2017 Italian Grand Prix report

by Mark Hughes on 4th September 2017

Mark Hughes reports from Monza, as Hamilton takes championship charge

Lewis Hamilton took perhaps his most straightforward victory of the season to put himself into the lead of this championship for the first time. By halfway he and Valtteri Bottas were around the Ascari chicane as the chasing Sebastian Vettel was coming around Lesmo 1. And that was with the Merc engines turned down from lap 12.

It wasn’t a surprise that the Mercedes was the dominant machine around Monza. It’s a circuit that could’ve been configured to its strengths over the Ferrari. What was a surprise was the margin. Merc’s quantifiable advantage over the rest of the field apart from Ferrari was much as usual, actually smaller than at Silverstone, for example. The outlier was Ferrari – they underperformed here.

The first theory to suggest itself was that the squaring penalty of drag as speed increases really hurt the higher drag of the SF70H here. But even that doesn’t properly explain it, because around Spa, with similar terminal speeds, it showed nothing like the same drag/downforce disadvantage in sectors one and three there. Evidently, Ferrari’s Monza low-drag aero package simply wasn’t as efficient – relative to the field – as its conventional set-up. Daniel Ricciardo, on a transposed tyre strategy, started 16th in his Red Bull and was able to split the third and fourth place Ferraris and put late pressure on Vettel, the highlight of his drive being a trademark stunning pass out of nowhere on Räikkönen into the first chicane.

So the season’s most uneventful race played out how it did, ironically around arguably its most dramatic venue. Also ironic was Ferrari having its weakest showing of the season on its home ground.    

Qualifying

Monza’s rain made race control nervous after Romain Grosjean suffered a 185mph aquaplaning crash a couple of minutes into the original Q1 session. A patch of new tarmac on the pit straight just wasn’t draining the water away as the rain continued to fall. So it took two hours 35 minutes to get going again, a few windows of running opportunity missed along the way. But at the end of three wet and inters-shod sessions much later in the day, Lewis Hamilton became the all-time pole position record holder, pole number 69 taken by the margin of 1.2sec over Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. Both Verstappen and his third-fastest team-mate Daniel Ricciardo were taking multiple engine penalties however, thus promoting to a remarkable front row position the fourth-fastest Williams of Lance Stroll. The other big news was that the Ferraris were nowhere – Kimi Räikkönen and Sebastian Vettel struggling to seventh and eighth fastest respectively and complaining of aquaplaning and not being able to slow the car. In the dry the Ferraris were not quite Mercedes-quick but way quicker than this. With the forecast for race day dry, and both Red Bulls already known to be taking their penalties, it seems Ferrari, realising it was unlikely to beat Merc to pole, took a calculated gamble and set the car up full-dry – including ride heights. The greater diameter of the inter and wet tyres over the slicks would raise the car just enough to make it driveable in these conditions, but not enough to make it quick, especially when the rain came down heavier in Q3.

There was no consensus between cars on which of the wet or inter was better in Q2. The inter wasn’t quite in its temperature window and down the long straights would tend to lose what little heat it had built up. The Mercs and Ferraris ran the inters, the Red Bulls couldn’t get these up to temperature and went with wets, as did most of the others. Into Q3 Merc and Ferrari were anxious to get to the head of the pitlane queue as fresh rain was forecast and they lined up there early on inters – just as the new rain arrived. The others who hadn’t been in such a hurry to get to the end of pitlane were thus afforded the more appropriate choice of wets. The Merc and Ferrari drivers were straight back in for wets as Verstappen, four-wheel-drifting beautifully through Ascari and Parabolica, set the benchmark. On his first wet-tyred lap, Hamilton knocked 0.5sec off the Red Bull time, then a further 0.3sec. As the Red Bull was not generating instant tyre temperature, Verstappen stayed out there as the Merc drivers came in just in time to have a fresh set of wets fitted. As Hamilton was doing an extra tyre preparation lap Verstappen shaved a couple of tenths off the Merc’s best, so Hamilton had it all to do on his fresh-tyred final lap. Driving with impeccable minimalism of steering movements, his lap was a devastating one. One of Michael Schumacher’s records had fallen.

Thus were the fastest two times set. Their respective team-mates were shaded somewhat, Ricciardo third fastest 0.15sec slower than Verstappen, Bottas only sixth with a time 2.3sec slower than Hamilton’s. “I couldn't get the wet tyre to work,” rued Bottas. “I just didn't find any grip. Initially, in some parts of the qualifying we got everything working well, but it was really on a knife edge with the temperatures of the tyres. With more rain, I could not get the tyres hot enough.”

