Stay informed on all the biggest stories in Formula One. Sign up here to receive the Prime Tire newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday and Friday morning.
The roars echoed around Autodromo Nazionale Monza on Saturday as Carlos Sainz brought home pole position in front of the tifosi, Ferrari’s passionate fanbase.
It’s been a tricky year for the Prancing Horse as the team has navigated pole position highs and DNF lows with a difficult-to-handle car. Though consistency seems to evade Ferrari, there’s one other thing eluding the Italian outfit in 2023: a win. This weekend’s Italian Grand Prix is arguably one of the best chances Sainz and Charles Leclerc will have to shake up Red Bull’s reign, a weekend where Max Verstappen is seeking his 10th consecutive race victory.
Meanwhile, Monza is a critical weekend for Williams, a track where the FW45’s strong straight-line speed can shine and where the Grove-based crew can bring home more points. Alex Albon continues to shine, but there’s more pressure on Logan Sargeant, who has yet to bring home points during his rookie campaign.
Monza is buzzing with excitement and anticipation, but before it’s time for lights out, here’s what we’re discussing ahead of the Italian GP.
A home pole position 💚🤍❤️
— Scuderia Ferrari (@ScuderiaFerrari) September 2, 2023
Ferrari’s best chance at a win may just be this weekend
It’s no secret that Ferrari’s form has swung dramatically from race to race. Still, the Italian outfit may have stabilized just in time for this weekend. Or, at the very least, for the Italian Grand Prix.
“Since we put (the car) on track on FP1, it just felt completely different to what it did in Zandvoort, and it is what it is. It’s what we’re getting this year. We’re getting some very good weekends and some other very tough ones. We just need to make sure (that) on the good ones we try to maximize like we did today, and in the tough ones (that) we learn how to suffer and get the best out of it,” Sainz said.
“But honestly, the car today, I cannot fault it. It was a really, really good balance. It gave me a lot of confidence through Sector 2, Ascari and Parabolica, and it’s there, I think, where I could make the major difference when it counted, taking a bit more risks.”
The Spaniard thinks Ferrari has “a good opportunity” to challenge for the win, but when looking at the data realistically, “the Red Bull should be quicker.”
Leclerc saw a shift in his performance on the other side of the garage when they changed the car’s setup.
“After FP2, I realized that it wasn’t” the right route to go, he said, and come Saturday, “this morning in FP3 was all about adapting to that new car, following the direction of Carlos’ set-up.” Leclerc “managed to put everything together” during qualifying, and considering where he started the weekend, he is happy (to an extent) with a third-place start.
Ferrari’s received plenty of criticism this season for its lack of performance. However, there seems to be more optimism about a possible victory when you compare how Sainz discussed the chances on Saturday to how Leclerc spoke at Spa after inheriting Verstappen’s pole.
The Spaniard recognizes Red Bull’s speed and performance this year. Still, on Sunday, Sainz said he’ll “try and go open-minded into tomorrow.”
On enemy territory, Verstappen has a date with history
Max Verstappen has never obsessed over breaking records in F1. But Sunday could see him reach a remarkable landmark and become the first driver to win 10 grands prix in a row.
He’s already on course for the most dominant season in F1 history after winning 11 of the opening 13 races. Even with a car as strong as the Red Bull RB19, not faltering since April is a remarkable achievement.
Sainz might be on pole for Ferrari, but Verstappen will still enter Sunday’s race as the heavy favorite. This year, the trend has been for Ferrari and Mercedes to occasionally challenge Red Bull over a single lap in qualifying, only to slip back in the race when the RB19 comes into its own. It goes gentler on its tires than the Ferrari. However, with traditionally low degradation levels around Monza, that may not be so great an advantage.
If Verstappen makes history on Sunday, he’ll do so on enemy territory. This weekend is important to Ferrari, its loyal tifosi, and all of Italy. It is a respectful and knowledgeable crowd, meaning there’s unlikely to be any hostility toward Verstappen if he were to set a new record. And there would be a certain symbolism of making history on one of F1’s most iconic and oldest circuits.
Will the ‘Monza curse’ strike again?
If you’ve looked at Twitter over the last several days, odds are that you’ve encountered the phrase ‘Monza curse.’
The fan theory began several years ago with Leclerc. The Ferrari driver won the 2019 Italian Grand Prix but crashed out the following year when he slammed into the barrier at Parabolica. Pierre Gasly won the grand prix that season, and did not finish the next year. Daniel Ricciardo won the 2021 edition of the race but was forced to stop during last year’s Italian Grand Prix due to an oil leak.
And so the myth goes: When you win the Italian Grand Prix, you won’t finish the following year. Verstappen won last year’s edition and is looking to secure his 10th consecutive win this weekend. When asked about the Monza curse, Sainz said, “I think on Sunday wins the one who deserves the most and normally the one who is quicker – unless something happens. And I’m just going to try to be that one. The faster one and the one that puts everything together and go into tomorrow also trying to enjoy the day.”
Whether you believe in curses or not, chaos usually unfolds in the Italian Grand Prix.
