Mercedes racer Lewis Hamilton scored an emphatic victory at the Italian Grand Prix on Sunday, taking with it the championship lead over Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel.
Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas came home 2nd to make it a Mercedes 1-2 finish, while Vettel completed the podium.
‘This is obviously an incredibly exciting season; the last two races have been really strong for us as a team. The way things have come together in the second half of the season is exceptional.’ And so it was. The victory – the 59th of Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One career – was never in doubt.
Admittedly his start wasn’t perfect and it trapped fellow front row starter Lance Stroll (Williams) slightly, just enough to allow Force India’s Esteban Ocon through into 2nd, demoting Stroll to 3rd. But Hamilton himself was never under threat. As those behind squabbled for position, the Briton eased away and looked untroubled thereafter as he drew away.
It only took until the fourth tour for Bottas to climb to 2nd place, but the task was not completely straightforward. ‘The start was quite poor for me, just a lot of wheelspin.’ The Finn enjoyed a brief, but fantastic dual with Kimi Raikkonen having lost a spot to the Ferrari-man off the line. This culminated in a wonderful overtake by Bottas around the outside of Parabolica, before Raikkonen fought back, with Bottas solidifying the deal soon thereafter. He continued, ‘One of the Ferraris got ahead and I had to get him first, which was normally going to be the difficult part and the most important part for us today. But also then pretty quickly got to P2, which was good.’ Taking Stroll and Ocon was less stressful, but by this point Hamilton was already 3.3s up the road.
For a time, the Mercedes duo swapped fastest laps, showcasing their domination of the class, although one wonders just how far the power unit at the back of the W08 was truly pushed. Team boss Toto Wolff was keen to emphasise that his drivers were keeping it sensible. ‘We were looking at the damage matrix and were trying to find a sensible way of letting them race, while not damaging the engine,’ he said in the Mercedes motorhome after the race.
Hamilton had built a gap of 3.6s on lap, before Bottas pulled it back to 2.7s within a few tours, before Hamilton drew away again. The gap toed-and-froed and was never greater than 5.07s, although this only occurred as the leading pair lapped backmarkers for the first time.
The lead had stabilised at around 4.5s by the time Hamilton pitted on lap 32, to change from his super-soft Pirelli’s to the softs, with Bottas doing the same a lap later – it would be the only time in the race that lead swapped hands – but such was the smoothness of the Monza Autodrom, tyre degradation was not a factor. ‘The car felt fantastic, particularly on that first stint. As we had a bit of breathing room behind us, it was easier for us to extend the life of the tyres,’ said the race leader. With the stops out of the way, Bottas charged again, but this race was always going to be Hamilton’s.
The Mercedes duo ticked off the remaining twenty laps with relative ease; Hamilton securing the win ahead of Bottas by 4.4s, and securing twenty-five points and the championship lead in the process. It ensured the Briton also became the first back-to-back winner of the season. ‘Today the car was fantastic and really a dream to drive. I think it’s all just to do with the team pulling together and trying to maximizing everything on the car and Valtteri and myself really trying to do the best job we can with the car.’ Yet as the European leg of the season draws to a close, Hamilton knows the battle will be tougher in Singapore. ‘The fight will continue, the Ferrari’s have been really quick this season, especially on the high-downforce tracks. It will continue to be really close between us, so it will be ‘ beast mode’ all the way to the last chequered flag.’
Bottas, meanwhile, seemed quite happy to have finished 2nd, considering his early dramas with Raikkonen. Yet while describing the virtues of the W08 machine, one couldn’t help but sense a slight hesitation, as – maybe – deep down he knows his championship shot has gone. ‘The car was so well balanced today and so strong. For sure we were quick in a straight line, but this weekend also we were really quick in every corner of the track,’ noted Bottas. ‘I think we just found a different kind of stability this weekend that we haven’t found before. We had a perfect result; Lewis won, so well done for that, me 2nd is great for us, but now it’s whether we can learn from this weekend what we need to and be strong again in Singapore…’
Where Hamilton pulled away from the start, the scene in his mirrors was far more tense. Following a slow start from the front row, Stroll dropped behind Ocon, before being swarmed by Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari). Stroll briefly held his own in 3rd place, only Bottas to slip by on lap three, with Vettel – having eased past Raikkonen – following two laps later.
Ocon, too, would succumb to Vettel’s charge, but despite the championship being very much on the line, the German was unconcerned about pressing his quick, but inexperienced rivals. ‘I knew that I had to get past quickly […], but I think Lance knew we had stronger pace, so he was quite fair,’ Vettel said of the Williams rookie; however the Ferrari man was conscious the Ocon would prove a more aggressive challenge, with Vettel passing on lap eight. ‘Esteban tried to cover a bit more but I had a very good run out of the last corner so for me it was clear I would get past and I just had to choose left or right and I just wanted to make sure, so that’s why I dived down the inside.’
By then, Vettel had already lost over 9s to the lead, but even then in clear air, the Ferrari’s pace fell well shy of the leading Mercedes’. Whereas Hamilton was clearing laps in the early 1’25s, Vettel was routinely some six-tenths or so slower and as the fuel diminished, the pace increased, but the gap in pace remained. And at their home event, Ferrari had no answer. It was only at the end of his tyre stint did Hamilton’s pace edge toward what Vettel was managing, but when the Scuderia brought Vettel to the pits on lap 31, Hamilton had already built a pitstop’s worth of an advantage.
