In the sprint Ricciardo had lapped around 0.5sec per lap slower than Bottas and Verstappen, but now he just ran at a good pace in free air, watched his mirrors and looked after his tyres. Running the whole stint in Ricciardo’s DRS zone imposed much greater strain on the Red Bull’s tyres and when McLaren called Ricciardo in for his pit stop, Verstappen had no tyre grip left with which to respond on his in-lap, which was 1sec slower than Ricciardo’s.
Even without the delay Verstappen was about to suffer at his stop, he was not about to pass Ricciardo. The only question was going to be whether Ricciardo could withstand 30 laps of pressure without opening a slit of daylight for Max to thrust himself into.
Norris ran the first stint a few seconds behind Verstappen, giving his tyres an easier time, and kept his eye on mirrors which were being filled by Hamilton’s Mercedes.
Verstappen & Hamilton
The Mercedes was much the fastest car around Monza. Bottas and Hamilton locked out the front row of Friday qualifying 0.4sec faster than Verstappen. So it should have been a straightforward routine victory weekend for Hamilton.
It began to go wrong at the start of the sprint when he got what he described as “2mm too deep with the clutch paddle,” got a load of wheelspin and was instantly passed by Verstappen, Ricciardo and Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri. As Gasly tripped over Ricciardo into the first corner (damaging his wing and causing him to go off at Curva Grande) Hamilton was forced to back off – giving Norris the momentum to pass around the outside of the second part of the chicane. He was stuck for the rest of the 18 laps, crossing the line fifth.
Given Bottas’s grid penalty, it meant Verstappen would start the grand prix from pole at what had been expected to be a bogey track for the car. Then he was out-accelerated by Ricciardo and it all played out as it did. With Verstappen’s car parked on top of Hamilton’s in the gravel trap on the 26th lap.
Ricciardo’s stop went smoothly. Red Bull’s error in judgement was that Verstappen might be able to overcut by going faster on his in-lap than Ricciardo was about to go on his out-lap. He couldn’t, because of the aforementioned tyre deg. So in hindsight there was nothing really to be gained from coming in at this moment.
But worse than that was Verstappen’s disastrous 11sec pit stop. The front-right wheelman didn’t instigate the correct procedure on the ‘smart wheelgun’ – which electronically signals the jack man to release the car when it senses that all four wheels have been tightened. The FIA instigated new procedures, effective from the last race, to reduce how automated the systems were. The new procedure caught out the guy – part of the team which has set the bar so high for incredible, record-beating stops. On this day, it went wrong. Human error. It happens.
But it cascaded disastrously. Not only did it allow Norris to leapfrog past him up to second but, in response, Mercedes brought Hamilton in. Hamilton had started on hard tyres, intending to run longer than all the other front-runners, who’d chosen mediums for their first stints. He was planning to run to lap 38/39 – about 15 laps longer than the others, to have the maximum grip advantage over them in the second stint when they’d all be on old hards and he’d be on new mediums. It might have worked, given how quick the Merc actually was here. The tyre offset might just have given him the crucial difference in being able to overtake.