After a glut of driver news it’s time to focus on racing – but will the F1 Sprint shake up the title fight at Monza?
Ah Monza. There’s no place like it. It has gone through multiple changes in the 99 years that this high-speed circuit has been in existence. But throughout, it has remained synonymous with one thing – speed.
Cars are at full throttle for a staggering 80% of the 5.8km lap and the 2003 edition – won by Michael Schumacher – remains the fastest Grand Prix in the history of the sport, running at an average of more than 247kph.
It is this hallowed asphalt, known as the Temple of Speed, with its very fast corners – like the awesome Parabolica, this year remained in honour of the late Ferrari legend Michele Alboreto – and very, very long straights that will provide the backdrop to the latest chapter in a blockbuster fight between Mercedes and Red Bull, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.
Verstappen arrived at Monza riding high from a spectacular weekend at his home track in Zandvoort. He followed up pole with a dominant victory, as Red Bull had the edge on pure performance over Mercedes.
Verstappen snatched the championship lead, three points clear of Hamilton – but heads into this weekend suggesting Red Bull will likely on the backfoot against Mercedes at Monza, having scored just 51 points in the last five years versus the Silver Arrows’ tally of 177.
“For sure compared to previous year [we should be more competitive] but I’m not sure if it’s going to be enough to fight them [Mercedes],” said Verstappen, who spent a lot of his years in go-karting racing in Italy. “But this weekend with [F1 Sprint], it is going to be very different so I hope we did our homework before coming here and we will be competitive. But I definitely don’t expect it to be like Zandvoort.”
Hamilton, though, is having none of this ‘Monza is a Mercedes stronghold chat’. Yes, he thinks they will be strong, but he’s expecting a genuine threat from Red Bull.
“I imagine it will be potentially different this weekend, I think we could hopefully still be quick,” said Hamilton. “But if you look at that Honda engine, it has had the legs on us this year and we’ve got these long straights. No doubt, these guys are going to be very, very fast this year. That has been the biggest step in performance this year for an engine. But it will be close.”
This is classic gamesmanship. No one wants to declare themselves favourites. Both are keen to point out their rivals’ strengths and their own weaknesses. Will Mercedes be the ones to beat again? Or have Red Bull found enough to be in the mix? The truth is probably somewhere in between.
Will the Sprint shake things up?
There’s a twist this weekend, as Verstappen mentioned earlier, with the second running of F1 Sprint – a 100km race, 18 laps at Monza that’ll define the grid for Sunday’s main event, the Grand Prix. The first attempt at Silverstone was considered a success and it seems drivers are still enthused about the prospect of another go.
“I love it,” said Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. “For me, normally the Friday is quite boring – we’ve got FP1, FP2, not much happening – but now you’ve got a lot more benefit if you have a good FP1 because that’s the only practice you have before qualifying and on that I’m a big fan of the format, and we also get another small race, which is exciting, with another start, so yes, I really enjoy these kind of weekends.”
Leclerc was in high spirits when we chatted, but he conceded he expects Ferrari to struggle here. That’s the feeling inside the red team, too, that the track characteristics which demand ultra-low downforce and ultra-low drag on the straights won’t suit them.
That said, the Scuderia have consistently outperformed expectations this year, and that’s what the tifosi, who are allowed into Monza once again after missing out because of Covid last year – with around 20,000 expected per day – will be hoping they can deliver once more.
Their main rivals for P3 in the constructors’ championship McLaren are expecting a bit of a bounce back after a challenging weekend at Zandvoort which yielded just one point. This track should suit them – while the F1 Sprint format offers them opportunities to mix it with the frontrunners. And that may explain why Daniel Ricciardo couldn’t stop grinning on Thursday at Monza.
“It is a circuit that lends itself to more overtaking, and being able to follow closer,” he said. “I would expect a bit more of a bunched-up field, and for that more opportunities. The Sprint program in general I enjoy.
“I like the intensity of Friday, typically Fridays are more a relaxed day and you have practice and time on your side, and you can try many things and build into it. Where is now, you have to get going from lap one because before you know it qualifying is coming around.
"That puts a lot of pressure on drivers to get on with it, but also the engineers to set the car up, start on the right page and not create too much work for yourself, because we do not have the luxury of time. So all the things I enjoy.”
After four team announcements – confirming the future of six drivers – kept the F1 media world busy during the three days between the Dutch Grand Prix ending and the final race of a triple header in Italy beginning, it’s time to get the focus back on what we’re all here for – the racing.
And boy is the paddock hyped after a cracking event in the Netherlands that has given everyone a boost of energy for the last leg of the triple header.
Verstappen and Hamilton are poised to resume their title fight on a track that could well swing the pendulum the other way. The stage is set for a battle royale.