With two Ferraris compromised, Bottas struggling with his tyre temperatures and the Red Bulls taking their penalties there was real opportunity in the air – and it was seized upon by Stroll and Esteban Ocon. As in the low-grip of Baku, when it was all just about improvisation and not practiced perfection of systems, Stroll ‘felt free’ to just drive. “It was my first time driving an F1 car in the wet,” he beamed afterwards. “I was just enjoying it.” Consistently a few tenths quicker than team-mate Massa, he graduated to Q3 comfortably, then proceeded to set the fourth-fastest time, only 0.3sec adrift of Verstappen, his unsubtle style helping generate tyre temperature on a day when that was tricky. The Red Bull penalties then left us with the youngest-ever front row starter. Massa was 1.2sec slower, eighth fastest.

The two-thousandths of a second by which Ocon beat team-mate Pérez in Q2 was the difference between graduating into Q3 and not. Ocon then proceeded to drive calmly to fifth-quickest time (third after penalties). Pérez took a gearbox penalty.  

Stoffel Vandoorne squeezed the McLaren-Honda through to Q3 with a great lap at the end of Q2. He did only a couple of Q3 laps before the engine suffered a power loss (ers-K), obliging him to pit. This later transpired to be a problem that incurred a 10-place penalty. Team-mate Fernando Alonso – taking a big number of engine penalties and thus guaranteed to start at the back – did not do a serious attack lap in Q2 and was 13th fastest. Vandoorne was using the latest Honda Series 3.7 spec, Alonso, having used it in practice, reported it as a significant improvement.  

Nico Hülkenberg was a chunky 0.5sec adrift of Pérez but that was still good for 12th in the Renault, though he’d be taking engine penalties, just like most of the other Renault-powered drivers. Team-mate Jolyon Palmer – also taking engine penalties – was back in 17th, rueing having pitted for inters when the wet-shod lap he was on would likely have got him through to Q2 had he completed it.

Toro Rosso, on a track to which their car is unsuited, decided to trim it out fully for race day. It was consequently ill-balanced and skittish in the rain, leaving Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz 14th and 15th, the latter taking penalties. Kevin Magnussen didn’t get the Haas out of Q1 and was another regretting changing to inters as he failed to get sufficient temperature into them. Grosjean got in a single lap before his red flag-inducing aquaplane crash. Ericsson out-qualified Wehrlein at Sauber for the second successive weekend.

Race

Warm and packed with 93,000 tifosi, even with the wrong cars on the front row. Their hero Sebastian Vettel stopped off on the driver parade lap to greet them at various corners and received a tumultuous welcome before getting back aboard the historic 70-year old Ferrari 125 Sport, 12 of Colombo’s tiny cylinders rasping away. Who’d have known back in ’47 how an ex-team manager’s dream would become the pride and passion of a nation?

So it was particularly unfortunate that on this 70th anniversary, with its driver leading the championship, Ferrari should have its least competitive outing of the season to date. The Scuderia came here expecting to be struggling against Mercedes, but surely not as badly as this. The picture was almost certainly not as bleak as wet qualifying had made it look, the conditions amplifying the deficit, but even dry running on Friday suggested the gap to be around half a second.

Monza remains a downforce outlier on the calendar and requires its own very specific low-drag package. Ferrari’s evidently wasn’t as good as that of Mercedes. Looking at the wings, neither were particular extreme by Monza standards. Like Mercedes, they ran a small, neutral profile T-wing. The new rear wing had a slightly bigger main plane than Merc’s, running at a similar angle, and the front wings looked quite similar. The Red Bulls were much more extreme in their low-drag configuration, the McLarens loaded up with more wing than anyone else. Williams and Force India had each added wing on Saturday, helping them to their grid positions in the wet. But Mercedes and Ferrari were somewhere in the middle. It’s simply that the Ferrari one was much less efficient, in contrast to the comparison between the two cars when fitted with their conventional aero packages. The drag penalty remained, but there was no compensating downforce advantage. In fact, the Mercs were quicker into and through the corners as well as faster down the straights.