The Ferrari situated was exasperated somewhat when Vettel had a slight off at the Rettifilo with twenty lap remaining, with Vettel claiming that he was struggling thereafter. ‘I went off in Turn 1 and I think something broke in the car. The left-hand side of the steering was a bit down and I couldn’t trust the car, especially on braking and it’s a braking track. So the last laps I don’t think they showed the pace we could have gone.’ But if one is to honest, the race was a distant ghost long before this… Vettel would eventually finished 36.3s behind Hamilton, at the most Ferrari of tracks. This was more a slaughter than mere defeat…
If the Ferrari-man had nothing for the pair up the road, he certainly had to turn it on to keep Daniel Ricciardo at bay. Starting 16th due to power unit penalties, the Australian made quick work of the lower-midfield runner and had climbed to 12th place by lap four. In the following tours, he picked off Nico Hulkenberg (Renault), Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) and Kevin Magnussen (Haas), before settling into a catch-up game with Sergio Perez (Force India).
Interestingly Ricciardo simply had the better pace over his Mercedes-engined rival and drew to the back of Perez by lap 12 and passing the Mexican six tours later. He was doing the same to Williams’ Felipe Massa and Stroll, when both eventually removed themselves to the pits, gifting Ricciardo some precious free air and chasing Vettel.
This would be critical of course. Having started on Pirelli softs, the Red Bull racer was going for a long first stint and time in clear air clocking fast laps was time well spent. Solid points was a target, but with a change to super softs coming on lap 37, was a podium possible..? When Vettel did stop, Ricciardo kept up his charge, with laps remaining in the mid-1’25s, knowing that Vettel’s fresh tyre pace would be strong as well.
Once both had changed, the gap had extended to 17s, but then there was Vettel’s little off and over 3s went missing. Suddenly Ricciardo was catching quickly as Vettel’s pace fell away… ‘Some good overtakes in the race kept me excited and I had some real pace in the end. I could see Seb and the thought of a podium was tempting me, so I was obviously trying to catch him right up to the end.’
For each tour that passed, the Red Bull closed by just under a second and it was looking close, until Vettel raised the bar in the final four laps. Considering that Ricciardo had originally qualified 3rd before his penalty, one might think the Australian would be aggrieved with his final outcome, but he remained upbeat with 4th. ‘We couldn’t have done much more from where we started. Of course I wanted to be up there on the podium as it looked unreal, but I believe it will come next year. Today has been a really good boost for everyone.’
Raikkonen concluded what could be bets described a s a quiet run to 5th. The Finn struggled for balance throughout the entire weekend and simply never looked at one with the Ferrari. ‘Most of the time we were lacking the grip and the pace. It was not an easy weekend, we were fighting in all conditions, in the dry and even more in the wet. This is something that we have to fix for these kinds of circuit.’
Ocon and Stroll expected to fall down the order and so fell to 6th and 7th respectively, with Massa and Perez just behind. It had been a feisty encounter for the Ocon/Stroll/Massa trio, who spent much of the event covered by less than 2s, although one wonders just how much Massa was really challenging his younger teammate.
There was tension late on when in an effort to keep the charging Perez at bay, Massa took some rather odd and aggressive lines into the Rettifilo and Roggia chicanes in order to create a roadblock and keep Perez in 9th. There were other dramas too – Massa and Perez also had minor contact early on, with Massa also clattering with Verstappen, as the Dutchman attempted to surge up the order. Perez then lost time with a slow pitstop, as did Stroll.
Verstappen rounded out the point-scorers, after he took Magnussen for 10th on lap 46. It was a trying day for the Red Bull man, who pitted for super softs on lap 3, after the clash with Massa gave him a puncture. Verstappen spent much of the first half of the race playing catch up at the back of the field, but began to make up time and positions when pitted for more super-softs on lap 27. Verstappen’s second-half push was impressive, as he took Romain Grosjean (Haas), Fernando Alonso (McLaren), Carlos Sainz (Toro Rosso), Hulkenberg and Kvyat, before turning his attention to Magnussen.
It made Magnussen the first of the non-scorers, after his almost race long fight with Kvyat and Hulkenberg came to naught. A difficult weekend for Toro Rosso was completed when Sainz could do no better than 14th, while Grosjean crossed the finish line in 15th. Wehrlein was the final finisher in 16th, although both Alonso and Marcus Ericsson were both classified, despite retiring in the final few tours.
Stoffel Vandoorne retired with a power unit issue on lap 33 after an impressive run and Jolyon Palmer was the first retiree on lap 29 with a transmission issue, but not before receiving a drive through penalty for taking an unfair track advantage when battling with Alonso early on.
The Italian Grand Prix was not a stellar one, but rather a pivotal one. Mercedes’ pace was ominous and if this advantage carries through to Singapore, then Ferrari and Vettel will find themselves in trouble very quickly. But then there’s Ferrari’s new engine…