Mercedes speed no match for Monza jeopardy: 2021 Italian GP sprint qualifying


Valtteri Bottas won sprint qualifying at Monza... but starts at the back for the Italian Grand Prix; while Lewis Hamilton lost places to finish fifth. Have the favourites handed the race to Red Bull?

Valtteri Bottas with monza sprint qualifying first badge

Garlands gave way to big medals for the second sprint qualifying run at Monza

Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images

“We’ve got a very different race tomorrow from the one we thought we had yesterday,” said Ross Brawn immediately after the second sprint race qualifying format had played out at Monza.

F1’s motor sport managing director was not wrong. On Friday evening, after the conventional qualifying hour, the time sheet reflected the expected Mercedes superiority around the Autodromo Nazionale. The low downforce configuration Monza demands seems to harm the low-rake Mercedes less than the high-rake Red Bull.

In the week when it was confirmed that Valtteri Bottas would be a Mercedes driver no more in 2022, it was perhaps fitting that the level-headed Finn topped qualifying for only the second time this year. It was bittersweet though. A new power unit and sundry ancillaries would be taken and whatever Valtteri achieved on Saturday, he would start the main race from the back.

Tactically, it made sense. He would still be around to take points, however small, from Max Verstappen in the Saturday race and then, given the advantage he would have with a fresh engine and the opportunities offered up by Monza, can likely still go very deep into the points-scoring positions in the main event.

The margin of superiority was significant: Bottas, 1min 19.555sec; Lewis Hamilton, 1min 19.651sec; Max Verstappen 1min 19.996sec. So, to all intents and purposes it couldn’t have gone better for Mercedes – Lewis Hamilton ahead of Verstappen and Valtteri there to play wing man in the sprint race.

Michele Alboreto Ferrari at Monza 2021

Michele Alboreto’s Ferrari at Monza as the Parabolica was renamed in his honour


The question was not so much whether Red Bull could overcome Mercedes, but whether Verstappen could keep the slippery McLarens at bay. Just 0.03sec separated Verstappen, Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo in Q3. And, Christian Horner admitted, much of that P3 was owed to Sergio Perez.

“Sergio sacrificed half a second giving Max a tow and did a great job, but ended up much further down (ninth) than he would have been. We knew we were vulnerable to the McLarens here and it’s great to have Max third on the sprint grid. He’ll start right behind Valtteri, on the grippier side, and might even pick up a tow.”

Pierre Gasly did what has been his customary excellent qualifying job to start the sprint race sixth, ahead of both Ferraris. Sainz was fractionally quicker than Leclerc who spent all day managing a power unit issue that led to Ferrari swapping to an older unit for Saturday. With his drive under threat, Antonio Giovinazzi qualified the Alfa top 10 for the second successive race.

Sprint qualifying tyre choice was something of a conundrum. The red-walled soft Pirelli was reckoned to be worth around 4m off the line but was expected to lose performance after 15 of the 18-laps, after which the medium was predicted to be the much superior tyre. The two Mercs and Verstappen all elected to take the medium, while the fourth and fifth-placed McLarens went for the soft.

Start of sprint qualifying at Monza 2021

Hamilton slips back into the pack at the start of the sprint qualifying race

Clive Mason/F1 via Getty Images

When the lights went out, Bottas got a great getaway but Hamilton didn’t. The No44 Mercedes bogged down and then got wheelspin as Hamilton went up the box. Norris saw the opportunity to launch his McLaren down the inside. Hamilton squeezed him but, with more momentum, Lando kept coming, while Verstappen and Ricciardo went by on the other side, as did Gasly, who matched the McLaren starts in his AlphaTauri despite being on the medium tyre.

Down into Turn One/Two, Bottas was away and gone, while Verstappen defended Ricciardo and didn’t immediately pick up the throttle. Ricciardo was forced to back out monetarily, which caught out Gasly, who clipped his front wing on the back of the McLaren. It was sparking wildly as everyone charged into Curva Grande, the AlphaTauri understeering through the gravel trap and into the barrier. The man who won from 10th last year will have to start from the back row or even the pitlane tomorrow…

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Gasly’s misfortune was Hamilton’s gain. Without it, Lewis could have been looking at starting fifth tomorrow despite the Mercedes advantage on Friday, such was the predicted difficulty of overtaking in a DRS train around Monza.

