As rain hammered a soaked Monza circuit during a suspended qualifying session on Saturday, the two Mercedes team mates of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas sat together in the motorhome playing PlayStation games.
And after the two dominated the Italian Grand Prix just 24 hours later, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that the Mercedes pair had conspired to change the real-life difficulty slider down to the ‘Easy’ setting for their latest race.
What could’ve been Ferrari’s best opportunity in years to reward the passionate Tifosi with a win on home soil and consolidate Sebastian Vettel’s championship lead ended instead with two Mercedes parading side by side in victory and Lewis Hamilton atop the drivers’ standings for the first time in 2017.
Young pretenders hold their own
A combination of torrential rain and a torrent of engine penalties meant that the Italian Grand Prix would have the most unusual yet interesting grid of the season so far.
Lewis Hamilton had, in more than one sense, stormed to pole and, with it, had secured more pole positions than any driver in the history of the sport.
It is always a special moment to see one of the sport’s marquee records broken, but there was plenty of excitement to be drawn from the fact that two of Formula One’s youngest chargers – Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon – would be joining Hamilton at the front of the grid following penalties to the two Red Bulls.
The sheer volume of grid drops and number of drivers affected rendered virtually half of Saturday’s eventual qualifying results irrelevant, with Marcus Ericsson lining up 11th on the grid despite setting the 18th fastest time in Q1.
Most critically, Red Bull were moved to the lower end of the field after showing good performance in the wet conditions, while Ferrari were set to start on the third row despite a disappointing effort.
At the start, Hamilton did not nail the getaway, but he did get a good enough escape to secure the holeshot into the impractically tight Rettifilo Chicane and assume the lead.
Any concerns over the youthful aggression and temperament of Stroll and Ocon were proven unfounded as the pair were commendably cordial on the run to the tightest first corner of the year, with Ocon using the outside line to good effect to take second from the Williams.
Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen resumed their seemingly season-long personal battle on track, with the two clashing wheels yet again on an opening lap and trading places over the course of the first tour of the Monza circuit before Bottas secured fourth after a drag race down the main straight.
His compatriot dispatched, Bottas then quickly set to work on passing Stroll’s Williams, which he did the following lap, before relieving Ocon of second just one lap later to give Mercedes the top two positions that they would keep for the rest of the 49 laps of the race.
With Mercedes out front, Ferrari had to respond quickly. If Raikkonen was asked to let Vettel through for fifth, it wasn’t obvious, with Vettel having to blast by his team mate on the run to the Lesmos after a failed attempt around the outside into Variante della Roggia.
Vettel soon dispatched Stroll, then Ocon, to be free to pursue the two Mercedes who were now seven seconds up the road in front of him. It was a tall order while on the same strategy as the Silver Arrows and it would ultimately prove to be the closest the Ferrari got to the leaders in the grand prix.
Verstappen and Alonso vent frustrations
Further back, Red Bull were attempting to make up ground after they strategically opted to take an engine component grid penalty.
After yet another mechanical retirement the previous weekend in Belgium, Max Verstappen was hungry to bounce back with a good result. But wasn’t to be.
Defending from an attacking Felipe Massa to his inside at Rettifilo on the start of lap three, Verstappen made contact with the Williams as space in the clumsy chicane inevitably ran out, causing the Red Bull a right-front puncture and leaving him limping back to the pits effectively on three wheels.
It was no more than a racing incident, which the stewards correctly called it as, but it would do little to quell the frustrations of the teenager, who was facing another early ruined race.
“What the [censored by FOM] is he doing?,” vented Verstappen. “He just pushed me off the track.”
One pitstop, a new front wing and a set of soft tyres later, Verstappen was released to try and salvage any result from the back of the field.
As the Rettifilo Chicane features perhaps the most extreme braking moment on the calendar, it’s not unusual to see drivers struggle to slow their cars down for the first corner even during a race. Kimi Raikkonen was the first Ferrari driver to miss the chicane and take to the escape route on lap seven – and he would not be the only one to do so.
