No one circuit encapsulates everything that Formula 1 stands for as poetically as Monza does.
The venue has held the more world championship grands prix than any other. Almost every driver and car to have ever competed in the sport has flown flat-out down its straights. Every single world champion has lined up on its iconic starting grid.
Monza has blessed many drivers with their greatest ever triumphs. For others, their most stinging defeats. And for some, it’s been the setting for their final moments.
The hallowed Italian circuit is intrinsically woven into the fabric of the sport’s history. In 2020, Monza saw not just the closing of one of Formula 1’s most remarkable chapters, but also a result that will be celebrated long after its protagonists have departed.
Qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix had produced a front row so predictable, you could have set your watch by it.
Hamilton and Bottas had both traded the honour of breaking the record for the fastest ever lap in Formula 1 by average speed. For the third consecutive race weekend, Hamilton prevailed to add yet another pole position to his tally of 94 and made any chatter over the new engine mode restrictions for the weekend feel almost ludicrous in retrospect.
“Overall we have lost very little qualifying performance but gained a lot of performance in the race,” explained Toto Wolff, ominously. “We can run the engine much harder in the race.”
An average lap speed of 264kph translated to a gap of eight tenths of a second between the two Mercedes and third place on the grid. Except, this time, it wasn’t the Red Bull of Max Verstappen who would be lining up behind them.
Instead, it was Carlos Sainz Jnr’s McLaren which took third on the grid after he admitted he threw caution to the wind to equal the best qualifying performance of his career.
“I’m actually shaking a bit, because I really had to go for it through Ascari and Parabolica,” Sainz said. It wouldn’t be the only time Sainz was left fuelled with adrenaline in the car.
The only thing Monza is renowned for more than its eye-watering top speeds is in how it is the spiritual home for Ferrari and their devout Italian following.
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The Scuderia’s struggles in 2020 have paled in comparison to the unthinkable tragedies the proud citizens and front line workers of Italy had faced throughout the devastating coronavirus pandemic. But if the Tifosi had been hoping that Ferrari would bounce back from a race weekend in Belgium where they had looked simply lost, their faith would not have been restored by a Saturday at Monza that saw Sebastian Vettel unable to progress through Q1 and Leclerc powerless to challenge for the top ten.
It would be the worst starting positions for Ferrari at their spiritual home in decades. Surely their fortunes would change on Sunday?
While Monza may have seemed a fitting final stage on which Sir Frank and Claire Williams were to bow out from the team that proudly bears their name, the low downforce nature of the circuit sadly did not suit their final car.
Being rooted to the back row may not have been entirely unexpected, it betrayed the Williams name’s proud legacy of 43 years, 740 races, 114 wins and nine constructors’ championships.
Before the team begins its transition to new ownership under investment group Dorilton, the Williams family prepared to go racing together one final time.
As the grid formed ahead of the start of the Italian Grand Prix, there was little to suggest that this would be anything other than yet another afternoon cruise for Hamilton on his seemingly unstoppable charge to an inevitable seventh title.
Saturday’s slipstreaming shenanigans had shown that this current generation of F1 cars – the fastest ever to have graced a race track – benefit more from a ‘tow’ than many before them. Perhaps that would prove the vital ingredient to spice up the lacklustre racing we’ve seen so often in 2020.
As the cars lined up on the grid for what was supposed to be the only time that afternoon, Bottas was looking to finally get the jump on his team mate at the getaway and take the fight to Hamilton ahead. But his opportunity disappeared before the five lights had even gone out.
Just as in Hungary weeks before, an error at the start proved to be his undoing.
“I nearly went before the lights,” he later explained, “but luckily not as much as [Hungary]. Then for the actual start I was a bit late.”
Bottas’s mistake not only cost him his chance of beating Hamilton to the Rettifilo chicane, but allowed the two McLarens of Sainz and Lando Norris to swamp him as the field charged down the straight for the first time.
Sainz was through easily, but Bottas was able to hold off Norris until the McLaren driver bullied past him around the outside of the Roggia chicane, the pair touching along the way.
Bottas was convinced he’d suffered a puncture, later describing how he felt the car pulling to one side through the Lesmos. By the time the Mercedes driver had reached Ascari for the first time, he’d been demoted to sixth by Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo.
Easy afternoon for Hamilton, then.
