Although historians and statisticians may have objections and interjections about exactly how many drivers have ever competed in a grand prix since 1950, almost 800 people have taken the start in at least one round of the Formula 1 world championship.Max Verstappen, the driver of car number one, had the rarest opportunity to put himself in a class of one by winning an unprecedented tenth consecutive grand prix.
Yet, if there was any venue on the calendar where Verstappen and Red Bull could be most at risk of seeing their historic runs come to an end, it was Monza.
Infamously, the Italian Grand Prix had been where the all-conquering McLaren team’s hopes of F1’s first ever perfect season were dramatically dashed back in 1988. The team who capitalised on McLaren’s misfortunes? Ferrari.
So when Carlos Sainz Jnr converted the impressive pace he had shown throughout practice into pole position at the end of a thrilling Saturday qualifying session, who could blame the scores of scarlet clad Ferrari fans for dreaming that Verstappen’s streak could well fall by Ferrari’s hand at the one circuit that means more to the Scuderia than all others.
Before Sainz and Ferrari could dare think about beating Verstappen to the chequered flag, they had the more immediate concern of beating him down to the first corner. The last time Verstappen had started second on the grid – alongside Lewis Hamilton in Hungary – he saw off the Mercedes before having to even hit the brake pedal for the first corner. At Monza, that run to turn one would be even longer and the stop when they arrived there would be far harder. But this was Ferrari and this was Monza – Sainz had far more than his own honour to defend on this day.
As Sainz sat on the grid, his eyes trained on the lights above him on the gantry, he was poised and ready for the most important start, arguably, of his F1 career. But approaching the final corner of Alboreto, known by so many as the Parabolica, Yuki Tsunoda’s race had ended before it had even begun, his AlphaTauri smoking at the side of the circuit.
“Just be ready in case there’s an extra formation lap,” the pole winner was warned by engineer Riccardo Adami. “I’ll let you know. Focus on the lights.”
As he did, they did not begin to turn on in sequence but instead start flashing on and off, signalling that race control had no plans to send 19 cars charging into the first corner while marshals were busy attending to a stricken car later around the lap. But whether by instinct or error, Sainz immediately pulled away, before being shown the green light – perhaps reflective of his limited experience being on pole compared to the man alongside him.
“There was no green light yet – they went,” Verstappen reported, refusing to leave his grid slot until the green lights had finally appeared overhead.
“Okay, so Ferrari caused this,” Red Bull sporting director Jonathan Wheatley interjected. “It is now an extra formation lap. So race distance reduced by one lap.”
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By the time the field were approaching the Alboreto corner with Tsunoda’s car still stranded trackside, drivers were already being warned they would not be starting this time by either. Eventually, 20 minutes after they had all left the grid for the first time, the pack finally lined up in their gird slots for the race to, at last, get underway.
When the five red lights cycled on and disappeared just one second later, Sainz and Verstappen both leapt off the line equally as well as each other. For almost 800 metres, Verstappen stalked Sainz down the straight before settling into second place for the tightest, clunkiest first corner on the calendar.
But despite the impossibly tight sequence, all 19 drivers successfully navigated the two turns without a single car taking to the escape road or cutting over the kerbs. As they charged around Curva Grande for the first time at racing speed the top five remained in the order they had been on the grid, with Sainz leading Verstappen, Charles Leclerc in third, George Russell in fourth and Sergio Perez fifth.
If Sainz had any hope of somehow escaping an afternoon of almost relentless pressure, that would have vanished at the end of the first lap with Verstappen well under a second behind him. All of the top ten runners, bar Lewis Hamilton in ninth, had taken the medium tyre compound for the opening stint. With the race sure to be won on pace, not strategy, Sainz had to push to try and somehow get Verstappen out of his DRS range.
Heading out of the Lesmos on the second lap, Sainz was crucially 1.08 seconds ahead of the Red Bull. But the organic slipstream that Verstappen was getting from the Ferrari down the straights was enough for him to be just three or four kilometres-per-hour faster than Sainz, allowing him to get the gap under a second by the time DRS was activated at the start of lap three.
With the ability to use his rear wing, Verstappen’s straight line advantage grew to as much as 15kph over the Ferrari. But Verstappen could quickly tell that Ferrari’s difficulties with tyre degradation would soon give him another advantage over Sainz.