At Spa just last weekend, Fernando Alonso and Jolyon Palmer had battled each other hard with the Renault driver leaving distinctly unimpressed at what he felt was the McLaren ace having pushed him off the track.
The stewards thought nothing of it on that occasion, but they were forced to get involved when the two found themselves in each other’s way once more in Monza. Palmer attempted to pass Alonso for 13th around the outside of the Della Roggia, but the McLaren held firm and Palmer ran over the inside of the kerbs, taking the position.
It would be fair to describe Alonso as being ‘upset’ by this incident, but once the stewards deemed that overtaking a rival outside of the confines of track limits was worthy of a five-second time penalty, Alonso was well and truly incensed.
“What a joke,” barked a disgusted Alonso. “The five seconds, what a joke.”
But schadenfreude would eventually come to the double world champion when Renault were forced to bring their man in to retire on Lap 31. “Karma,” was Alonso’s succinct evaluation.
Ricciardo rockets to fourth
Out front, Hamilton was maintaining between a four to five second gap to Bottas in second. But more crucially, despite the clean air available to Vettel, the Ferrari seemed totally unable to eat into Mercedes’s advantage and was instead steadily losing time lap after lap in third position.
Vettel was the first of the three to make the solitary stop for soft tyres on lap 32, with Hamilton and then Bottas following suit shortly after. Despite the switch of compound, the performance difference between Mercedes and Ferrari remained and Vettel continued to fall away even further from his championship rivals.
In the midst of a dull and seemingly predictable second half of the race, a wildcard appeared in the form of Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull.
Whatever the circumstances, Ricciardo has made a habit in 2017 of making considerable progress through the field whenever he should find himself at the back in the early phases of a race – and Italy was no exception.
Having started on the softs – the harder compound for this weekend – Ricciardo had taken advantage of a very long first stint and the Red Bull’s performance to move up to fourth place by the time the leaders made their own relatively late single stops.
After pitting on lap 37, Ricciardo had resumed on supersofts in a remarkable fifth place on merit, directly behind Raikkonen. With the advantage of the softer rubber underneath him, Red Bull had suddenly become a clear and present danger for Ferrari.
It took only a handful of laps for Ricciardo to get within DRS range of Raikkonen, but once he was, there was no hesitation.
At a speed north of 350 km/h and from a distance so far it would be considered ridiculous even on a arcade racing game, Ricciardo literally dived to the inside of Raikkonen at Rettifilo and forced his way up into fourth in a move that was almost a carbon copy of the one he had dispatched Valtteri Bottas with here last year.
Ricciardo gave credit to Raikkonen after the race for being so clean and fair in defence, but it was another example of the Australian’s ability to execute knife edge overtakes while still maintaining in complete control of his car. A skill not many drivers possess.
With fourth place now theirs, Red Bull could now smell a chance of an unlikely podium with Vettel only 11 seconds further ahead. Ricciardo used all that his tyres offered to him, setting the fastest lap of the race and taking over a second out of the Ferrari each lap.
But Ricciardo’s effort may have been aided by a mysterious issue that befell Vettel on lap 40. Just as his team mate earlier in the race, the Ferrari driver had missed the Rettifilo Chicane and taken to the escape route before rejoining the track.
While the excursion appeared to be inconsequential, Vettel claimed after the race that his final laps had been compromised by a handling problem caused by the trip through the run-off..
“After my off on lap 40, something was wrong with the car,” he explained. “I didn’t trust the car – it was pulling to one side and I didn’t trust the car under braking any more.”
Just like in Hungary, Vettel drove through the unbalanced steering issues and managed to keep up enough of a pace that despite Ricciardo’s best efforts, the Red Bull was unable to catch him before the remaining laps of the race expired.