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At the back of the field, Kevin Magnussen was forced to pit for a new front wing after contact on the opening lap. This promoted George Russell to 18th, behind Vettel’s Ferrari, which had failed to make any ground from its lowly starting position.
Following behind the Ferrari, Russell spotted that something was not right with the car ahead.
“Vettel is smoking from behind,” the Williams driver warned the team over radio. “I’m not sure if he’s dropping oil or not.”
It took only one more corner for Russell to diagnose what would be a race-ending issue for the Ferrari. “Vettel’s rear-left is on fire,” he reported back. “He needs to box.”
Unfortunately for Vettel, Ferrari did not bring him in. At the beginning of lap six, Russell had a front-row view of Vettel’s brake failure, which sent the Ferrari hurtling down the run-off at Rettifilo and obliterating the polystyrene boards sitting there on its way to retirement.
It capped off a dismal weekend in a dismal final season with Ferrari for Vettel. “I think it’s probably a blessing that there’s nobody in the stands,” he summed up succinctly.
With no other Mercedes to keep him company, Hamilton began to stretch his legs out front, setting fastest laps as he pulled out a gap to Sainz behind.
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Norris briefly came under modest pressure from Perez over third, but now a DRS train was forming with Perez, Ricciardo, Bottas and Verstappen all pulling each other along down Monza’s long straights.
“Even with the DRS open, I’m not gaining a lot,” Verstappen told his team. Surprisingly, Bottas ahead appeared unable to challenge Ricciardo for fifth despite having all the benefits of driving a Mercedes at his disposal.
At this stage of the race, the eventual winner of the Italian Grand Prix was sat in 10th place.
Monza is perennially a one-stop race. Low tyre wear means none of the top 10 starters had wavered from the conventional strategy of soft tyres from qualifying before pitting just before half distance for their single mandatory stops.
As the field entered the early window for the stops, Hamilton had a gap of 11 seconds to Sainz with Norris backing up McLaren’s strong performance in third.
In the midst of the relatively compact midfield, a few drivers looked to take advantage of clear air by pitting early. Nicholas Latifi, Charles Leclerc and Kimi Raikkonen all opted for an earlier switch to hard tyres and each found plenty of space to themselves when they rejoined the track.
And then, a simple radio message became the catalyst for one of the most dramatic chain of events Formula 1 has seen in years.
“Oh. Something broke.”
Magnussen had slowed to a crawl in his Haas after his Ferrari power unit had decided it no longer wished to suffer the indignity of circulating in last place at Monza.
He tried to limp back to the pit lane but as he rounded the Parabolica his team instructed him to pull up immediately. He stopped at a marshal’s post less than 100 metres from the pit entry line.
Just 20 seconds elapsed between the first yellow flag flying for the stricken Haas off track and tenth-placed Pierre Gasly entering the pit lane.
That was all the time AlphaTauri had to decide to call their driver in for an opportunistic early stop. It would ultimately prove to have been a race-winning decision. Gasly headed out on a set of hard tyres while marshals attended to Magnussen’s car.
This was the moment that made Gasly’s race. “Strategy-wise, the team did a fantastic job in deciding to bring him in one lap before the safety car was deployed,” said AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost later. “Of course, we didn’t know this at that time, but at the end this was exactly the right call.”
Meanwhile, back at the front, Hamilton was barrelling down towards Parabolica when the safety car lights began to flash both on the steering wheel of his W11 and on the track-side LED boards.
On the Mercedes pit wall, any question over whether to pit the race leader had now been answered. Hamilton was told to box, while the Mercedes mechanics rushed to the pits with a set of hard tyres, Hamilton came on the radio saying he wanted mediums, but he was seconds away from the pit lane entrance and there wasn’t time to swap them.
Unfortunately for Mercedes, in their haste not to miss an opportunity for a quick pit stop under the Safety Car, they overlooked the crucial ‘pit lane is closed’ message which had just flashed up on one page of their timing screens.
“Everybody on the pit lane, including myself, we were looking at this situation,” Toto Wolff later explained. “Nobody looks at page four that the plane is closed. We can’t see the signs.”
But at the virtual garage in their Brackley base, someone had noticed and tried to warn them. “Back home, one of the strategists just shouted into the radio whilst we were entering the pit lane,” said Wolff. “And there was confusion because you prepare yourself for a pit stop to make it good.”
Mercedes told Hamilton not to come in, but it was too late. He’d crossed the pit lane entry line four seconds earlier.
