Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 20.8° Track 34.4° Humidity 54.8% Wind 0.9 m/s
The dark clouds hanging over the paddock gradually parted to reveal gloriously blue skies as the run up to the geared up. Of particular note was the fact that in addition to Verstappen, already relegated to the back, both Raikkonen and Perez would be joining the extra engine club and joining him, with Raikkonen starting from the pits…..
To the surprise of no one, once again Pirelli was calling for a one stop to be fastest, 22 laps on the Softs and then to the end on the Medium. For those (HAAS) needing to bail earlier, running to 19 or so laps and then the Hard is supposed to be nearly as good and then the sad 2 stopper, officially “Slower” which translates into best hope you don’t need to because race ruined!!!
Of considerable interest will be the race pace between the Ferrari and Mercedes, with Mercedes PU continuing to have unusual failures (Perez) that will give them pause, whilst Ferrari have gone to the newest spec engine which for the first time is shifting focus to reliability, so the question is will they be able to use more of their straight line speed advantage in the race. Also on point were Renault, who have put their drivers 5th and 6th on the grid, Ricciardo leading the way and with a real chance to take advantage of an engine that finally seems to be delivering on its long promised power.
With the exception of HAAS, all the runners starting out of the top 10 are on Mediums suggesting that despite Pirelli’s assertion, in the midfield the contra strategy (running to lap 28+ on the Medium tyre) is thought to be the one that will pay higher dividends. Another fun strategic battle to track then as the formation lap kicked off.
Lights Out!!!! Great Start by Leclerc and he covered off Hamilton, with Bottas trying to sandwich him. Leclerc perservered around the outside as Hulkenberg, of all people got the amazing start and pulled quite the move to get round Vettel and momentarily into P4. Further back it was Stroll who made serious time and was up to P7 while at the back, Verstappen got involved in a bit of a drama, losing a chunk of his front wing as he barged into the back of Perez as the qeue into Turn 1 caught him out. Into the pits then and not a great start for Red Bull as Albon, as well had lost a place at the start.
By lap three Vettel had rather uncontroversially regained his place from the Renault, but Albon, was on the attack with the McLaren of Sainz, who was directly ahead of him. Into the first turn he easily outbraked the McLaren but then at the following chicane left the door open. Sainz took full advantage and into the first Lesmos he ran the rookie Red Bull driver entirely out of room.
Lap 6 and suddenly disaster, Vettel off at Ascari and rejoining the track he utterly collected Stroll and picked up some serious damage, not just to the car but to his race as not only did he have an extra pit, but no doubt a penalty as well. Stroll then put a Toro Rosso off as he came to a stop perpendicular to the track and tried to get rolling again, but at least there was no contact this time. Making it worse was the fact that on replay Vettel left absolutely no where for Stroll to go, despite Stroll clearly doing all he could to avoid the maneuver.
AS the disaster cascaded, this also put Ferrari into a real bind, as they no longer had a second car to cover off any potential Mercedes’ hijinks and with Hamilton already inside of undercut time on Leclerc on lap 12, it was suddenly crunch time for the at best wobbly Ferrari strategy department. 10 second stop and go was the punishment for Vettel and let the debate begin as to whether or not it would be enough as Ferrari converted Leclerc to Plan B, probs to run longer and have fresher tyres to the end. Although that would likely concede the win to Mercedes as there were a few laps more before it became critical decision time.
Lap 15 and Albon was now under investigation for passing Magnussen off track, Stroll was penalised as well for re-entry and Raikkonen was being investigated for starting on the wrong tyres. Also, there was a race…..
Albon, meanwhile, had finally worked his way back up to P7 and was once again chasing Carlos Sainz as Mercedes, on lap 16, put their crew out for a stop, but wound up bringing them back in, as the engineer games continued….
By lap 19, though, the picture had changed, and Hamilton had radioed in that the rears were beginning to go and he didn’t think they could overcut Leclerc. Albon got a 5 second penalty for passing for leaving the track and gaining a lasting advantage. The following lap the dominoes began to fall, with Hamilton in for some Mediums and no dithering as Leclerc answered the volley immediately. Big lockup into a chicane and onto the Hards for Leclerc and out he went, just in front of Hamilton, with nary half a second betweeen them. Hamilton cranked it up and he chased the Ferrari mercilessly through the Lesmos and then deployed his DRS as they exited the Parabolica and ahead loomed Hulkenberg, which Leclerc used to maximum advantage.
Onto lap 23 then the battle continued and Hulkenberg was on track with no blue flags ahead of them both, Leclerc to the inside as Hulk tried the outside and then Hamilton took the slingshot to draw up alongside through Turn 1 then followed closely before making his move to the outside into the chicane. Leclerc, with his nose ahead threw his car out toward the racing line, Hamilton refused to budge and there was indeed contact. Black and white flag to the astonishment of all, and on they went, Hamilton relentlessly tracking the Ferrari down as now Ricciardo was the next obstacle on track ahead of the dueling drivers.
Down the straight and into Turn 1 they went, with Leclerc getting round the Renault but Hamilton trapped behind. Albon was in lap 27 in an attempt to undercut Sainz, who was in the following lap as it turned out there was more racing going more places than at the front. Out of the pits, and then the front right came loose and he pulled to a stop at the end of the pitlane, bringing out the Virtual Safety Car.
The end of the Virtual Safety Car saw Hamilton right back onto the gearbox of Leclerc lap 31 and around they went, Hamilton dangling around a second off as Kvyat was parked up at the exit of the first chicane, yet again bringing out the Virtual Safety Car. Ricciardo and Grosjean both took advantage of that to save 6 seconds.
