RACE DEBRIEF

    When Charles Leclerc won the Italian Grand Prix for the first time for Ferrari in 2019, Monza – bursting at the seams with red-clad Tifosi – exploded. The dreams of much of Italy had come true, ending a wait of nine years for this feeling of nirvana.

    Leclerc was touched by the din that greeted him on the rostrum, fans having been let onto the track below the podium after the race to celebrate with the top three as is traditional. The 24-year-old could be seen scanning the crowd. He was looking for someone.

    READ MORE: Ferrari unveil special livery with a splash of yellow for home Grand Prix at Monza

    “There were people as far as I could see,” he said when we spoke at Zandvoort ahead of this weekend’s Italian GP. “It was packed. I was trying to find my mum. She was in a grandstand.

    "She arrived Saturday night because she saw I had done the pole position but I didn’t have the pass for the Sunday – I had already promised it to someone else so, I said 'Mum the only thing I can get you is a pass in the grandstand', so she was on the main straight. I was trying to find her but there were way too many people.

    “Being up there was a very special moment. Racing for Ferrari, you only see red – or 98% of people are red – and this make you feel like home.”

    This weekend Leclerc and team mate Carlos Sainz head to Monza for the fourth and second time respectively as Ferrari drivers, hoping to make it back onto that iconic podium after racing in front of one of the most passionate crowds in sport.

    “It’s a dream come true for any kid,” said Sainz. “I watched F1 since I was a kid, I watched Ferrari, I watched Monza and I said being a Ferrari driver in Monza must be the best feeling ever.

    1166774456
    Charles Leclerc's win at Monza in 2019 was the second of his career and second in a row

    “This year, we’re lucky we have a competitive car and we can have a competitive Ferrari in Monza. It’s going to be special. That winning feeling there – Charles had it in 2019 – I’m yet to experience such thing, but already last year was super exciting and one of the best weekends.”

    As you’d expect, the build-up Ferrari’s home race – which this year is celebrating its centenary - is a busy one for Leclerc and Sainz, with a plethora of sponsor engagements and fan activities to contend with before the cars hit the track.

    It offers an opportunity for fans to catch a glimpse of their heroes in the flesh. When they head to Milan, it doesn’t take long for them to get swarmed.

    READ MORE: Sainz determined to enjoy Ferrari’s home race at Monza despite looming Red Bull threat

    “It’s crazy,” said Sainz. “Last year we went to the Ferrari store in the centre of Milan. Within five minutes, the word was out that we were in the store – and there were suddenly thousands of people waiting for us outside.

    "There were a lot of young fans, which is nice to see. We couldn’t even leave the store, because it was so packed so they had to put security to help us leave, Everyone was so excited. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

    1173146616
    Leclerc was looking for his mum in the crowd after his Monza 2019 win, as she was sat in a grandstand rather than in the paddock

    It’s hard to go anywhere in Italy without them being recognised. Come race weekend, the city of Monza is overflowing with Ferrari fans, who spread out across the park in which Monza’s Temple of Speed sits, hoping to see Sainz or Leclerc drive or cycle by.

    The entrance to the paddock is rammed, with fans flooding into and often blocking the access roads in see their heroes. It’s pandemonium. Even now, after years as F1 drivers – and having spent some good time at Ferrari – Leclerc and Sainz still haven’t got used to the fact people want to meet them, take a selfie or get an autograph.

    WATCH: 5 dramatic Italian Grand Prix moments from the F1 archive

    “It’s very strange as in the end, I’m the same person that I was as a kid, looking up at those F1 drivers,” said Leclerc. “Then one day, you find yourself in a situation you never imagined. When I was a kid, I never thought I would one day be in the same place and some kids would be looking up at me.

    “It’s a very special feeling. I feel proud, I feel so lucky to be part of the Ferrari team and be a Scuderia Ferrari driver. These types of moments are very special whenever you see loads of people are supporting you, are living your career with you. They are happy when you are happy, sad when you are sad. It makes you feel like you are not alone.”

    1339496006
    Sainz on track at Monza last year, with the Ferrari fan banners behind

    Sainz added: “Being a McLaren driver in Silverstone was nice, but being a Ferrari driver in Monza, I don’t want to compare as it’s not fair, but everyone knows how passionate people are in Italy and what Ferrari means in Italy.

    “It’s something that is so big, that is difficult to explain, even for me sometimes difficult to understand how they can be so passionate, so involved in the team and in how the team does, changes so much their mood.

    “I find it very, like Charles said, a bit strange how you can affect someone’s life so much just by saying hello to them, putting a smile on their faces, by taking a picture you can see their day is done. I’m still a normal guy who goes about life pretty normal – I don’t feel like hero or a special person at all.”

    POWER RANKINGS: Who dazzled our judges at the Dutch Grand Prix?

    Monza is the fastest track on the calendar, its long straights demand lengthy stints on full throttle and are punctuated by chicanes and medium speed turns. As a result, the teams strip off the downforce, leaving the cars running the skinniest of wings. It’s a challenge that all the drivers relish.

    “For me, Monza has been one of my favourite tracks since I’ve been in single seaters” said Sainz. “Since I’ve done my first lap around Monza, I find it one of the most challenging, but most fun tracks on the calendar, because it has that combination of big braking zones that I have always liked.

    Relive last year's race - Italy 2019

    “The car doesn’t behave like normal with the lower downforce, and it has some of the best corners in Formula 1 – Ascari and Parabolica – these two corners are simply incredible.”

    Leclerc added: “The special thing about Monza is when you get there, you feel so little grip because you’ve got a very low downforce setting. There is no grip at all and extremely fast in the straights.

    READ MORE: ‘There is something wrong we need to address’ admits Binotto after tough Dutch GP for Ferrari

    “It’s a very strange feeling, because you always like new challenges as a driver and Monza is one of those challenges, where you need to adapt your driving just for this weekend and this makes it exciting.”

    Putting a smile on their fans’ faces this weekend might be a bit of a stretch this year, given rivals Red Bull have been so strong. They currently lead the way in the constructors’ championship by 135 points. In the drivers’ standings, Max Verstappen – who has won 10 out of 15 races this season, had a monstrous 109-point advantage at the summit.

    1420496469
    Leclerc and Sainz will have their work cut out if they're to beat Max Verstappen this weekend

    Though Ferrari looked closer to Red Bull on the Netherlands’ high downforce Zandvoort circuit, it is anticipated they will drop back at Monza – as they did at low downforce Spa – helped in large part by Red Bull’s potent straight-line speed.

    They remain in contention for a podium, though, and strong points with both cars – which is a significant improvement compared to the last couple of years.

    “Let’s be honest, on paper it’s probably not our best track, because I think Red Bull have been very strong since the beginning of the year, especially in straight line speed, but we’ll give it all and with the motivation of the Tifosi,” said Leclerc. “I hope we can have a great weekend for them.”

    READ MORE: Herta’s F1 chances and the Tifosi in full voice – 5 storylines we’re excited about ahead of the Italian GP