Max Verstappen has the opportunity to make his championship lead almost elusive if events work in his favor at Monza.
Formula 1 heads to Ferrari for this weekend’s action, the final race of a turbulent triple-header that saw Verstappen extend his lead to 109 points over nearest rivals Charles Leclerc and Sergio Perez.
Located in a picturesque park in the heart of Milan, the Monza circuit is one of the most beautiful and historic in F1. Despite being punctuated by several chicanes, built in the 1970s in an effort to improve track safety, it remains the fastest track on the Grand Prix calendar – Lewis Hamilton’s 2020 pole lap was set at a record average speed of 264.362 kilometers per hour. .
For context, Sergio Perez’s 2022 pole lap at the new Jeddah circuit, the second fastest track on the calendar, averaged “just” 252 kilometers per hour.
Strangely, given the many years in which straight-line speed has been Red Bull’s Achilles’ heel compared to their main rivals, Monza is now a track where the RB18 could be considered the favorite – allowing Max Verstappen to extend his winning streak to a fifth consecutive race.
A combination of a slippery but efficient design, minimal porpoising and an engine that could be F1’s current benchmark, meant Red Bull was simply untouchable on the low downforce Spa circuit. a little over a week ago. For Monza, downforce is even more stripped down, playing to Red Bull’s strengths.
There will be mixed feelings for Ferrari as they head to their home circuit. Compared to 12 months ago, the Scuderia heads to Monza with a real chance of a race win – far more than it could reasonably have hoped for last year. But, having spent most of the season wasting chances and scoring against his side, will the tifosi welcome them with jubilation or frustration? A misstep at home will be an even more bitter pill to swallow for Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz and Mattia Binotto, should they make one.
In a bid to address Red Bull’s straight-line superiority, Ferrari is set to carry out tests this weekend, including a back-to-back comparison of its updated floor against its old specification, as well as low downforce rear testing. wing introduced in practice at Spa.
Ferrari, on pace, was unable to keep up with Red Bull from Hungary, and the comparison of the floors suggests suspicions that updated components could in fact compromise their pace. The introduction at Spa of the application of Technical Directive 039, which focuses on the design of team floors to reduce porpoises, is just a coincidence with Ferrari’s declining competitiveness, according to Binotto: “It is not the directive itself that causes us problems, its effects are negligible. »
With some lack of clarity over where the ferociously fast F1-75 went missing midway through the season, it means Charles Leclerc’s mood is less buoyant as he returns to the scene of his famous victory in 2019.
“I think the performance on paper will be a bit more difficult than this weekend, unfortunately,” Leclerc admitted to the media after the Dutch Grand Prix.
And where could Mercedes position itself this weekend, in a season where the team itself doesn’t know which version of the W13 will appear?
Their form over the past three races has seen Lewis Hamilton and George Russell become a constant thorn in the side of everyone but Verstappen, with the W13 arguably the measure of the F1-75 at Spa and the best at Zandvoort.
However, straight-line speed and Mercedes have not been comfortable bedfellows this season, with excessive drag from their design concept hampering them. Additionally, the W13 lacks one-lap pace in qualifying, meaning Hamilton and Russell struggle to qualify where the car should rightfully be on the grid.
With very few corners to work with at Monza, a combination of weak qualifying with a lack of straight line speed could doom Mercedes to a lonely weekend in the no man’s land they have occupied for most of This year.
The W13 may be on the verge of winning races and bringing Mercedes back to the top step of the podium but, of the seven circuits remaining on the calendar, Monza is the one that, on paper, is the least likely for them. to create a surprise.
Behind the battle up front, all eyes are on McLaren and Alpine as the on-track battle between the two teams has spilled over into their off-track relationship.
McLaren may have won the ‘Oscar Piasco’ for smothering the Alpine Academy driver under their noses and securing the 2021 Formula 2 champion as Lando Norris’ team-mate for next year, but the team Woking-based is struggling to keep up with Alpine on the trail.
Alpine now enjoys a 24-point lead over McLaren in the constructors’ championship and, like Red Bull, can boast a small advantage over their main rivals in straight-line speed.
McLaren return to the scene of their highly unlikely 1-2 of 2021, and it’s unlikely to be a very happy weekend for Daniel Ricciardo as he’ll be plagued with reminders of the day he and McLaren finally seemed to click .
Crossing the line to bring Lando Norris home after a miserable few months, Ricciardo’s victory proved to be a false dawn as he, almost immediately, began wading alongside Norris again before the end of 21, to completely drown in 22.
Perhaps it’s this juxtaposition that shows just how tenuous and fleeting success in F1 can be – with the latest Monza race winner returning to the track 12 months later, having received cash from a team for him to leave, while the rest of the teams shrug their shoulders at his availability.
Worse for Ricciardo is that Monza 21 have proven to be an outlier in his season, meaning even a strong weekend this time around is unlikely to change much of the perception that he is a pilot well beyond his best level.
Further down the grid, there are also a few other scenarios to watch out for: Haas will field Antonio Giovinazzi in one of his VF-22s, in place of Mick Schumacher, for the first practice. Schumacher came into his own in the middle of this season, but is it too little, too late, to convince Haas to keep him?
Aston Martin will also drive Nyck de Vries in Sebastian Vettel’s car for FP1, and Vettel is sure to get a delighted response from tifosi as the former Ferrari talisman makes his final F1 appearance on Italian soil.
With several pieces to be put in place in the driver market, there is also the possibility of big changes this weekend. As reported after Zandvoort, Red Bull has lined up IndyCar sensation Colton Herta to join AlphaTauri for 2023 to replace Pierre Gasly. The plan is to release Gasly at Alpine to take their vacant second seat, but those moves are conditional on the FIA agreeing to waive the superlicense requirements that Herta currently lacks – IndyCar not scoring high on the system weighting of the FIA, rightly or wrongly.
A win for Verstappen this weekend would extend his title lead, at the very least, to 115 points – it could go as high as 135 depending on how it plays out – with just 156 points remaining on the table from the six races. remaining. With Verstappen not yet in a position to wrap up the title, Monza could be one of the final nails in the coffin of Ferrari’s stumbling title bid – Red Bull will no doubt be eager to pull out the hammer for the get ahead of Ferrari. .
Can Max Verstappen put the F1 title out of reach on Ferrari’s home soil?