The Italian Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features Formula Passion journalist Luca Manacorda.
Charles Leclerc recorded a famous victory at the Italian Grand Prix, claiming his second Formula One victory in a row and Ferrari’s first home win in nine years.
But it wasn’t the spectacle of a Ferrari topping the podium for the first time since Fernando Alonso won at Monza in 2010; it was Leclerc’s feisty defensive drive, mercilessly rebuffing Mercedes pressure for all 53 laps in a marginally slower car, that made the race one for the history books.
They say practice makes perfect, and free practice was the genesis of Leclerc’s hard-fought win.
Perhaps it was the memory of being chased down by Lewis Hamilton on fresher tyres one week earlier in Belgium as his own rubber slowly expired, or maybe it was Ferrari remembering being snookered on tyre strategy this time last year — whatever the reason, Leclerc was one of only four drivers to do any meaningful running with the hard tyre during seconds practice on Friday afternoon.
The hardest Pirelli tends to receive little attention these days given the tyre manufacturer’s more conservative choices in 2018, and there was little reason to think differently at Monza, where tyre warm-up is more difficult owing to the lack of high-energy corners and mostly flat-out track. But on Leclerc’s car Ferrari found the tyre to offer similar performance to the medium, notwithstanding a longer warm-up time.
But gaining an understanding of the hard tyre while Mercedes busied itself perfecting its usage of the soft and medium compounds gave Ferrari a key tactical weapon for the race.
It would need it too, for while its straight-line speed advantage was likely to see it succeed in qualifying, its lack of latent downforce relative to Mercedes meant it struggled more over a stint.
Sure enough, Ferrari looked good over a single lap throughout practice and into qualifying, but Q3 offered a twist: the chaos of the final runs, with no driver willing to be the first to cross the line lest they benefit a rival by providing a powerful slipstream, meant Sebastian Vettel was unable to better his first-run attempt of fourth, potentially leaving the way open for Mercedes to press its two-to-one advantage on Leclerc.
Vettel was clearly displeased, as was the team: the agreement had been for Vettel to tow Leclerc for their first Q3 laps, which the German duly did, and for the Monegasque to repay the favour on the final laps. Leclerc was reportedly scolded on Saturday night for allowing himself to get caught up in the chaos with other drivers to benefit himself rather than focus on serving his team — and his teammate, his chief pole rival.
Did that play on Vettel’s mind before his unforced error early in the race? Impossible to say, but it was a fascinating subnarrative of the race
The race-winning move
At the Belgian Grand Prix — a similar circuit at which the relative form of Ferrari and Mercedes matched Monza — the timing of the sole pit stops defined the outcome, with Mercedes erring by not giving Hamilton the undercut on Leclerc and leaving him with too few laps to close the gap despite Ferrari’s tyre problems.
Mercedes didn’t make the same decision in Italy. It first attempted to trick Ferrari into stopping on lap 16 by sending its mechanics into the pit lane, but Ferrari didn’t take the bait — unlike in Spa, where Leclerc stopped early and was almost caught short later.
Instead Mercedes pulled the undercut trigger, pitting Hamilton in on lap 19 for a new set of mediums. It did so just as Leclerc began to complain his softs were expiring, and so Ferrari followed suit on lap 20, opting for a set of hard tyres, which would prove decisive.
Ferrari figured the hard tyre was similar in pace to the medium but ensured Leclerc could make it to the end, but its slow warm-up would make him vulnerable to Hamilton’s warmed-up mediums. The Ferrari rejoined just ahead of the Mercedes and indeed had to defend hard on his colder tyres, which he had to do twice more after a pair for virtual safety cars.
But once the white-striped tyre was up to temperature, Leclerc needed only keep himself tidy through the chicanes and his engine advantage would do the rest. Hamilton kept trying, but the hard fighting took its toll on his rubber, and by lap 42 his tyres were cooked.
Mercedes, however, had one final card to play. Valtteri Bottas had waited until lap 27 — eight laps after Hamilton, seven after Leclerc and, perhaps crucially, one lap before a virtual safety car — to make his switch to the medium tyre, and in clear air he was able to relatively easily close what had been a nine-second deficit to pass Hamilton on lap 42 and spend the last 10 laps filling Leclerc’s mirrors.
But the Finn had the same problem Hamilton suffered — Leclerc’s car was too fast in a straight line to pull a move into turn one. Bottas’s frustration showed, with a couple of late arrivals into the key braking zones as he attempted to squeeze out any advantage for a following straight, but to no avail.
Leclerc’s hard tyres had seen off both Mercedes drivers on their more delicate mediums, allowing him to take the chequered flag and send the packed grandstands into raptures.
“Oggi sei perdonato,” team principal Mattia Binotto told him on the warm-down lap. Leclerc had been forgiven for the qualifying mess 24 hours earlier.
Vettel plays a role, just not the one he wanted
Vettel was unlikely to contend for victory after qualifying fourth, but he would have been expected to play a role in securing Ferrari victory up until lap six, when a needless spin influenced the race further down the field.
The German had only five laps earlier recovered fourth from Hulkenberg after slipping to fifth off the line, and as he chased his three fellow frontrunners he spun at Ascari, coming to a halt on the kerbs at the apex. He attempted to rejoin, but in doing so blocked the track and hit Racing Point’s Lance Stroll, who was running seventh. It was extremely dangerous and earnt the German a 10-second stop-go penalty and three points on his superlicence.
Stroll in turn spun onto the apex at the exit of the chicane and subsequently committed a similar sin, forcing Pierre Gasly, who was then 12th, to take evasive action over the gravel and drop two places. The Canadian was slapped with a drive-through penalty, which dropped him to 18th when he served it on lap 15.
The accident altered the likely make-up by taking Stroll out of the equation. The Racing Point car was formidable in a straight line and was likely to finish behind or among the Renault drivers, who ended the day fourth and fifth. Gasly likewise lost a likely points finish — the incident cost him 10 seconds, which could have put him up to ninth at the flag.
Sainz decides the midfield by accident
Carlos Sainz was looking likely to mix in with the Renault drivers up until his pit stop on lap 28, when he left pit lane with a loose tyre and was forced to retire by the side of the road. His stopped car triggered a virtual safety car, which allowed Sergio Perez and Pierre Gasly, both recovering from lowly grid spots on the medium tyre, to make cheap stop.
They lost only three and four places respectively, but whereas Perez emerged from pit lane ahead of Lando Norris and was able to consolidate to seventh, Gasly rejoined behind the McLaren, where he spent the rest of the race stuck.
Verstappen strong, but could’ve been stronger
Max Verstappen charged from 19th on the grid to eighth was impressive, but it could’ve been more had the Dutchman not lost his front wing in a first-turn crash, forcing a lap-one pit stop. He rejoined 26 seconds off the back of the pack — subtracting the same from his race time would have seen him split the Renault cars in fifth and about on par with new teammate Alex Albon had the Thai not been penalised five seconds for forcing Kevin Magnussen off the track early in the race.
The winner’s strategy
Charles Leclerc: soft (used) to lap 20, hard (new) to lap 53.