Mercedes and Verstappen at odds over ‘easy’ win

Michelle Foster
Lewis Hamilton looking at his cellphone. Italy September 2021.

Lewis Hamilton looking at his cellphone with a Red Bull mechanic standing in front of him. Italy September 2021.

While Mercedes are predicting an “easy” win for Max Verstappen at Monza, the Red Bull driver reckons Lewis Hamilton will soon be in the mix.

Verstappen will start the Italian Grand Prix from pole position, gifted P1 by Valtteri Bottas’ engine penalty.

Although it was the Finn who won Saturday’s sprint qualifying, he is falling all the way to the back of the grid after Mercedes decided to change his engine earlier in the weekend.

With Verstappen P1, and both McLarens lining up behind the Dutchman and Hamilton in fourth, Mercedes’ trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin fears they are on the backfoot.

“We’ll have a look at strategic options for Lewis,” he said.

“But the reality is that if we struggled to overtake the McLarens [in the sprint] we’ll face the same situation [in the race] and that’s going to hand Max a very easy win.

“We need to look at every possible opportunity as it’s our job to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“It can often be an eventful race here, but we can’t afford to drop back in the first stint at the rate we did [in the sprint].”

Verstappen, though, has denied that it will be easy, expecting Hamilton to come charging through from fourth.

“We have the ideal starting position for Sunday, but I know it won’t be an easy race,” he told Speedweek.

“Lewis will start the race from fourth place and I expect a very strong performance from him.”

The Dutchman reckons, as happened with Hamilton in the sprint qualifying when he was shuffled down the order off the line, the start could determine the race.

“If you get off to a good start, it can be an advantage, but if you don’t get off to a good start, things get tricky.

“The approach to the first corner is quite long, if one starts off a bit faster, it will be a tough job to defend the position. So my goal; to start off well.”

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Tyre strategy will also come into play as all the drivers have free choice.

It was the same for sprint qualifying with Hamilton starting on the mediums while the McLarens gambled with the soft tyres. They made the better start, overtook Hamilton, and kept him at bay.

“I think we underestimated how well they [soft tyres] would behave,” Hamilton said on Saturday evening. “We’ve got to try and figure out how to get by the McLarens and try to limit the damage.”

Honda F1 boss Toyoharu Tanabe reckons teams may take a different approach to their tyre strategy following Saturday’s 18-lap dash.

“After an 18 lap race, we now have 53 and, with a free choice of tyre compound for the start, the teams will be reconsidering their strategies in the light of the data provided from Saturday afternoon’s race,” he said.

Verstappen heads into the Monza race with a five-point lead over Hamilton in the title race.