It wasn’t the Ferraris that Hamilton was concerned with in the opening seconds though; it was Stroll’s faster-starting Williams, with Hamilton having to move right to block him off as they got away. This check on the Williams’ momentum allowed Ocon to go around Stroll’s outside to take up second place. Just behind, Bottas and Räikkönen were side by side out of that turn trading rubber, with Räikkönen grinding ahead on the run up to Roggia, Vettel watching on from just behind, just ahead of Massa, who made slight contact with Pérez on the exit of turn one, this allowing the fast-starting Verstappen past the Force India, up six places from his starting slot already. Red Bull team-mate Ricciardo had made up just one place from his 17th slot – but we’d be hearing more of him. Both Red Bulls had started on the slower but more durable soft tyre, good for more than 30 laps. The thinking was they’d be delayed coming through traffic anyway and they’d be on a clear track later when they could maximise the greater performance of the super-soft. Most of the rest of the field had started on the super-softs for this one-stop race.

Hamilton was away and gone with two slower cars between him and any possible threats. Räikkönen got a bad exit out of Ascari on the first lap, allowing Bottas to come back at him down to Parabolica. Gaining on the Ferrari all the way through there, they exited onto the straight, again rubbing tyre sidewalls, with Räikkönen flicking immediately for the inside. “This was good,” recalled Bottas, “because it meant he didn’t get any tow from the cars ahead whereas I could get some of their tow.” It allowed him to slipstream past the Ferrari – an essential move out the way. Next target: Stroll.

Into the third lap Bottas put a straightforward DRS pass on Stroll down to turn one, a move he repeated on Ocon a lap later to go second, 3.3sec behind the leader. Vettel had got a run out of the first chicane to slipstream past the other Ferrari towards Roggia, getting alongside, but Kimi refusing to give way. This however compromised his exit and Vettel was able to get cleanly by between Roggia and Lesmo 1. He proceeded to pull away from Räikkönen, helped by Kimi kissing the gravel exiting the Lesmos. He was not happy with the balance of his car. “It just lacked grip and was very nervous at the rear.” He was even asking the team if he had somehow sustained damage to the car. “I just couldn’t attack the corners at all.” Vettel was not quite so afflicted but even once into clear air he was around 0.6sec slower than the Mercs. He made a DRS pass on Stroll into the first chicane to begin the fourth lap, a move he repeated on Ocon to go third four laps later – by which time he was 7sec adrift of Bottas and falling further back from him each lap.

Verstappen had put an aggressive around-the-outside move on Massa into the first chicane, but Felipe refused to surrender and the Red Bull’s right-front was punctured against the side of the Williams. Max crawled around on the shredding carcass, had it replaced and rejoined last by a long way. Although he’d lap very quickly for the rest of the afternoon, he was out of any serious contention. Grosjean’s Haas was also in at this time for a new nose damaged in a first corner clash with Ricciardo. Daniel was unaffected and soon making good progress, passing Sainz, Hülkenberg, Kvyat and Magnussen in quick succession, a shark among minnows. He then steadily closed down on Pérez, who was at the tail of the Ocon/Stroll/Räikkönen/Massa group.

Once Hamilton and Bottas – separated by around 3sec, neither pushing to the maximum – were settled, they were able to turn their engines down and still pull away. The contest was done even before the stops. Ferrari just didn’t have the pace to challenge. Would they look better on the other tyre? With nothing to lose, and Räikkönen saying he was unhappy with the car, they brought Kimi in early to find out, on lap 15. That way they could be better informed about switching Vettel. Räikkönen’s stop triggered Ocon and Stroll into responding on the following two laps, jumping Kimi ahead of Stroll (aided by a 2sec delay on the Williams left-rear). But Räikkönen’s times did not spectacularly improve. So Ferrari kept Vettel out there.

Mercedes just kept its guys circulating, reluctant to put either one of them behind Vettel on track positioning when there was no need to.

Ricciardo had caught up with Pérez’s seventh place by the 17th lap and made an exquisite swooping dummy pass on him up to the Roggia chicane. On his soft tyres he’d be running a long time yet before stopping. On the 20th lap Hamilton got a little greedy with the power coming out of the second chicane and hung the extremities of his left rear over the edges of the gravel. It was to be the only incident worthy of note in his afternoon’s drive. Räikkönen, having followed Ocon for several laps, finally nailed a DRS move on him around the outside into turn one of the 26th lap.