Mercedes looks to exceed its own expectations
Low downforce circuits have not been Mercedes’ friend so far this season. Team principal Toto Wolff said after qualifying that Spa and Baku had both been “problematic” for the W14 car and also had doubts heading into the weekend after being 1.2 seconds off the pole time at Monza last year.
It all made George Russell’s P4 qualification something of a surprise. Mercedes had deliberately leaned the car’s setup to favor the race instead of qualifying. “We weren’t expecting to be as quick as a team as we were,” Russell said. “So it’s a great place to start.”
Lewis Hamilton didn’t quite have the pace to match Russell, leaving him eighth on the grid, but Mercedes will know there is a good chance to get in contention for a decent result. Even if Red Bull and Ferrari are slightly out of reach, the margins in qualifying were fine enough to suggest it won’t be a million miles behind and potentially be in a spot to capitalize if needed.
“I think we have all reason to be… I wouldn’t say happy,” Wolff said, carefully considering his words. “But to be semi-satisfied.” If a weekend that was predicted to be tough still ends with one or both Mercedes cars inside the top five, then that would be a really good return.
Sargeant can strengthen his case for staying at Williams
It takes a bit for a rookie to adapt to Formula One, and AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost said earlier this year that he feels any newbie needs at least three years to fully grasp this world.
Williams rookie Logan Sargeant has made mistakes, and while it appeared that his performance was improving, the pressure only increases as his wait for his first points continues. His wreck during the Dutch Grand Prix wasn’t his fault as his FW45 suffered a loss of hydraulic pressure that stopped his turning the steering wheel, team principal James Vowles explained earlier this week.
Williams expects to be in points contention at Monza, after qualifying, Albon is the driver with the best shot, having qualified P6. Sargeant, slated 15th, feels “like I left a little bit on the table but nowhere near enough that would have got me to Q3.”
The Alternative Tire Allocation format requires drivers to compete on hard compounds in Q1, medium in Q2 and soft in Q3, and the rookie said he struggled on the medium compound throughout the weekend. Knowing a top 10 wasn’t possible, he tried to snag a few more positions on his final lap.
“I was pretty much even with my time and knew that was nowhere near enough so just sent it to see what would happen. Honestly the thought of trying to find a couple of tenths or something to get me higher up – I knew it wasn’t going to make top 10 at that point – so it was just an effort to see how much time I could find, maybe find a position or two,” he said. “But I think mainly the frustration and disappointment is just the swing from Q1 to Q2, and not understanding why I didn’t find any sort of time going from the hard to the medium compound.”
Monza is the last track on this year’s calendar that Sargeant knows fairly well, and his contract status is publicly unknown at this time. Vowles made it clear on Sky Sports on Friday that the rookie “is on the right path to development, he has just got to step it up race on race.”
Alpine’s realistic expectations
Before qualifying was underway, reader Adam G. submitted the following question to our live blog mailbag, and it’s still at the top of our minds after Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly were knocked out after Q1.
What would Alpine realistically be hoping for having been so up and down all season? Will they be eyeing consecutive podiums, or is just two cars in the points their goal? Is that even attainable?
It became clear during practice that consecutive podiums were likely out of the question because Monza doesn’t suit Alpine’s package as well as it does competitors like Williams. Having both cars in points even seemed to be a stretch with how competitive the midfield has become, even if a reasonable goal for Alpine is a steady haul of points.
Gasly and Ocon qualified 17th and 18th, respectively, and it looks like this weekend will be another down moment in the team’s roller coaster season. That being said, it’s key to remember that F1 had another round of the Alternative Tire Allocation during qualifying, meaning both Alpine drivers were eliminated while on hard tires — the compound Gasly said “is the worst.”
“I was really happy with the car on soft, pretty happy on medium, and with the hard through corners, balance has been just worse and not going the right direction for our car,” Gasly said. “We maximized everything we could, but the package… doesn’t suit the layout. I think we will have to analyze, review and, you know, come up with a better solution for next year.”
Monza is a particular track, different from the rest of the calendar. It’s a matter of surviving, putting in a clean weekend with no damage.
— BWT Alpine F1 Team (@AlpineF1Team) September 2, 2023
Monza’s overtaking challenge could make for a cagey race
The high-speed nature of the circuit lends itself to overtaking with heavy braking points at the end of the long straights. But with all the cars running super-skinny wing levels and the natural tendency for DRS trains to form around the track given the limited impact of the overtaking aid, then it could prove difficult for cars to do huge amounts of passing.
That could make for a close fight at the front. We’re unlikely to see anyone pulling out huge chunks of time on the field like Verstappen has done in recent races, meaning any mistake will be punished. Attempting to find the undercut or running an alternative tire strategy could be all important in deciding the various battles.
One thing that will be welcome news to the drivers after the chaos of Zandvoort and the brief scare at Spa is that we’re in for a dry race. This will be the first weekend since Baku the entire weekend has gone without rain, removing one of the biggest and most unpredictable variables for the drivers and the teams.
Just don’t expect that to reduce the drama at la pista magica.
(Lead image of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz: ANP via Getty Images)