Seeing Red: Cars, Lights and Flags.
Hands down the best race of this season, Monza saw such drama last Sunday that it’s hard to know where to begin. But I’ll start with three things that happened relating to the colour red because it caused a turn of events that led to Pierre Gasly win his first Grand Prix for Alpha Tauri and Carlos Sainz Jr get on the podium for a career best P2.
Fortuna di Rosso
Just when you thought Ferrari’s performance this season was going to be bad for their home Grand Prix, it turned into their worst ever nightmare. It was already evident from the team’s lack of pace during free practice. On Saturday’s qualifying, it wasn’t much better, with Vettel clearly giving up on the car, finishing in P17. Hey, when a king doesn’t give you the respect as his soldier, what’s the point in fighting, that too with inferior weapons? The other red car didn’t fare much better with Leclerc only managing to put the car 13th on the grid. Looking back at history, the last time the Scuderia didn’t have a car qualified under top 10 was some 35 years ago. On Sunday though, the team’s luck just went to hell. On lap 6, Vettel suffered a brake failure at turn 1, probably the worst place to have this vital component failing. Cars entering turn 1 at Monza are usually going north of 340km/h before braking, and Vettel had no option but to crash into the soft run off blocks on the old track, which did slow him down somewhat. With Vettel out, all hopes of a points finish (its weird saying Ferrari fighting for points and not podium) now upon the young Monégasque in car number 16. But the worst was yet to come for the home team.
As the five red lights switched off, Hamilton’s Mercedes was off to a perfect start, something that can’t be said for his teammate Valtteri Bottas, starting from P2. In what looked like the 77 Mercedes was sleeping at the lights, Bottas was easily passed by Sainz in the orange car. The other Mclaren of young Brit Lando Norris was off to an even better start, snaking his way from 6th to challenging Bottas into turn 1 and pushing the Mercedes further down. With Bottas trapped in hot turbulent air behind the Mclarens, in a car primarily designed to race in front where the air is cool and clean, the Finn continued to struggle. At one point, he even complained about the engine settings, making it clear that Mercedes cars were suffering from the ban on engine modes.
Panic at the Parabolica
The mayhem started from lap 20, when Haas driver Kevin Magnussen unexpectedly stopped his VF20 at the end of Parabolica, the last corner. The Haas had suffered some mechanical issues and Kevin just couldn’t manage to bring the car to the pits, even though he could see the garage from where he stopped. To help the marshals push the stricken car to the pits, safety car was deployed. Monza is a bit weird track, in the sense you have to keep an eye on the pit lane lights, which are oddly placed at the outside wall of the last corner. Granted, the lights and big RED crosses and there are two of them, but while going flat out through the complete U-turn, you might miss them. And that’s exactly what happened to race leader, as he promptly entered for a tyre change, thinking it was a free pit stop, when actually the pit lane was closed. Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi, too, pitted while everyone else stayed out, with Sainz now leading the race. When the pit lane was officially opened, most drivers came in for their free stops, causing another double stacking spectacle, much like last week’s Belgian Grand Prix. Ferrari chose to put its only runner on the hard compound tyre, hoping to make it last till the chequered flag. As the race resumed on lap 24, the scarlet car made a couple of easy passes to take P4, but on the last turn, as Leclerc put the power down mid corner, the twitchy back end of his SF1000 snapped to the left, cold tyres not helping. Instinctively, the young driver applied slight opposite lock on the steering, at which point, all hell broke loose. The rear suddenly gripped and shortly after, the front tyres found grip as well. All good when you’re going straight, but when you have some 30 degrees of left turn-in on the wheel, the car will go left and that’s exactly what happened. Leclerc suddenly barrelled into the crash barrier, the gravel trap doing little to slow the car, while Ferrari principal Binnoto and team dejectedly watched their last hope crashing into the barrier. The huge crash promptly saw the safety car being deployed but for all of the team’s lack of luck, Charles climbed out of the car unharmed, thankfully. After just one lap, the FIA took the decision to red flag the race, which meant all cars would now have to line up at the pit lane, according to their position. This was the first red flag at the historic track since 1995.