Despite the instruction from race control and despite Hamilton passing two separate marshals’ posts flashing red crosses indicating the pit lane was closed, Hamilton duly pitted to rid himself of the soft tyres, resuming behind Sainz in second.
Everyone else had appeared to have picked up on the message, however. Apart for Alfa Romeo, who pitted Antonio Giovinazzi from 15th place.
With the field forced to stay out where they usually would have flooded the pit lane, the reality that they had missed something significant began to dawn on Mercedes.
Magnussen’s Haas was eventually cleared and the pit lane opened at the end of lap 22, leading to a frenzy of activity.
With Norris aware his chances of a podium could be lost double-stacking behind team mate Sainz, the McLaren driver backed off to leave enough of a gap to allow him to slot into his pit box without being held up. The stewards investigated Norris for driving unnecessarily slowly while under safety car, but no action was taken, to the surprise of Perez who followed him in.
In the scramble, Sainz rejoined ahead of Norris with Bottas jumping both Perez and Ricciardo – much to the frustration of the Racing Point driver. Having stayed out, Lance Stroll now found himself in second place, with Gasly having remarkably jumped up to third having timed his stop to perfection.
Giovinazzi and Raikkonen were up to fourth and fifth in the Alfa Romeos, with Leclerc and Latifi sixth and seventh. All of whom did not need to stop again.
Hamilton sprinted back into the lead at the restart on lap 24, leading Stroll, Gasly and Leclerc – who had somehow managed to jump both Alfa Romeos on the run down to Rettifilo.
But rounding the Parabolica, Leclerc’s Ferrari suddenly broke traction under throttle. He tried to catch it, but over-corrected. Once the tyres found grip, he was aiming directly for the outside tyre barrier.
Skating over the shallow gravel trap, Leclerc slammed into the tyre barriers at almost unabated speed.
It was an alarming shunt and there was little surprise when the Safety Car was immediately redeployed. After catching his breath, Leclerc climbed from his destroyed Ferrari in some discomfort but ultimately unhurt. It was the end of the most difficult Monza weekend for Ferrari in decades.
“I just lost the rear and didn’t catch it,” explained Leclerc. “It was my mistake.”
With the tyre barrier now in need of significant reconstruction, the race was red flagged. The field returned to the pit lane for what was, effectively, a half-time intermission.
Hamilton may have seemed in complete control of the race, but a sense of dread over their future had very much set in after race control confirmed that both he and Giovinazzi were under investigation for pitting illegally.
“I’m just trying to understand, there was no light on the entry to the pit lane,” pleaded Hamilton over the radio.
“Lewis, it’s not the light on the entry to the pit lane,” came the reply. “It’s the light on the left-hand side of the normal panels.”
Onboard footage from the championship leader confirmed that Hamilton had passed not one, but two ‘pit lane closed’ signals from Parabolica before his entrance to the pits. They had been officially closed for 12 seconds before the Mercedes had crossed the pit lane entry line.
Hamilton hopped out of his leading Mercedes and onto a scooter to raise the matter with the stewards. But, according to race director Michael Masi, once Hamilton saw the onboard video he accepted the decision. He would have to take a compulsory 10-second stop-go penalty when the race restarted.
Having successfully followed the regulations, the pack behind were now staring at the best opportunity they would ever have to fight for a potential race victory over a 26 lap sprint.
With teams permitted to change tyres under the red flag, the fates had granted Stroll a free pit stop. Forget about strategies: Stroll was effectively now in the lead of the race, with Gasly, Raikkonen and Giovinazzi now the top four – albeit with a penalty looming for the latter.
After sitting in a strong second all race, Sainz cursed the luck of his rivals ahead having pitted under the first safety car.
“Lucky, lucky bastards,” he fumed over the radio after realising he now had to fight his way past at least three cars to take this most golden opportunity to win.
But the restart did give Sainz the chance to wield the McLaren’s superb starting performance again, as the field return to the grid for the day’s second start. It was the first time in almost two decades one race had two standing starts.
It was a unique circumstance that left drivers clambering to prepare their minds, cars and tyres for a second mad dash down to Rettifilo for that afternoon.
For the second start, Hamilton and Stroll shared the front row, as they had three years earlier. The five red lights illuminated and extinguished once more, and the Mercedes driver held his advantage.