“After crashing, I stood and watched the race and didn’t see a single overtake…” Gasly said, figuring he might have his work cut out tomorrow.

If he’d moved a bit further down the track and stood between the Roggia chicane and the first Lesmo, he would actually have seen the one and only! No surprise, by Fernando Alonso, who ran outside of Sebastian Vettel into Roggia, forcing him into a tight entry, switched back and nailed the Aston Martin on exit. As at Silverstone, Alonso won move-of-the-race, but without anything by way of competition.

Max Verstappen ahead of Daniel ricciardo and Lando Norris at the 2021 Italian GP sprint qualifying

Verstappen would build a gap between the McLarens, which formed an impassable barrier for Hamilton

Red Bull

Those expecting Hamilton to provide fireworks were disappointed. Up front, Bottas and Verstappen escaped, with Max simply following Valtteri around safe in the knowledge that the Mercedes would start from the back tomorrow. The McLarens didn’t have the pace to stay with them but Hamilton was unable to do anything about getting by the orange cars. A safety car while Gasly’s car was retrieved had helped the soft-tyre starters, including the McLarens, which had strong traction out of the Parabolica (now named in Alboreto in memory of the late former Ferrari driver). Ricciardo and Norris, of course, had the same Mercedes power unit as Hamilton and to add to his Lewis’s frustration, his power unit was clipping by the end of the front straight, killing any slight momentum he had.

“The Red Bull is fast and now that Max is on pole it should be an easy win for him…” said a despondent seven-time champion. “It wasn’t a great start by me and we lost points (two to Verstappen). We also underestimated how long the softs would last and now we’ve got to work out how to get past the McLarens.”

Much will depend on the start tomorrow and, given free tyre choice for all in sprint format GPs, the strategy.

“It’s good news if we can stay ahead at the start tomorrow because Mercedes seems to have this harvesting thing going on,” said Christian Horner, “but everyone is going to be scratching their heads about whether to start on the softs or the mediums. But I’ve got to be happy with our first ever Monza pole in the hybrid era. Well, I think it’s pole…”

Verstappen shakes hands with Bottas after 2021 sprint qualifying at Monza

Quite. It does seem odd that poor Bottas, who did a great lap to top Friday and then won the sprint race, is not considered to be the pole man just because he has to take tactical engine penalties. But at least he gets to keep his three points.

Daniel Ricciardo will start on the front row for the first time since 2018 and McLaren can boast its best combined team qualifying performance since Hamilton and Button locked out the 2012 Brazilian GP front row.

Behind fourth-placed Hamilton on tomorrow’s grid will be the cars the fans come to see. Fifth and sixth for Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz is at least better than last year, when the red cars qualified 13th and 16th… But it wasn’t a comfortable day for either. Leclerc felt ill and Sainz took his second successive big hit on a Saturday when he lost his car in the middle of Ascari in second practice.

“The weird things is, I lost the car without pushing and I have no idea why. The guys did a great job to recover it for qualifying but it was a big one and I’m sure I’ll wake up a bit sore tomorrow.”

Wreckage of Carlos Sainz Ferrari at monza 2021

Sainz ost his Ferrari in another big scrash ahead of sprint qualifying on Saturday

Grand Prix Photo

Antonio Giovinazzi will start a career best-equalling seventh for the second successive race as he battles to keep his F1 career alive and hopefully race for Alfa alongside new signing Bottas next year.

The selfless Perez couldn’t do any better than eighth with the second Red Bull and starts ahead of Lance Stroll – who has started every Monza race he’s done in the top 10, and the irrepressible Alonso.

And, oh yes, for the first time, George Russell was outqualified by a team mate! The new Merc driver finished one slot behind 13th-placed Nicholas Latifi. But George was faster on Friday, so does it count? It probably shouldn’t.

According to Ross Brawn, in a post-Silverstone team meeting about the success of the sprint experiment, the general consensus was positive but with the feeling that some more points for Saturday, and perhaps a bit more jeopardy, might be desirable. As for jeopardy in Monza, it’s Mercedes that has fallen foul of it. With the changed complexion from Friday, it really looks like Max and Red Bull could win this one against the head.