Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Monza, 2021

How can Hamilton break through the wall of papaya to hunt down Verstappen?

2021 Italian Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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Max Verstappen has unexpectedly taken pole position for the Italian Grand Prix after his championship rival slipped up at the start of Saturday’s sprint qualifying race.

A tiny, two-millimetre misjudgement with his clutch was enough to cost Lewis Hamilton three places at the start, putting him at a disadvantage going into Sunday’s main event.

With two McLarens between the title contenders and the back-of-the-grid starts for the rapid Valtteri Bottas (engine change penalty) and Pierre Gasly (crash), a somewhat shaken-up grid adds to the intrigue ahead of F1’s fastest race.

Hamilton has ended up stuck behind a McLaren before – in Austria, Norris held him off for multiple laps at the start before being ceding to the Mercedes out of a desire to avoid spoiling his own race. Two McLarens, at a track they know is their best chance of a win for possibly the whole season, is literally double the trouble for the reigning champion.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, Monza, 2021
Two McLarens separate Hamilton from Verstappen
Unless Norris and Ricciardo decide to let Hamilton through in order to ensure a strong finish for the team – and bank a useful points haul over championship rivals Ferrari – then Hamilton faces a wall of papaya between himself and the Red Bull he must beat.

That works in Verstappen’s favour – Hamilton couldn’t pass Norris in sprint qualifying, despite the McLaren driver having soft tyres which were expected to degrade quickly over 18 laps. They didn’t, no doubt partly thanks to the early appearance of the Safety Car.

McLaren have the advantage of being able to work together to cover off Verstappen or Hamilton, neither of who can count on the assistance of their team mates, at least not to begin with. While the final starting grid has yet to be finalised, Bottas will be at the back and Sergio Perez lines up ninth again having failed to make any gains in the sprint qualifying race.

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Saturday’s race showed Monza is not kind to anyone trying to overtake. Although tyre degradation in the race may offer more opportunities, Norris and Ricciardo didn’t seem to be suffering badly with pace after eighteen laps on soft tyres – something that Red Bull team principal commented on after the session, saying the McLarens had proven that soft starting tyres could be a good strategy.

Pierre Gasly, Robert Kubica, Monza, 2021
Gasly reckons passing will be very tough
On the other hand, cars run with about a third of the fuel they would be loaded with for a full grand prix, during the shorter sprint session. That particularly flatters the McLaren, which comes alive as fuel burns off and which has made their race starts considerably less impressive on pace, compared to the front-runners.

That might not be the only reason Hamilton could not pass Norris during the sprint session. As Horner also noted that the Mercedes cars appeared to be struggling with electrical deployment, de-rating at the end of the straights, robbing them of the power advantage they enjoyed over flying laps in qualifying.

Passing will be a frustration for most drivers. Pierre Gasly watched sprint qualifying largely from the sidelines after crashing on the first lap. His analysis of the chance of overtaking was fairly bleak – at all ends of the field.

“We know it’s going to be very difficult and that’s the only thing I looked at today,” Gasly said. “Obviously, out of the track, I could see a Lewis really struggle, [he] could not pass Lando. Same [with] the Alpines and the Aston Martins – they were really close for many laps but still no overtaking.”

That’s a particular problem for Gasly – and Bottas, both starting from the back. “We know it’s going to be extremely difficult to come back,” last year’s Italian Grand Prix winner said. “At the end of the day, whether you finish P18, P11, P15 it’s the same, it doesn’t mean anything. So we need to try everything to at least score a point here.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Monza, 2021
A soft tyre gamble may not help Hamilton
The sprint qualifying race has changed the complexion of the grand prix in one further significant way: The drivers all have free choice of tyres, and McLaren’s bold decision to start on softs may prompt some of them to try the same.

On the face of it this would seem like a natural decision for Hamilton: It could increase his chance of passing a McLaren at the start, and he’s likely to pit aggressively early anyway to get onto fresher tyres sooner and bank the lap time advantage in an effort to get ahead, so their shorter life span is less of a concern. The problem is Mercedes have tended to be less competitive on the softs relative to their rivals.

