Online Sport Editor Harry Scott-Munro reviews a chaotic Italian Grand Prix from Monza.
After a series of dull and unsurprisingly predictable results, Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza reminded us of why Formula 1 can be so thrilling. A pure adrenaline ride from start to finish around the Temple of Speed saw Alpha-Tauri’s Pierre Gasly become F1’s 109th race winner and the first French driver to do so since 1996, as McLaren’s Carlos Sainz and Lance Stroll for Racing Point rounding off the podium.
Many arrived at Monza expecting nothing but a routine victory for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes after the British driver had won 5 of the opening 7 races of the season. The weekend began though with two major announcements. Firstly, the banning of ‘party modes’ for qualifying. This stopped teams from changing their engine map to increase top speed and performance, with the aim of cutting the speed advantage Mercedes had over the rest of the field. Secondly, and far more importantly in the history of the sport, this weekend was also the last time that the Williams family would be seen in a Formula 1 paddock, following the sale of the team to Dorilton Capital. As a result, founder Frank Williams and daughter Claire stepped down from their roles as Team and Deputy Team Principals, ending the family’s illustrious association with the sport.
As for the action on the track, the party mode ban had the opposite effect to what Mercedes rivals had hoped, as Lewis Hamilton secured pole position, 0.808 seconds ahead of Carlos Sainz in third. Valtteri Bottas qualified second, less than a tenth behind Hamilton to underline the speed of the Mercedes. Red Bull had a disappointed day, with Max Verstappen qualifying 5th and under pressure teammate Alex Albon down in 9th.
Race day couldn’t have been more different, as the race descended into a chaotic, high speed battle that will last long in the memory. An impressive start from Carlos Sainz and teammate Lando Norris saw them jump ahead of Bottas so take second and third. Despite battles all over the track, Lewis Hamilton took a commanding lead at the front, before Kevin Magnussen’s Haas car retired with a power unit issue on lap 17. Expecting a safety car, both race leader Hamilton and Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi pitted, not realising that the pit lane had been closed due to the proximity of the stricken Haas to the pit entrance. As such, both drivers received 10 second stop-go penalties. After the safety car had pitted, there was more drama as Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc crashed at the Parabolica to compound a miserable home race weekend for the team with two DNF’s, bringing out a red flag.
With the track cleared, the cars took part in a standing restart, with Hamilton’s penalty allowing Pierre Gasly to take the lead of the race from Lance Stroll, after his early pitstop had promoted him up the order. That penalty meant Hamilton joined the race plum last, nearly 25 seconds behind the rest of the field and with work to do. After passing Kimi Raikkonen for second place, Carlos Sainz broke clear of the chasing pack, as the race turned into a dual between himself and Gasly. As the laps ticked by, Sainz slowly closed the gap on the young Frenchman, getting agonisingly close without ever really being able to threaten for position at the head of the race. With just 2 laps to go, he moved within striking distance. Despite a warning from the team to protect second place, he gave it everything he had in search of a first F1 win and a first for the team since 2012. He fell agonisingly short, crossing the line just 0.415 back from Gasly, who celebrated his maiden win wildly, a first for the team since Sebastian Vettel secured victory at Monza in 2008.
A strong recovery drive from Hamilton saw him come home 7th, however the race belonged to the delirious Frenchman. Gasly, still only 24, has been through a lot in his young career thus far. After an impressive full debut season in 2018, he was promoted to the senior Red Bull team ahead of the 2019 season to partner Max Verstappen. The dream turned into a nightmare though, as he was demoted back to Alpha-Tauri, (then known as Toro Rosso,) after just 12 races. His first race back for Toro-Rosso was tinted with sadness, as his friend Anthoine Hubert lost his life in a horrific Formula 2 accident, before Gasly’s form returned. After a maiden podium at Brazil last season, he has been one of the stars of 2020, consistently scoring points in a car that has struggled for competitiveness.
The image of Gasly, sat on his own on the top step of the podium, taking in what he had just achieved, will live long in the memory. That joyous sensation of victory was just reward for how he has responded to the trials and tribulations of the last 18 months.
This was Formula 1 at its best. Raw speed, raw emotion and pure entertainment. One can only hope that the upcoming races serve up half as much drama, as we move to the Tuscan Grand Prix next week.