Why Ferrari and Monza’s stories are uniquely intertwined, as Leclerc and Sainz prepare for a critical weekend
The weight of Italy has a permanent place on the shoulders of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz. It does when Formula 1 races at Imola’s Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari too, of course, and for obvious reasons. But there’s something even more tangible in the air when Formula 1 and Ferrari comes to Monza.
This year Monza, aka La Pista Magica – the world’s third-oldest permanent racetrack, after Brooklands and Indianapolis – celebrates its 100th anniversary, having been constructed in a 110-day flurry in 1922.
Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari was slated to race at the parkland circuit in that same year – although debate rages over whether he actually appeared on the start line.
Whether he raced that year or not, Ferrari and Monza’s histories twine around each other inextricably – both for good and for bad. It was here in 1955 that the great Alberto Ascari – just days after crashing into the Monaco harbour – lost his life at the wheel of a Ferrari 750 Monza sportscar in private testing.
Six years later, the Ferrari 156 ‘Sharknose’ of Wolfgang von Trips – the German duelling with team mate Phil Hill for the World Championship – speared into the crowd here, tragically killing Von Trips and 15 spectators.
There’s been recent pain too, not least Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel’s double retirement from the 2020 race, while it was here in 2018 that Vettel’s bid to beat Lewis Hamilton to that year’s title took another hefty nosedive.
But there’s been joy too, of course – the type of joy that comes with 19 victories, including a handful of classics. 1988 saw Ferrari driver Gerhard Berger take the year’s only non-McLaren win, just weeks after the death of Enzo Ferrari.
Michael Schumacher took five wins here from 1996 to 2006, all at the wheel of Ferrari racing machines. And Charles Leclerc, in his first season at the team in 2019, ensured that he’d never have to pay for another drink in Italy by winning at Monza on his first appearance here in Rosso Corsa.
Leclerc and Sainz arrive this weekend not in Rosso Corsa but in striking Giallo Modena, as they sport the yellow of the team founder’s home city on their overalls, and in flashes on the livery of their F1-75 cars.
Special livery aside, however, the scale of the challenge facing the Ferrari drivers, both this weekend and in the race for the drivers’ and constructors’ titles, is immense. Leclerc now sits a full 109 points behind championship leader Max Verstappen with seven races, including this weekend’s, to go. Without doubt, Leclerc winning this championship would stand as nothing less than one of sport’s greatest ever comebacks…
As for Ferrari themselves, they’re now 135 points behind Red Bull, and just 30 ahead of Mercedes, despite the Silver Arrows still having not scored a victory in 2022.
Despite the stark facts, though, both drivers looked in good spirits on Thursday in Monza, as they spoke of relishing the pressure that comes with driving for the Scuderia here.
“For me, it’s pure pleasure,” said Leclerc. “Of course, the expectations, whenever you’re doing the events in Milan, you can see that everybody in the city is behind you, behind Ferrari and has high expectations. But I love it and I take it more as a motivation than an added pressure. Even to get out of the hotel, it’s difficult to come to the track. It just feels really nice.”
“It’s something super special,” agreed Sainz, speaking in the muggy mid-afternoon temperatures on Thursday. “Honestly, I can never find the words to describe it because it’s something that is very deep inside, you know? All the feelings that you go through on such a big weekend for us.
“The way the fans treat you, they cheer you, they motivate you. Something that until you are in the skin of the driver and in our position, you will never understand, but you can see it from the outside and you can just see it is crazy and it is incredible.”
Alas, Leclerc and Sainz know that basking in the goodwill of the tifosi will only get them so far this weekend. Leclerc is all too aware of the joy of standing atop the Monza podium – while to do so this year would see him once again faced with a full crowd of adoring supporters, following the privations of Covid-19 over the past two years.
But what of his chances this Sunday against the mighty Max Verstappen?
“I think it’s going to be a bit of a difficult weekend,” Leclerc conceded. “On paper at least, it looks a difficult weekend. We expect Red Bull to be stronger. The track characteristics don’t fit exactly our car. But again, I mean, we’ve had some good and bad surprises this year so hopefully this is one of the good ones and we overperform compared to what we expect.”
Leclerc’s a smart cookie, and he knows that the lights are dimming on his 2022 title tilt that started so strongly with wins in Bahrain and Australia. But can he and Sainz give those dwindling chances a shot in the arm this weekend – and send their adoring Italian fans into ecstasies?