Hard charging midfielders
The pitting incident by Hamilton and Giovinazzi lead to both drivers getting a 10 second stop and go penalty after the race restart, which is around 30 seconds in a long pitlane like Monza’s. Suddenly Mercedes was in major trouble; Bottas was stuck in 8th in a car that didn’t look too competitive for overtaking (which wasn't the case, as proved later) and with Lewis now getting half a minute delay, it was clear that he would have to fight from last place. While all these happened Racing Point’s Lance Stroll, who didn’t pit yet, was in for a treat as he got a free pit stop under the red flag, effectively putting him in 2nd position for the restart, just behind Hamilton. So, in an exciting turn of events, the entire running order was shuffled. After a 25 minute stop while the marshals got the tangled Ferrari out of the barrier and into the pits, the cars went out for the formation lap for a second time in a bizarre order; Hamilton in P1 (but with a huge penalty), Stroll, Gasly (there’s a full section on his weekend later), the two Alfa Romeos (though Giovinazzi had to serve the penalty like Hamilton), two Mclarens with Sainz in front, Bottas, Latifi (what!) and Ricciardo in P10. Things were looking bleak for Red Bull with Max only managing P11 this time.
Lights out for the second time
At the restart on lap 28 of 53, Hamilton got off to a great start, to put as much distance as possible between him and the cars behind. Stroll though, struggled to get the car off the line cleanly and Gasly saw this opportunity and clinched it. Stroll dropped further down to 5th while both Raikkonen and Giovinazzi passed the pink Mercedes with ease. At the end of the lap, as Hamilton pitted to serve his penalty, Gasly took over as race leader with the Alfa Romeo of Raikkonen in 2nd. Sainz fought his way into 3rd and now, with an inferior car in front of his Mclaren, he could see the win well within grasp. At 41, Raikkonen is the oldest and most experienced driver on the grid. He did put up a good defense against Sainz but in the end, had to let the orange car let by at lap 34, having held P2 for 5 whole laps. In the next handful of laps, the Finn lost positions to Stroll, Norris, fellow countryman Bottas and Daniel 'Honey Badger' Ricciardo.
The Gasly Chronicle
Gasly’s maiden win was a combination of extremely good driving, timing and sheer luck. Also, maybe a fire of revenge against Red Bull, from which he was removed mid-season last year, to be replaced by his childhood racer friend Alex Albon. But, to understand how Gasly made it to the top 3, even before the restart on lap 28, we need to look a bit deeper.
For those of you who are well versed in F1 tyre rules, I request you to skip this paragraph. But for the rest, here’s a quick rundown of what’s what. Pirelli provides three sets of dry tyres – soft (red), medium (yellow) and hard (white). Apart from this, for rainy conditions, there are intermediate (green) and full wet (blue) tyres. Drivers are expected to select 10 sets for a weekend. They need to choose from a set of 13 dry, 4 intermediate, and 3 full wet tyres.
For the final race on Sunday, two sets each of the medium and hard tyres are allotted for the final race. For the qualifying sessions, 1 set of soft are allotted to help drivers in setting quick lap times. For the Free Practice sessions, drivers are allowed to use a maximum of 3 sets of dry tyres. The sets in FP1 must be returned to Pirelli before FP2 and FP3 starts. For drivers who qualify for the race in dry tyres, they must start the race with the tyres used in the second session of qualifying. This applies for the top 10 drivers from the qualifying sessions. For drivers that qualify outside the top 10, he can start the race on tyres available to them – soft, medium or hard.
