Conclusions from the Italian Grand Prix

Date published: September 5 2017

Mercedes hit Ferrari where it hurts most and Danny Ric proves he does “like ’em vulnerable”…

Mercedes punch Ferrari where it hurts most
Ferrari were closer than expected in Spa and further back than expected in Monza. With the Tifosi firing flares to paint the air red, what would Sebastian Vettel have given for that to be reversed? Either way, in consecutive races Mercedes have claimed top honours, which has given Lewis Hamilton the lead in the standings for the first time this season.

The Silver Arrows’ dominant showing at Ferrari’s home race is a further blow that is also indicative of the momentum shift to Hamilton and co after the summer break. It could have been worse for Ferrari, too. Daniel Ricciardo finished just behind Vettel despite starting 16th. Without Red Bull’s grid penalties there is a good chance that both Ricciardo and Max Verstappen might have beaten Vettel.

So Italy was little more than damage limitation for the home team – not least because Vettel was nursing a suspension problem in the final third of the grand prix. The German was phlegmatic after the race, saying he remained positive; while his boss, Sergio Marchionne admitted that Ferrari had “screwed up”. Most analysts agree that Singapore will be better suited to the SF70H, but considering recent results, Ferrari – indeed the number 5 Ferrari – cannot afford any more screw ups.

“I like ’em vulnerable”
Amid the gloom and doom of the delay before Saturday’s qualifying, Ricciardo crashed the Sky analysts’ interviews with his broad grin and cheeky sense of humour. The Australian is a fine bloke but in charging through the field from 16th to claim fourth, he again underlined his credentials as a fine racer and overtaker.

During his charge, Ricciardo responded to a radio message saying that Felipe Massa was next up on the road and alone by saying “I like ‘em vulnerable”. On the evidence of Monza, it seems that any driver in Ricciardo’s sights is a bit vulnerable to his overtaking. And this column defies anyone to make an argument against Ricciardo being the best overtaker on the grid.

The Red Bull driver’s move on Sergio Perez into the Variante sequence was a masterclass of trickery; as he dummied to the outside before flinging his car up the inside on lap 17. But Ricciardo went one better when he seemingly dropped his balls of steel onto the brake pedal to brake later than physics should allow to sneak past Kimi Raikkonen going into the first chicane.

Future stars at the sharp end
Lance Stroll’s early races were bedevilled by a lack of confidence and nervous driving. The Williams man bagged his first points at his home race and soon followed that up with a podium in the chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Yet it is his performance in Monza’s wet qualifying session on Saturday that stand out as a real sign of the rookie’s talent. He showed great car control and confidence to qualify fourth (but start second due to grid penalties) and although he went backwards in the race, seventh was a good return. The Canadian fended off team-mate Massa in the closing stages and showed great maturity in wheel-to-wheel racing with Esteban Ocon.

Ocon, of course, has stood out as the best young driver of the year and did his reputation no harm with P6 in Italy and also moved to within three points of team-mate Sergio Perez in the standings.

Moans and groans
Fernando Alonso was particularly annoyed with Jolyon Palmer for skipping the chicane to retain his position when battling the McLaren for a position in the teens. The two-time champion said “the FIA must have been having a Heineken” because the incident was a clear violation of the regulations. Fair point, Mr Alonso.

Neither driver finished, but in Palmer’s case this certainly wasn’t a case of much to do about nothing. The Brit has been woeful all season but in his defence he has been beset by bad luck. Unlike Alonso he is unlikely to have any suitors for a 2018 race seat. However, we can all hope for improved stewarding next season, but hopefully sooner. There has been little to no consistency in the decisions throughout 2017 and many analysts and fans, for example, feel that Kevin Magnussen was right to question the legality of Max Verstappen moving to the right and forcing his Haas off the track.

Magnussen bemoaned Verstappen’s driving; while Martin Brundle interpreted the move as legitimate (indeed, he essentially suggested that Magnussen “man up”). As in Spa, the uneven application of penalties does nothing to improve entertainment value. For the drivers, too, it can’t be easy to push the limits if the stewards change the limits from race to race.

Formula farce
Perez qualified 11th but started 10th, while Hamilton was the only driver to start in the position he qualified in after grid penalties rippled through the pitlane. Grid penalties have reached the level of farce that is confusing for fans and demoralising for the teams and drivers.

Indeed, let us consider a case from recent history to underscore the absurdity. Hamilton officially broke Michael Schumacher’s outright record of pole positions in F1 at Monza. But Schumacher, as many fans will remember, put his Mercedes on pole in Monaco in 2012, only to be stripped of it due to a grid penalty. History really should reflect outright speed during qualifying and reward whomever qualifies first with first. Ditto for any other place on the grid.

It’s time to revisit the manner in which penalties are implemented before penalties rob fans of the spectacle to an even greater extent. Hopefully, however, it won’t get much worse than Monza.

Richard F Rose