But Hamilton has had a sub-par weekend so far, losing out to his team mate in qualifying and wheel-spinning away what was a clear shot at pole position in the sprint qualifying race. If he’s going to claw back some of Verstappen’s points advantage on Sunday he needs to produce something special.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Over to you

Who is your tip for victory in the Italian Grand Prix? Can McLaren get both their cars on the podium? And what about the fast drivers starting at the back?

Share your views on the Italian Grand Prix in the comments.

2021 Italian Grand Prix

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    Hazel Southwell
    Hazel is a motorsport and automotive journalist with a particular interest in hybrid systems, electrification, batteries and new fuel technologies....

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    35 comments on “How can Hamilton break through the wall of papaya to hunt down Verstappen?”

    1. By starting fast enough to avoid being lapped by Nikita. Also avoiding a trademark Merc 90-hour pitstop

      1. Toto probably already visited mclaren to offer a better engine deal under “conditions”.

    2. Well, if Horner is right, then they need to sort out the derating. I wonder if Bottas had the same issue, but it didn’t matter because he didn’t have to overtake anyone? I also wonder if you are allowed to change the harvesting mappings in parc ferme conditions. Of course, if this year’s Mercedes simply can’t harvest enough over the Monza lap to be competitive, then they are screwed anyway.

    3. Honestly, he can’t. We’ve literally just watched what will happen in the main race. The only realistic chance of an overtake is into T1, but as both are on low downforce and have the same engine that won’t happen. I don’t see both Norris and Ricciardo making mistakes which let Hamilton by, so if it’s going to happen then It’ll be done in the pitstops by which time Verstappen will be long gone. He pulled 15 seconds on the Mclarens today in just 14 laps.

      Such a shame McLaren have such poor race pace compared to the RedBull and Bottas is starting last. The races really lose something when there’s zero challenge for the lead.

      1. I’m afraid this will be a perfect opportunity for the pole starter to start fast, then extend lead to a nice buffer gap and then save tires. Game over

        1. All should be fairly possible if Merc takes the risk and start on softs, both Red Bull and McLaren have no new softs available to them. The extra grip should give him and advantage at the start to jump one or two cars off the line IF his start is ideal. After this it will be strategically possible to undercut the race leader.

    4. Lewis should just take an engine penalty tomorrow. Take an L now and hope to make it up later.

      1. RandomMallard (@)
        12th September 2021, 7:37

        @ppzzus If there is anywhere left on the (provisional) calendar where either Hamilton or Max should take a penalty, it’s probably Austin. You can certainly overtake there and starting last can still put you in a podium-challenging position (see Verstappen in 2017 and 2018). I don’t think here is a great place to do it because they’ll struggle to get back to the top of the field, which that is very much possible at some other circuits (like COTA, possibly Turkey, although I don’t really know because we haven’t had a dry race on 10 years)

    5. McLaren have a genuine shot at the win if they both get a good start and through the 1st chicane cleanly.

      Verstappen is there on ‘pole’ solely because he got a brilliant double tow on his quick lap on Friday, Hamilton made a bit of a mess of the sprint start and Bottas has the engine penalty. He has lucked out.

      The McLarens in clear air have a solid pace advantage over the Red Bull. Throw in a tow and…. Goodbye. If Hamilton doesn’t get past them almost immediately, he’s in for a long afternoon of trying.

      The McLarens have the straight line speed, are both up there so can work together and can honestly see them picking off Max pretty quickly, Hamilton and Verstappen ending up in a battle that allows the 2 Papaya’s to just drive away and get out of DRS.

      1. Maybe, maybe not. Yesterday Verstappen just pulled away from the McLarens. Perhaps Ricciardo was just managing the tyres, but if Verstappen was able to pull away on harder tyres without Ricciardo just conserving his tyres, then I doubt they’ll be able to keep up with him. However, if they get in front at the start, as you said they have great straight line speed and will be arguably the hardest cars to pass tomorrow.

      2. @mrcento The McLarens in clear air have a solid pace advantage over the Red Bull?
        The opposite actually, as Sprint showed. A win would require extraordinary circumstances.

        1. @jerejj I agree that red bull (well, Verstappen) has a pace advantage over the mclarens, but I think it won’t require too extraordinary circumstances.

          Given the Mercedes pace this weekend, if Hamilton couldn’t get past Norris then I doubt Verstappen would just breeze past. If McLaren get lucky at the start and force Verstappen wide and sieze a 1-2, it’ll be hard for Max to overtake both. Maybe one in the pitstops is doable but both would be a challenge.