But the golden race-winning opportunity the red flag period handed Stroll vanished within second of the restart. He found no traction in his Racing Point and bogged down, allowing Gasly and the two Alfa Romeos to sweep by him on the run to the chicane.
Raikkonen had a look at the AlphaTauri into the Roggia, but was rebuffed. Behind, Stroll had Giovinazzi to his inside and locked up severely, forcing him to take to the escape road where he was soon swallowed up by Sainz. With a bold move around the outside into Ascari, Stroll repassed the McLaren to move into fourth.
With Mercedes keen to avoid losing out to yet another safety car, Hamilton peeled into the pit lane as the field completed the first lap of the restart. Hamilton was distinctly displeased to rejoin 23 seconds adrift from everyone else. “That’s some bullshit,” he grumbled.
The bizarre reality was that Gasly was now unequivocally the leader of the Italian Grand Prix. With no pit strategy to play out, the AlphaTauri was now the car that everyone else had to beat.
Behind Gasly were the two Alfa Romeos, which became one when Giovinazzi dived into the pits to take his penalty at the end of lap 30. He was soon followed by Verstappen’s Red Bull, but for completely different reasons.
“The fucking engine is hot, mate,” fumed Verstappen, the standing restart apparently playing havoc with the temperature of his Honda power unit. “It’s not working. It’s fucked.”
Red Bull kept their man on standby as they tried to work out a solution, but called Verstappen in for retirement as he rounded the Parabolica. “Fucking joke” he fumed as he parked up for the second time this year, missing a huge opportunity to out-score the Mercedes drivers.
Out front, Gasly was pulling away from Raikkonen’s second-placed Alfa Romeo. Sainz had not spent long behind Stroll, passing the Racing Point into Rettifilo to retake fourth on the second green flag lap.
By lap 34, the McLaren driver was now well within DRS range of Raikkonen. “Carlos, you can be patient with Raikkonen, you can be patient,” his race engineer urged.
But Sainz’s focus was on the race leader. “I’m worried about Gasly,” he replied, before diving down the outside of Raikkonen into Rettifilo and taking second place. Now, there was nothing separating him from Gasly and a chance at his first grand prix victory.
Despite Raikkonen’s best efforts, the Alfa Romeo’s lack of performance saw him slowly fall down the field as car after car cruised up behind him before dispatching him soon after.
Raikkonen’s fortunes were in stark contrast to Hamilton’s behind, who had eaten up the 23 second gap to the pack to find himself behind Alexander Albon in the sole remaining Red Bull by lap 37. After a handful of laps sat in Albon’s dirty air, Hamilton passed the Red Bull on lap 40 to begin a gauntlet of backmarkers as he fought to salvage any points he could.
Even with the impressive pace Sainz had shown all weekend, the McLaren was sitting just under three seconds away from leader Gasly. “Getting a bit of dirty air now,” Sainz reported.
With Stroll seemingly unable to offer any challenge ahead, the Italian Grand Prix was now a straight fight between Gasly and Sainz to decide who would take a stunning maiden grand prix victory.
Gasly was demonstrating immense poise under growing pressure. Keeping things smooth at the wheel and heeding the advice from his team on when to use his overtake button to most effectively prevent Sainz from breaching his DRS range.
While the nerves in the AlphaTauri garage only grew as the laps ticked down, Gasly continued to hold his.
Ten laps to go – 2.2 seconds.
Five laps to go – 1.4 seconds.
Three laps to go – 1.5 seconds.
Final lap – 0.8 seconds.
The final 5.7 kilometres must have felt the longest of Gasly’s career. Sainz was finally within DRS range and was desperately looking for any opportunity to make a last lap lunge, but none came. No matter how hard Sainz had pushed, Gasly had somehow kept the AlphaTauri out of reach.
Even as he exited the Parabolica for the 53rd and last time, it didn’t seem real. At a circuit where his Faenza-based team had enjoyed a famous victory as Toro Rosso 12 years prior, Pierre Gasly had written his own name into the history books with a similarly stunning result.
As Gasly crossed the line, it meant more to him than just a victory. The release of emotion that followed reflected a tumultuous 18 months of professional and personal heartbreak. From losing his drive at Red Bull Racing to losing his dear friend Anthoine Hubert and having countless personal possessions taken from his home in a burglary just last month, in this moment of triumph, he erupted.
“Oh my god!”, he exclaimed, voice shaking. “What did we just do? We won the fucking race!”