“He’s already sliding a bit,” Verstappen observed. “So all good.”
The world champion appeared content to play a patient game, not forcing an opportunity to pass Sainz but instead allowing one to present itself to him. It did so at the end of lap five, with Verstappen sitting just four tenths behind as he hit the DRS button along the pit straight. He ate up the asphalt between them and as Sainz covered the inside into Rettifilo, Verstappen stayed left, only to have to back out as the pair turned into the second part of the narrow chicane.
“Bide your time,” Verstappen’s race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase urged him. “It’s a matter of time, Max. Be sensible – don’t lose time to Leclerc.”
Verstappen heeded the wise voice in his ear, aware that the second Ferrari was well within a second of him behind and just as eager to force his way by as he was to dispatch Sainz ahead. For the next nine laps, Sainz continued to lead the Red Bull driver as Verstappen alternated between power unit modes, seeking that fine balance between energy preservation and deployment. But as the stint progressed, Sainz’s efforts to bridge a gap to the Red Bull were taking a toll.
“I felt like I had fairly under control but then around lap 10 to 12, I started feeling the rear-left tyre giving up a lot – like a lot earlier than I would have expected,” Sainz later explained. “At that point, I realised I had used my tyres too much… and that I was going to suffer a lot for the rest of the race.”
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Sainz’s lap times dropped from low to high 1’26s, while Leclerc in the second Ferrari had also fallen more than a second adrift of Verstappen. The pressure on the Ferraris was building lap-by-lap and it eventually reached a peak when Verstappen got within half a second of the leader at the start of lap 15, hitting 346kph before the pair slammed on the brakes for the first chicane. Despite not having the Red Bull alongside him, Sainz locked up his right-front into the right-hander, forcing him to take a tight line into the left.
For Verstappen, the tyre smoke from the Ferrari ahead was like blood to a shark. He took a much better line through the chicane and powered onto the straight, pulling to the left through Curva Grande and alongside Sainz as they headed into the Della Roggia chicane. At the turn in point, Verstappen was in a much better position and by the time they came out of the chicane, the lead was his for the first time.
“Try to stay close for DRS,” came Adami’s slightly obvious advice. But exactly one lap after losing the lead, Sainz had already lost that vital second to Verstappen, who began to pull more than a second a lap away from him. When Ferrari looked set to bring in Sainz for his sole stop of the afternoon on lap 19, Red Bull were more than content with the 4.5 second lead he had built and saw no need to cover an undercut attempt from the Ferrari. That decision was appeared vindicated when a slight delay on the right-front meant Sainz’s stop lasted over three seconds, increasing Verstappen’s margin.
Verstappen and Leclerc eventually pitted at the end of the following lap, but while Verstappen comfortably resumed in the lead, Leclerc was in with a genuine shout of jumping his team mate. But by the time Leclerc was out of the pit lane and on the track, Sainz was side-by-side with him, sweeping around the outside of turn one to take back second place.
In the laps that followed, Fernando Alonso, Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri all pitted and removed themselves from Verstappen’s way. Eventually, Hamilton assumed the lead, still on his hard tyres he had started the race on, but Verstappen was closing – and quickly.
In the second Red Bull, Perez had successfully passed Russell for fourth place before his stop and pushed hard to close down the Ferraris. He would have been thrilled to return to the track and see both Ferraris right in front of him, meaning he had just under 30 laps in which to find a way past them both to move up behind his team mate.
After multiple laps with the benefit of DRS from his team mate ahead, Leclerc fell out of range on lap 30. That left him even more vulnerable to Perez, his mirrors filled by the matte blue of the Red Bull. Heading out of the first chicane on lap 31, Perez had the momentum and decided through Curva Grande to commit to the outside into the chicane, only for Leclerc to squeeze him at the braking zone as the pair brushed slightly together.
“He’s not giving any space!” protested Perez. But race control had no objections to Leclerc’s conduct and Perez would have to find a way by the Ferrari on track. He eventually did on lap 32, gaining such an advantage out of the final corner he simply drove past Leclerc on the pit straight and into the final podium position.