Off went the Virtual Safety Car and once again it was Hamilton, with the advantage of easier tyres to warm, inside a second on Leclerc as it all kicked off. Albon, too, was inside DRS on Giovinazzi as Verstappen, who had been quietly in damage control mode since plowing into the back of Perez on the first lap, was up to P11 after going round Gasly.
Lap 34 and Vettel chose to not hinder the passage of Leclerc and Hamilton and as it looked, exiting the Parabolica, the Ferrari actually had the better exit and though Hamilton was ever so close into Turn 1 he just wasn’t able to get close enough down the straight to get the job done. Still with margins continually under half a second.
Lap 36 and it was a mistake by Leclerc into the first turn that opened the door and as Hamilton chased him down Leclerc wove across the track to keep the Mercedes at bay, and then again through the Curva Grande as the Ferrari danced on the edge of the regulations, to the dismay of Hamilton who voiced his unhappiness as Bottas quietly reeled in the dueling pair.
Lap 39 and even closer was Hamilton down the straight, just a couple of tenths and again he couldn’t catch the Leclerc down the straight as the tension continued to ratchet up for the Ferrari driver with Hamilton looking for even the slightest mistake.
The following lap and the gap went out slightly, but still in DRS for Hamilton as Leclerc got the call to avoid moving under braking in Turn 4, where he had previously had contact with Lewis. Further back, Albon was up to P6 and was running nearly half second a lap faster than Hulkenberg ahead with 6 seconds to make back and 10 laps to get there.
Lap 43 and Hamilton locked up into Turn 1 and was forced to go on, which let the chasing Bottas get by easily, to the cheers of the tifosi. Who might have gotten more than they bargained for as a Mercedes with fresh tyres was now 1.5 seconds behind and chasing. Hamilton, meanwhile, will have been rueing the fact that Mercedes wasn’t willing to give him the full power of the Mercedes engine when he had the possibility of getting by Leclerc…..
Lap 45 and 1.1 seconds now as Bottas continued to chunk time out of Leclerc and behind, Albon was just 3.5 seconds of Hulkenberg as Mercedes quietly broke the news to Lewis that they could pit him and go for fast lap….. Lap 46 and Bottas made a mistake into Ascari, giving some breathing room to Leclerc as the entirely unremarked Daniel Ricciardo lapped easily in P4, thanks to the ridiculous amount of action at the front.
2 laps later and it seemed that Mercedes was throwing in the towel a bit as there was no change in the gap between the top two. Albon was inside 1.5 seconds and at the end of the lap it was 1.2 seconds at the front. Hamilton was in for some fresh tyres to go after fast lap.
Lap 51 and finally Bottas made DRS and into the first turn Bottas went in deep and that was that, chance wasted with 2 laps to go…. The following lap he was just too far back and Albon was just on the edge of DRS with Hulkenberg. Last lap then and inside a second was Bottas, but that was still too far and even with overtake available, he leaked into the gravel a bit exiting the Ascari and there was no way an overtake was on. And that was that, as to the cheering of the tifose, Leclerc rocked it across the line having won the home Grand Prix of his new team…..
And yes, there will be caveats and asterisks galore amongst the fans and the commentariat, but at the end of the day, Leclerc has demonstrated that he absolutely has what it takes to win a world championship, should Ferrari be capable of delivering a car that can win one. As for Mercedes, the limitations they are running under as they fault find their latest spec PU have taken a bite, for it did look certain that if they could’ve given him the engine mode he wanted, there seemed little doubt that he would’be been able to make round down the straight with DRS.
Further back, Albon was unable to get round Hulkenberg and thus it was Leclerc, Bottas, Hamilton (with fast lap, natch), on the podium and then Ricciardo, Hulkenberg and then Albon rounding out the big kids table. Perez had the run of the traditional best of the rest spots thanks to a poorly attached wheel on Carlos Sainz’ car and then Verstappen, atoning for his early mistake with some points at least, and Norris rounding out the top 10.
There will be reams of virtual ink spilled about Leclerc’s driving and whether or not he should have been penalised, and fair enough a real case could be made, but the larger takeaway is his willingness to dance on the edge of the rules to gain a victory, a trait shared by all world champions. The fact that he now leads Vettel as well in the championship points will not be helping Vettel’s psyche as the inevitable passing of the torch talk will no doubt accelerate. And it was an annus horribilis for the veteran Ferrari driver, suffering every manner of indignity, much of it self-inflicted.
At Mercedes, with the championships well in hand, there couldn’t be too much dissatisfaction, though the nagging unresolved reliability issues of their PU hang in the background. Still, last season they were willing to run without their upgraded rims till the legal complaints were resolved even though it cost them points, and looking at the tables, no doubt they will keep with that strategy, even if it costs them the occasional win.
Brilliant day for Renault as well, who now has a solid thing to point to when asked to justify all the added investment, but whether they can sustain that level of performance should now be the real focus. Singapore will prove a savage test for them and they now have two weeks to figure it out. Along with the rest of the teams…. Congrats as well to the Ferrari strategy team for correctly betting on the Hard tyres and to Albon, who has at the very least met the expectations that Red Bull have set for him and decisively shown why he was given the chance at the senior team.
Next up is Singapore and the advantage that Ferrari was expected to have has now evaporated and all eyes will turn to Red Bull to see if they will be the ones to bring the competition to Mercedes at one of the twistiest circuits of the year.
And remember to play nice in the comments!!