The Formula 1 world had forgotten what it looks like for a team which wasn’t Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull to win a race. It hadn’t happened since the V6 hybrid turbo era began six years ago.
“Honestly, it’s unbelievable,” described a stunned Gasly in parc ferme. “I’m not sure I’m realising what’s happening right now.
“’I’ve been through so much in the space of 18 months. This team has done so much for me. They gave me my first opportunity in F1, they gave me my first podium, now they’ve given me my first win. It’s crazy, honestly. I’m so happy.”
Even Gasly’s compatriot Romain Grosjean could not hide his joy after Haas informed him that Gasly had taken the chequered flag first. “Ho ho, yes boy!” Grosjean exclaimed. “Fantastic, Pierre! It was 1996, the last French win.”
On any other day, Sainz would have been elated to finish second. As it turned out, his career-best finish in Formula 1 would also prove to be his most gut-wrenching.
“I know you wanted the win, but you’re P2 buddy,” Sainz was consoled by his engineer after he had crossed the line.
“I don’t know what I have to do not to cry,” lamented Sainz. “So close, yet so far. One more lap. I just needed one more lap.”
Completing the most unlikely podium of the V6 era, Stroll was equally ruing a missed opportunity after bogging down at the restart.
“It’s a bit of a bummer,” he said.”I think it was kind of mine to lose there, restarting from second. I just had no grip at the start and had a tonne of wheelspin and everyone flew by me.”
Norris had claimed fourth for McLaren to move the team into a clear third in the constructors’ championship, although he had perhaps been fortunate that he hadn’t been found guilty of driving too slow under the Safety Car ahead of his solitary stop.
Bottas came home fifth after being unable to capitalise on his team mate’s misfortune. High engine temperatures had apparently forced him to lift and coast frequently throughout the race just to manage them. While this could explain why he seemed to be unable to trouble the cars around him, he was otherwise at a loss to explain his lack of pace.
Despite his pit lane error taking him out of contention, Hamilton managed to recover to seventh by the chequered flag. It had not been a disaster in the greater scheme of the championship picture, but he was unsurprisingly annoyed with how his afternoon had unfolded.
“It feels severe,” he admitted after the race. “I think ultimately a stop and go penalty often, I would imagine, would come if you’ve done something intentional. If you’ve driving dramatically and you put someone in danger, maybe.
“Ultimately it almost put you out of the race, 30 seconds behind the last car. So it’s not the greatest thing for racing.”
In eighth, Esteban Ocon disagreed with his engineer’s initial assessment that it had been a “fantastic job”.
“I disagree,” replied Ocon, who was unimpressed by the team’s failure to prepare the correct tyres for his restart. “I think we missed out completely in this race. There was a massive opportunity.” Any further comments from the Renault driver were quashed by team principal Cyril Abiteboul, warning him to save it for the debrief.
While the paddock was jubilant, basking in the rare occasion of a surprise first-time winner, there was a note of poignant sadness too.
In the final race with the family that founded them, Williams had successfully seen both cars to the end, with Nicholas Latifi painfully close to marking the moment with a points finish by crossing the line 11th.
It had not been the way Sir Frank Williams would have envisioned his long tenure in Formula 1 reaching its end, but George Russell paid an eloquent tribute to one of the sport’s all-time icons as he cruised back to the pits.
“I’d just like to take this opportunity to say to Claire and to Frank – thank you so much for everything you’ve done,” he said. “For me and for the whole team.
“It’s going to be a shame to see you leave. We’ll miss you a lot. Just thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”
Latifi concurred: “I’m going to miss you. F1 is going to miss you. Just know that we’re going to be pushing one-hundred-percent to bring the Williams name back to where it belongs.”
But as one illustrious chapter in the history of the sport had closed at Monza, we were perhaps given a tantalising glimpse into what lies in its future.
As a stunned Gasly sat on the top step of the podium, looking down the asphalt that should’ve been filled with fans and flares saluting him, the enormity of his achievement may have slowly began to sink in.
Monza had blessed the young blood. Just as it had heralded the coming of the Vettel era on that day in 2008, perhaps it had bestowed a promise of tomorrow upon Gasly, Sainz, Stroll and Norris.
The Italian Grand Prix had produced a race that would once again go down in history. It was a day for youth. It was a day for Gasly and AlphaTauri. And it was a day where Formula 1 had delivered one of the all-time best redemption stories in sport.