Hamilton takes the win – and the championship lead
And so, the shortest race of the season was suddenly entering its final laps. Mercedes had long since turned down their engines, with Hamilton audibly cruising off the throttle before the braking zone on the onboard camera.
It had been the most comfortable race of the year so far for Hamilton, who crossed the line under the famous Monza podium to take his sixth win of the year to turn a seven point deficit into a slender three point lead – the first time Vettel had been usurped from the top of the table all year.
Bottas finished a comfortable second, losing further points to his team mate but gaining a handful over Vettel.
The two dominant Mercedes cruised back to the pits side by side on the cool down lap, almost as if in victory formation. It was a powerful show of strength from the sport’s all-conquering champions of the hybrid era directly in their biggest rival’s back yard.
Hamilton didn’t even pretend otherwise.
“It was really something quite special, driving around after the chequered flag with Valtteri alongside me,” he said. “To be on Ferrari’s turf and to have got the one-two and then drive around together really showed solidarity which I’m really proud of.”
Before the break, 2017 had seen Ferrari and Mercedes trade wins in a back-and-forth battle. But Mercedes and Hamilton have picked up back-to-back wins now that racing has resumed.
Vettel, wisely, isn’t panicking about losing his championship advantage just yet.
“Still a long way to go,” he said.
“It’s natural that sometimes you’ll take points and sometimes you’ll have less. The most important time you want to lead the championship is after the last race. Up to then, we need to do our best every single time and then count the points that we have.”
But even while keeping a cool head about the situation, Vettel had to admit that Mercedes were just quicker than Ferrari in Italy.
“We didn’t have the pace,” he conceded.” I’m not happy but I think we can accept the result. We did what we could and I think that’s what it’s about. The podium I think makes up for everything this weekend.”
Ricciardo may not have snatched yet another podium appearance in the end, but he was still delighted with his afternoon’s work.
“It was fun, I definitely had some really good overtakes,” he said, before joking that he and Red Bull would ‘lap the field’ in Singapore.
Raikkonen finished fifth, while Esteban Ocon capped off perhaps the most impressive weekend of the young Frenchman’s Formula One career with sixth place in the Force India to firmly put the drama of Belgium behind him.
Lance Stroll too showed how he is growing in maturity as his rookie season continues by taking seventh, despite a final lap scrap with team mate Felipe Massa seeing the two Williams team mates bump into each other.
Perez took ninth in the second Force India, with Verstappen recovering to take the final point in tenth after his very early setback.
It was another weekend to forget for McLaren. A race that was characterised by yet more radio frustration from Alonso and both cars unable to offer any defence to rivals blasting past them on the straights as if they were of a different formula. Both cars would again fail to finish.
In the green room, Hamilton and Bottas looked like they’d barely broken a sweat during the race – reflective of the ease in which they had secured their third one-two of the season.
Faced with formidable opposition for the first time since Formula One adopted its newest engine formula, Mercedes appear to have galvanised as a team to combat the very real threat from Ferrari.
But as Lewis Hamilton takes the lead in the fight for the title for the first time this season, there’s plenty to anticipate from what should be a very competitive next round in Singapore.
For the first time in 2017, Lewis Hamilton is no longer the hunter – he is now the hunted.
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2017 Italian Grand Prix
- Monza stewards “made a mistake” with Palmer – Alonso
- RB13 has been ‘lucky for Daniel, unlucky for Max’ – Horner
- Was Alonso right about Palmer’s “joke” penalty?
- 2017 Italian Grand Prix team radio transcript
- Top ten pictures from the 2017 Italian Grand Prix
2017 F1 race reviews
- Rosberg denies Hamilton a winning end to his championship year
- Rosberg frustrates Hamilton as Vettel gives hope to Ferrari
- Rosberg gets his revenge as Hamilton holds back
- Hard-fighting Hamilton pounces on Rosberg error to seal third title
- Rosberg’s misfortune brings Hamilton within touching distance of title