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Out front, Verstappen’s lead was now over six seconds and growing, despite him actively managing both his fuel load and his hard tyres. Sainz was simply unable to match the Red Bull’s pace ahead, only once lapping faster than Verstappen over the entire second stint, while Perez needed just three laps to take the second out of Sainz he needed to get within DRS range of the Ferrari. But even once he was, it quickly became clear that he would have to work hard to relieve Sainz of second place, with Leclerc behind hanging onto him thanks to having DRS of his own.
Eventually, Perez made his first move on lap 41, but Sainz jealously hogged the inside on the approach to Rettifilo, forcing Perez to move left. Perez did not fancy going side-by-side through the chicane, and backed out, but he knew Sainz was vulnerable.
“Tyres are nearly finished,” Sainz reported. But the next time by the pit straight, he was forced to go defensive a second time, again positioning his car smartly to make Perez have to pass him the hard way. The next lap, Sainz was even more aggressive, moving late to the right to block off the inside with Perez almost thinking of forcing his way through the left hander before thinking better of it and bailing to the inside.
“He’s moving really late on braking,” Perez complained. “He did the same to Max,” Perez’s engineer Hugh Bird replied. “See him off.”
Eventually, after six laps of sustained pressure, Perez finally saw off the Ferrari, wringing every kilowatt from his power unit to clear Sainz before having to even hit the brake pedal for the first chicane. Now Red Bull were running one-two, with Perez quickly escaping out of DRS range of Sainz to put himself into safety.
Verstappen held a 12 second lead over Perez with just a handful of laps remaining. He had lapped the two Haas cars running at the back of the field and was reeling in Gasly as the next car to put a lap down, but as he approached the Alpine, he received an unexpected instruction.
“Max, could you increase the gap to Gasly, please,” Lambiase requested. “Increase gap to Gasly. It’s quite an urgent request.”
Naturally, Verstappen complied, backing off by a full second for his next lap. But that was still not enough for whatever was concerning Red Bull.
“Yeah, if you increase that gap a little bit more, Max. Thank you,” the leader was told.
But while Verstappen was being instructed to slow down, things were beginning to heat up rapidly between the two Ferraris. Leclerc was now as close to his team mate as Perez had been moments earlier and with a chance of a Ferrari victory having gone, all that was left to fight for was the honour of being the Scuderia’s representative on perhaps the most famous podium on the calendar, overlooking the Tifosi. While Leclerc had enjoyed that honour twice before – including as a winner in 2019 – Sainz had only stepped on the Monza podium once before, for McLaren, when no fans were permitted to attend in 2020.
It appeared that Sainz would have to wait longer on lap 47 when Leclerc used DRS along the pit straight to pull alongside and ahead of his team mate. But despite appearing to be in a dominant position entering the Rettifilo, a lock up compromised his line through the chicane, which allowed Sainz to pull back alongside through Curva Grande. Sainz won the resulting drag race to the Roggia chicane, but in their haste to be the one ahead they both missed the corner, Sainz retaining his position ahead of Leclerc.
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Despite both being warned to “take no risks”, the pair were two-abreast the very next time they took the Rettifilo. And the next time. And the time after that. But each time, Sainz was the one to emerge from the corner still ahead of his team mate, almost 10 laps after he had complained to his team that his tyres were already crying enough.
As Ferrari battled, Verstappen was continuing to back off significantly to manage a mysterious ailment by keeping his distance to Gasly ahead of him, being told to “increase the gap to Gasly more if you need to,” despite not being told what reason he needed the gap for to begin with. He was now multiple seconds off his previous pace, allowing Perez to fall under eight seconds to him.
By the final lap, Leclerc knew he realistically had just a final opportunity to beat his team mate to that final podium place. Despite running deep into the final corner on the penultimate lap, Leclerc still had some momentum as they approached the end of the straight. At the last second, Leclerc tried to dummy his team mate into opening a gap to the inside, but Sainz slammed that shut, forcing Leclerc to quickly dart left to avoid him, severely locking his front tyres as he did so.
But while Italian blood pressures were being raised, Verstappen out front was perhaps as comfortable as he had ever been during his historically unstoppable run of wins. Unlike so many races over the last two seasons where Verstappen had been untouchable as if racing in a separate class entirely, he had been made to earn his place out front on this day and fight for his first place.
At a circuit that has seen more history than any other venue in Formula 1, Verstappen was about to achieve something no Formula 1 driver had ever done before. As he crossed the line to take the chequered flag, he added another record to his already remarkable collection, becoming the only driver ever to win ten straight grands prix.
