GRR

2023 Italian Grand Prix | Six talking points

03rd September 2023
Damien Smith

For 15 laps he kept the tifosi’s dream alive, but eventually Carlos Sainz Jr. had to bow to the inevitable. Max Verstappen did exactly what we all expected him to do by becoming the first driver to win ten consecutive Formula 1 world championship grands prix in a frantic race at Monza on Sunday. There’s plenty to pick through from an entertaining Italian GP.

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Verstappen forced to bide his time

Once he was ahead, Verstappen repeated the familiar pattern by driving away into his own dimension, such was Red Bull’s pace as it scored a 15th consecutive victory for a record of its own. But as he admitted afterwards, Verstappen had to be patient – an attribute that doesn’t come easily to the double world champion. As he found, even in a Red Bull and with the benefit of DRS, overtaking at Monza isn’t straightforward, especially against a Ferrari that proved slippery on Monza’s flat-out blasts.

The start was delayed after Yuki Tsunoda was forced to retire his AlphaTauri on the formation lap. Once they got going Sainz made a peach of a start from his hard-earned pole position and put in a terrific effort to hold off Verstappen. The crowd were in rapture at this stage, but when Sainz locked a wheel on the brakes into Turn One Verstappen had the momentum to take the lead into the second chicane.

That was the victory decided, although on Monza’s high-speed one-stop strategy and without a safety car he was ‘only’ 7.686 seconds ahead of team-mate Sergio Perez at the flag, and 11.674 seconds up on Sainz. Relative to the gaps between the rest, he was in another league. Again.

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Perez vs the Ferraris

Such is the high-speed, heavy-braking nature of the narrow old Monza circuit, there were plenty of tetchy battles to chew over. Let’s start with the battle for second place. Starting a disappointing fifth, Perez had to wait until lap 16 to find a way past George Russell’s Mercedes to run fourth, then set off after the Ferraris. After the single stops, there he remained until lap 31 when he pressed Charles Leclerc into the second chicane, the pair making light contact. As they started the next lap, the Red Bull breezed past to claim third.

If Sainz had been determined to hold off Verstappen, he appeared to double his resolve to stop Perez coming through. He put up a terrific defence and never quite overstepped the mark in his rear-guard aggression – although judging by the body language and single-syllable conversation between the pair in the cool-down room afterwards, ‘Checo’ didn’t seem to agree. Perez kept trying, and cut the first chicane more than once in his efforts, but finally made a move stick on lap 46 of 51 to secure the Red Bull one-two, the team’s sixth of 2023.

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Sainz vs Leclerc

On Saturday, Leclerc was frustrated to find himself playing second fiddle to Sainz in qualifying, and he did all he could to reverse the roles in the race. Once Perez passed him for third, Leclerc stayed firmly in the game and when Sainz came back to him, the battle was on for the final step on the podium. Team-mates? Yes, they get on pretty well. But no quarter was given at Monza as the two red cars raced hard to the finish. On lap 47 Leclerc actually made it past into the first chicane, but a mistake on the brakes allowed the Spaniard back past – with a brush passing between the pair at the second chicane.

Sainz desperately called for the battle to be called off as the laps counted down, but the message from the pitwall was “race to the end, no risk.” Admirable, but it almost came back to haunt Ferrari on the last lap as Italian hearts were in mouths when Leclerc looked on the ragged edge into the first turn and for a moment looked in danger of wiping out his team-mate. They survived the moment, for an excellent Sainz to lead a Ferrari three-four – ultimately the best he could hope for, despite the raised optimism following his great qualifying effort.

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Penalties for both Mercedes

George Russell and Lewis Hamilton kept the team symmetry going by finishing fifth and sixth for Mercedes – but both had adventures on the way to scoring those solid points. Russell picked up a five-second penalty for cutting the first chicane following his pitstop in a brief battle with Esteban Ocon’s long-running Alpine. He was far enough clear in the closing stages that the extra time didn’t matter, even though the black cars lacked for top speed on the circuit where it counts for most.

Hamilton’s own five-second penalty was more controversial. After a disappointing Saturday, the seven-time champion lined up eighth and chose the alternate strategy by starting on the hard Pirelli tyre, running longer before switching to the medium for what still promised to be a long stint in warm conditions that created higher than expected degradation. Once the stops shook out, he was at least on the faster tyre and closed on the battling trio of Alex Albon and the two McLarens. Lando Norris had jumped ahead of team-mate Oscar Piastri after the stops – although not without slight contact at Turn One – so the Australian was Hamilton’s first target.

The 38-year-old, fresh from confirming he will remain at Mercedes at least until the end of 2025, got a run on lap 41 and moved ahead on the brakes into the second chicane – but not without moving across on Piastri. The McLaren’s left-front made contact with the Merc’s right rear and both were forced to take to the escape road. It ruined Piastri’s race as he was forced to stop for a new nose and finished a pointless 12th.

Hamilton deserved his penalty and later apologised to Piastri, but like Russell it didn’t cost him. He pulled off superb clean passes on both Norris and Albon to secure sixth and was far enough up the road at the finish to ensure the extra five seconds made no difference to him.

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Albon holds off Norris

Albon’s seventh place marked another sensational performance for the Williams team leader, who is growing in stature by the race. Early on, he held his grid position of sixth with style and kept Piastri and Norris at arm’s length, then after the stops maintained his defences to defy his friend Lando. At one point McLaren tried a cheeky dummy to suggest it was going to pit Norris to lure Albon to cover the move – but Williams didn’t fall for it. Norris had a whine about Albon not giving him space at Turn One, but there was nothing wrong with the Thai driver’s line. He kept his head for his fifth points-scoring finish of the year to lift Williams further away from Haas for seventh in the constructors’ standings.

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Aston and Alpine drop off the pace

After his fantastic best-of-the-rest second place at Zandvoort, Fernando Alonso suddenly found himself scrabbling to score at all at Monza. Having been passed by Hamilton following the stops, he chased hard after Albon and Norris but had to settle for ninth, with Valtteri Bottas earning a hard-won point for Alfa Romeo in the company’s final Italian GP – the Finn survived a collision with Logan Sargeant, which earned the under-pressure Williams driver a penalty. Liam Lawson acquitted himself well again to finish just out of the points in 11th for AlphaTauri, ahead of the disappointed Piastri – who earned his own five-second penalty for an incident with Lawson – and Sargeant.

And what of Alpine? After Pierre Gasly’s excellent drive at Zandvoort, the blue cars were both relegated from qualifying at the first stage on Saturday, and barely featured on Sunday. Gasly was 15th and Ocon failed to finish.

F1 resumes on 17th September in Singapore.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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