      3. Verstappen pulled a big gap from the McLarens in the sprint race.

      4. This is incredibly optimistic

        1. Pessimistic is the right word :)
          But it shows your subjectivity, so that’s something I guess. M

    6. HAM can overtake at Monza. Just look at what he did last year.

      1. @kichi-leung Although the Mercedes is the fastest car this weekend, it doesn’t have a 1.5 second advantage over the field like last year.

    7. Who is your tip for victory in the Italian Grand Prix? VER
      Can McLaren get both their cars on the podium? No
      And what about the fast drivers starting at the back? Possibly around P5-P7 for BOT and P10 for GAS.
      This depends on how fast they can get by slower cars.

      1. HAM has got the pace to win the race. I am a max fan but i can see Hamilton passing us around lap 35 .He will easily pass Norris and same to Daniel since Monza is like Silverstone to him if he starts on the soft tyres. also i see some mess happening in turn one taking out a McLaren or max unless max gets a good start. Anyway we hope MAX wins.

        1. Same thought, Merc should have the balls to start on the softs and switch later on to the hards or the mediums. McLaren and Red Bull both have no new softs left

          1. Agreed, but that would take some serious gamble for the merc strategy. And most of the time they screw up under pressure. M

    8. The crucial issue for Verstappen is the launch at the start. If McLaren split their strategies I would put Norris on softs and Ricciardo on mediums. Norris would be better able to contain Hamilton and Ricciardo would fill the whole between Norris and Verstappen.

      Mclaren will go for the podium, for sure they want to win but they know there is margin that RedBull has in race trim. If they cover Verstappen and Hamilton in pitstops with both cars there is no reason to have at least one car on the podium. In that scenario McLaren will come home with a serious amount of points.

    9. He just needs a good start, take atleast one McLaren and all he needs is McLaren quik enough to pass the Red Bull, from there it’s his fight to lose because he just needs to finish in front of Max. “Unless Norris and Ricciardo decide to let Hamilton through in order to ensure a strong finish for the team” is a pie in the sky, why not try pinch water and see if it flinches. . .

      1. Unfortunately to many ifs and buts.

      2. The start is crucial for him indeed, but it looked fairly tricky for cars starting on the dirty side. We’ll see, but with the Merc pace advantage, anything is possible.

    10. Ricciardo didn’t seem to be suffering badly with pace after eighteen laps on soft tyres

      I suspect by running approximately a second off the pace to actually put any pressure on the tyres helped preserve them.

      Unfortunately the same or worse will probably happen in the GP.

      1. And do not forget it was not 18 laps. The sc took away about 3 laps in tire degradation.

    11. Like pointed out, McLaren is not so good on heavy fuel, but they will likely start with softs again, so at least they might get the start.

      But if Hamilton gets past one McLaren at the start, it’s just a matter of undercutting the second and with a 0.5s advantage over Verstappen he’ll surely be there at the end or before as the risk of safety car or red flag is big. Getting past is however another matter and could be fatal as Verstappen will make sure it’s Hamilton on the outside this time..

      1. Heavy retribution is long overdue

    12. The big question mark in all this is probably Norris. Ricciardo will be keen to pass Verstappen if he can, but he’s long overdue a good result and will probably not do something too risky. Norris on the other hand has a genuine shot at his first win and if he can challenge Verstappen on lap 1 he’s sure to do it – knowing that Verstappen has a lot to lose championship-wise.

      Hamilton’s best play is probably to try to get one McLaren, but if he can’t, hang back a bit, see how Verstappen handles the McLarens and let it come to him. Their pace is still very strong and he should be able to get by both McLarens throughout the normal course of the race. Best case for him is probably a McLaren taking first and the start, denying Verstappen the chance to build a gap in the first stint.

      1. Max won’t have to handle the McLarens except for turn 1. Did you not see how far behind Daniel was after just 15 laps?

    13. Max is the overwhelming favourite.

      The narrative that he has had the best car this year is understated. But even better, he has grasped the opportunity with both hands.

      1. The best and by far the fastest car in monza is Mercedes.
        Strange you missed that detail.

        1. But only in the qualifying and not when following a car of similar straight line speed.

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