“Okay, Max, you’ve done it,” praised Lambiase in typically understated fashion as his driver crossed the line. “And a little bit of history to go with it.”
“What we are doing at the moment, winning every race this year, is something that we definitely are enjoying,” said Verstappen after the race. “Because I don’t think these kinds of seasons come around very often. And that’s the same, of course, with winning ten in a row.”
After backing off dramatically in the final laps, Perez was just six seconds behind in second place. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner later explained that his team had been concerned about temperatures in his RB19 in the 30 degree heat.
“We just didn’t want to take any risks,” Horner said. “It’s a stinking hot day and we had a couple of temperatures that were under control, but there’s a bunch of cars ahead of Gasly and we just didn’t want to run in dirty air. So that’s why we took it a little bit easy in last few laps.”
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After a crash on Friday and an underwhelming qualifying performance, Perez had managed to successfully pass the three cars ahead of him on track to finish behind his team mate on his historic day.
“I think we could have a better starting position, which definitely would have put us a lot closer in the fight for victory,” Perez said. “But certainly, we made a lot of progress, which is a positive thing.”
By far the biggest battle of the day was still yet to be decided. Despite locking up at the first chicane on the final lap, Leclerc managed to pull right back up behind Sainz’s Ferrari by the time they approached Alboreto before the flag. Despite a good exit, Leclerc could not beat Sainz over the line and Sainz secured his first Monza podium as a Ferrari driver by just 0.184 seconds. Of the 51 laps of the shortened race, Sainz had only spent nine of them without a rival or team mate within DRS range behind him.
“I’m obviously very, very happy now, because a P3 in Monza in front of the Tifosi is as good as it can get,” Sainz said. “At least for this weekend, because clearly Red Bull were, in the end, quite a bit quicker than us today, as we expected.”
Despite appearing to ignore their instructions to take no risks, Sainz and Leclerc had avoided the unthinkable and successfully not crashed into each other during their spirited battle for third. As the victor, Sainz could afford to dismiss any concerns over the battle.
“We know we were both fighting for a podium in Monza, so there was always going to be a bit of a fight, a bit of a battle,” he said. “In the end, we kept it clean. I think today, honestly, I enjoyed battling Max, battling Checo, battling Charles – I think it was a good day for F1.”
Six seconds behind Leclerc, Russell came home fifth for Mercedes but was penalised five seconds for failing to yield a position to Esteban Ocon after he had missed the Rettifilo chicane on his way out of the pit lane following his sole pit stop.
Another 20 seconds back, Russell’s team mate Lewis Hamilton took sixth after a penalty of his own for squeezing McLaren’s Oscar Piastri at the Roggia chicane, leading to the McLaren needing to pit for a new front wing and dropping his out of the points.
Alexander Albon realised Williams’ potential by finishing seventh after yet another race spent looking more in his mirrors than directly ahead of him. This time, Lando Norris was Albon’s victim, having to settle for eighth after spending the last 24 laps of the race with either Norris or Hamilton within a second of him.
The final points were claimed by Fernando Alonso in ninth after a difficult weekend for Aston Martin, while Valtteri Bottas secured a rare point for Alfa Romeo in the brand’s home grand prix in tenth place, despite having nearly been taken out by Logan Sargeant’s Williams during a late battle.
But once again, the race, as the 2023 season and indeed the modern ground effect era has been in general, had been all about Verstappen and Red Bull. At the highest level of closed circuit motorsport where the fastest drivers race the quickest cars, it was difficult to understate the magnitude of what the world champion and his team had achieved at Monza – with even their rivals forced to recognise greatness.
“Today, Max and Red Bull are doing an incredible job, so they deserve it – whether it’s boring or not,” said Leclerc, whose rivalry with Verstappen dates back to their karting days together.
“Of course, if every race we’ve got a different winner and we win by a second of margin, I’m sure races will be more exciting. But this is what Formula 1 is and they deserve it at the end.”
Verstappen has never chased records – only championships. But as he continues his unstoppable march to his third in as many seasons, even he seemed to appreciate what he had done.
“I never thought at the beginning of the season that something like this was possible,” Verstappen said after the race. “So yeah, very proud.”
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