At a high speed track like Monza, teams like to use a cunning technique called ‘towing’ to gain precious tenths in their lap times. Towing is essentially one car in front, with the car gunning for fastest lap right behind, to get better aerodynamic efficiency. On Saturday, as Alpha Tauri released both their drivers onto the track for Q2, their plan was to send Kvyat in front followed by Gasly who would benefit from the ‘tow’ effect. What initially seemed to fall into the team’s hands was the Haas of Magnussen going out onto the track in front of the Alpha Tauris. This way, both their cars would have a chance to qualify within top 10. But, in the middle of turn 7, Magnussen overcooked it and went off into the gravel, leaving Kvyat without a car in front. This lead to him being knocked out of Q2 for just four hundredth of a second, to start in P11. Benefitting from the sister car in front, Gasly made it to P10.
Since Gasly qualified within the top 10, he was obliged to start the race on the old set of soft tyres he used in Q2, while his teammate Kvyat had just missed Q3 and had a free choice of tyres. The team put Kyvat’s car on the hard compound, a strategy that had worked well for the team in last week’s Belgian Grand Prix. After the initial start of the race, Gasly, who was on older tyres, was being pressured by his teammate, which led to the team calling the car in for an early pit stop. Just as Gasly pulled out onto the track with a fresh set of tyres, Magnussen’s Haas pulled over just after the last turn. This, combined with Leclerc’s crash and red flags comfortably placed Gasly in 3rd for the restart.
After the restart, Gasly already moved up to P2 by turn 1, and held onto it while Hamilton moved out of his way to serve the penalty. Behind the leading car, Sainz passed Raikkonen to a chase to the finish line. With 10 laps to go, Gasly was sitting at a comfortable 3 sec lead over his Spanish challenger. In what followed an emotional radio exchange between Sainz and his engineer, Sainz told “I want this win” after being told to be careful and not take any risks. With a handful of laps remaining, the Mclaren engineer allowed Sainz to use full battery power, adding about 4 megajoules of energy to try and catch Gasly. And what a drive by Sainz! Following his father rally driver Carlos Sr.’s footsteps, the junior Sainz push his Mclaren to its limits, sliding all four wheels through the Ascari chicanes. In the end, he managed to close the gap to Gasly to less than a second on the last lap, while finishing 2nd, just 0.415sec behind the leader. Brilliant drive by both drivers, who pushed to their absolute limits to produce career best results.
Racing Point came 3rd, Stroll’s second time on the podium and Norris holding off Valtteri to come home P4. It was a bad weekend for Red Bull, with no points scored. Max retired on lap 31 due to a mechanical issue and Albon only managing a ghastly 15th for the team, owing to a damaged floor.
In what was Mercedes AMG’s worst finish in recent times, Hamilton drove a brilliant race after being pushed down 30 seconds behind the leading car, pushing his was up to 7th. In the same car where teammate Bottas had trouble overtaking, Hamilton proved why he is, one of the greatest drivers of the sport.
As the race winner rolled his car into P1, his team was seen congratulated by sister team Red Bull, celebrating and running to meet the Driver of the Day. Fellow Frenchman Romain Grosjean from Haas and childhood friend Charles (who had changed into a more comfortable jeans) greeted and congratulated Gasly on his incredible win. It was an emotion filled afternoon and Alpha Tauri’s second win at Monza, after a certain German by the name of Sebastian got his maiden win (for then Toro Rosso) in 2008. It was particularly emotional for the Williams, under new ownership and are no longer a family-run team. Father-daughter duo Frank and Claire Williams have stepped down and it is truly a storied ending in the history of Formula 1.
Anthoine Hubert, the F2 driver who was tragically killed in a crash last year had texted close friend Gasly after he was thrown out of Red Bull, supposedly telling him to prove the team wrong. And on 6th September 2020, on a sunny Italian countryside, Pierre Gasly did just that.
Next, we move to beautiful Mugello circuit for the 2020 Tuscan Grand Prix on 13th September. This Ferrari-owned circuit will hold the Scuderia's 1000th race and as things look now, it is going to be another disappointing weekend for the Italian team's home race.
Stay tuned. Formula 1 is getting exciting.