Ferrari brought Vettel in on the 32nd lap, with 21 to go, and fitted him with his soft tyres. Hamilton and Bottas followed him in on successive laps. Valtteri would occasionally pump in a fastest lap – and Hamilton would respond a lap or so later. “I felt I had something in hand,” said Hamilton, “not a lot, but a couple of tenths.” Bottas was much happier with the car than he’d been at Spa. “It was a different stability at this track, a great balance like we never found before. But it’s a unique track. At Spa you have to compromise the set-up between high- and low-speed corners. Here there are no really high-speed turns, so there was less compromise in the performance.” The low-drag Monza package was clearly a sweet one on the W08, a less than satisfactory one on the Ferrari.

Ricciardo was demonstrating that it was Ferrari that was under-delivering. Yet to stop, he was running third and had pulled out enough time to be sure of leapfrogging Stroll and Ocon and would be pressuring Räikkönen’s fourth place. His pace had been relentless, his passing moves incisive and all the while keeping the tyres in great shape. He couldn’t quite pull out a pitstop’s worth of gap over Räikkönen once Kimi had been alerted and picked up the pace. Red Bull brought its man in on the 37th lap and fitted him with fresh super-softs – tyres that were at least half-a-second faster than the softs everyone else was on by now. He exited just a couple of seconds behind Räikkönen. Earlier he’d been advised Räikkönen was vulnerable. “Great, I like ‘em vulnerable,” he’d replied on the radio, taking time out for a quip.

“I looked in my mirror and saw he wasn’t close,” said Räikkönen of his approach to turn one on the 41st lap. The next time he saw Ricciardo was a second or so later as he scythed past down the inside out of nowhere. From a long, long way back, without even the hint of a lock-up, it was a classic Ricciardo ambush. Vettel was 11sec up the road, there were 12 laps left and Ricciardo was lapping up to 1sec per lap faster. It was a long shot but… Ricciardo began reeling off fastest lap after fastest lap. Vettel responded with personal bests, trying to delay when the Red Bull would arrive on his tail. Verstappen in the sister car had eventually caught the tail of the pack and moved swiftly through the midfield. He deprived Magnussen’s Haas of 10th place at the Roggia chicane in muscular fashion a few laps from the end but would progress no further from there.

Stroll meanwhile had spent much of the race probing for a weakness in Ocon’s defences of sixth place but wasn’t putting together any moves that might have threatened the Force India driver. As this went on, so Massa and Pérez gradually caught up with them. It all began getting a little fraught in the braking zones between the two Williams – allowing Ocon to pull himself free.

Vandoorne, having run the McLaren some way distant from the Williams/Pérez train, but ahead of Magnussen/Kvyat/Hülkenberg, pulled off with a sudden loss of power (suspected MGU-k again) on the 33rd lap. Team-mate Alonso, around 10sec back and slowed by an upshift problem, had an early skirmish with Palmer’s later-to-retire Renault, then stopped three laps from the end with a gearbox problem.  

As Vettel was responding to Ricciardo’s charge, he locked up briefly into turn one – and opted for the escape route through the cones. A few laps earlier he’d had a moment exiting the first chicane and his violent steering correction caused some sort of power steering malfunction that left the wheel offset, not inspiring confidence in the braking zones. He pressed on and gradually the proper assistance came back and, much to his relief, Ricciardo’s hard-pressed super-softs finally began to surrender a couple of laps from the end. Vettel was off the hook, third place good damage limitation on an uncompetitive Ferrari day.

Lewis had a brief blip of concern about his power levels a few laps from home, but it turned out to be nothing and he continued to keep just out of an unthreatening Bottas’ reach. Remarkably, this was the first time this season anyone has taken back-to-back wins. He was clearly the villain of the day for the Italian fans beneath the podium but seemed unmoved by the pantomime. “I know it’s not easy for the Italian fans to accept but I think ultimately we did the better job this weekend,” he said, “collectively, as a team. But it’s still close and there’s still a long, long way to go… I guess because we had a bit of breathing space behind us initially it was easier to extend the life of the tyre. I suppose if we would have had a Ferrari behind pressuring us we would have been pushed more to the limit.”

Vettel was reflective but far from downcast. “I think we probably lacked something like half a second per lap today but I’m not worried too much about the gap. Monza is a specific place. If you have that extra bit of confidence it makes a big difference. So, I’m not too stressed about that. We probably knew it would be a difficult race, probably expected as well that we would be closer but...”

But. Ferrari's low downforce package didn’t work well. But even if it had, the result would likely have been the same. Mercedes wasn’t ever likely to lose this race. But it expects to lose in Singapore.    

 

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