularly in Ocon’s case. The Frenchman wanted to run with a set of mediums, but the team didn’t have any sets warmed up in time for the restart, confining him to softs. It earnt him a fast start, but tyre wear left him vulnerable to a pass by Hamilton at the end of the race.
Raikkonen was a far bigger loses for the decision. Though the softer tyre helped to keep Sainz behind him for longer after the restart, it was always going to be a losing battle, and the life it took from his rubber meant he plummeted rapidly down the order to 13th at the flag for a race that could’ve delivered Alfa Romeo significant points.
Pierre Gasly: soft (used) to lap 19, hard (new) to lap 26, medium (new) to lap 53.