With no race car around, the crowd in the main stand of the Autodromo Nazionale Monza begins to whistle loudly. It’s near the end of the Italian Grand Prix and the race was abandoned with a few laps to go because Daniel Ricciardo’s car stopped on the track.
Because the Australian orange McLaren is still in gear, the car is difficult to move and it takes a long time before the track is clear again. At the same time, other vehicles walk behind the car at a moderate speed safety carand the last lap is getting closer and closer.
Halfway through the last lap it becomes clear that the race will not be restored, much to the Italian tifosi. Because it is not the Ferrari of their home favorite Charles Leclerc driving at the front, but the Red Bull of world champion Max Verstappen. For Italian racing fans, for example, a weekend in which the Ferraris finally seemed capable of competing for victory.
Italian fans expect nothing more than victories and world titles from the most famous team in motorcycle history. The hunger for success grows every year, now that the last world title, for the Finn Kimi Raikkonen, started in 2007. Then this was also the year that the Monza circuit celebrates 100 years, and Ferrari itself 75 years. Some details on red cars, helmets the team and racing suits of drivers Leclerc and Carlos Sainz were painted yellow for this purpose; the color of Modena, the hometown of founder Enzo Ferrari.
However, the Italians tried to lower expectations through sports. “Thank you,” said one female journalist when she was wished “good luck” after the meeting. “We’re going to need it.” In a press conference on Thursday, Leclerc sighed heavily when asked about his expectations. “It will be a difficult weekend. We expect Red Bull to be stronger.”
Ferrari has built a fast car this season, but one that relies on road holding and therefore fast corners. At the Monza circuit, that’Temple of Speed‘ and is the fastest circuit on the calendar with an average speed of over 260 km/h, it was expected that Verstappen’s Red Bull would come into its own with a top speed.
In addition, Ferrari has had a bad run at the Grands prix, where the team dropped out of the world championship battle. In Hungary, Leclerc got hard tires on his car, but they were slower than the medium and soft variants. Because of the loss of time, he finished sixth.
The next race, in Belgium, Leclerc had to start at the back because of a planned engine change. In the race he went ahead, but that advance was partially canceled by Leclerc leaving the pitlane too quickly. Due to the subsequent time penalty, he went back – again he was sixth.
And in Zandvoort it was the Spaniard Carlos Sainz who lost a lot of time when the team already had three tires at the pit stop. Sanz finished eighth. Strange decisions in Monaco and England cost the Italians many points earlier this season.
With that, the Italian overturned his best start to the season in years, where Leclerc won two of the first three races to put Verstappen 46 points behind. Leclerc’s gap on Verstappen was more than 100 points at Monza, so it is no longer a question of if, but when Verstappen will take his second world title.
So the Italian team started the weekend in his country with anxiety, also because the pressure was on him. Ferrari chairman John Elkann told Italian media that “many mistakes have been made”. He said he will continue to support team boss Mattia Binotto, who has been alleged to have lost his job.
On Friday, there was hope for Ferrari and the tifosi, after Leclerc and Sainz were fast in the first two sessions of free practice. They received a standing ovation from their red-clad fans in the main stand, where two large banners featured a unique image. horse rampant (a rearing horse) folded the length of the stand.
Team manager Binotto did not go along with the renewed interest on Saturday morning. “It’s special that we can run here now because the fans can be there for the first time in two years. But the last three times we haven’t done well on Sunday,” he said. “We’ll have to wait until then and see what happens.”
The followers flocked to the Parco di Monza, where wide avenues and galleries of trees, with red-brown-green leaves, seemed ready for autumn. 337,000 tickets were sold and people came and went to the souvenir shops. By far the most popular were red hats and T-shirts and Ferrari model cars. Although the limited edition Ferrari 162 C2 1982 model cost no less than 365 euros, the shop was packed all weekend. At the end of the day, a large crowd gathered at the entrance of the nearby Hotel de la Ville, hoping to see one of the Ferrari drivers there.
On Saturday afternoon, the tifosi were able to celebrate again after qualifying. Despite the car and low expectations, Leclerc set the fastest time, ahead of Verstappen. There was a big roar, there was a hug in the Ferrari pit and everyone got high fives from sporting director Laurent Mekies. Only Binotto remained calm. He got up, straightened his pants and took them out engineers arm around him. An Italian volunteer who passed by patted his back.
Leclerc from pole position, that was immediately clear, but it remained unclear for a long time what the order behind him would be. With nine out of twenty drivers receiving grid penalties for changing parts and other infractions, no one knew exactly where to start three hours into qualifying. Both Verstappen and Fernando Alonso claimed a seventh-place start, and Verstappen had to admit to the Dutch media that he wasn’t sure either.
In the end it was seventh for Verstappen, one place behind Alonso and one ahead of Dutch Formula 1 debutant Nyck de Vries.
A minute’s silence will be observed before the race in memory of Queen Elizabeth II of England on Sunday. Because of the British nature of the game – seven out of ten teams are in England – his death is visible everywhere: team members are wearing mourning bands, in Williams’ motor home the screens show a black and white picture of the Queen and the four. stickers on their race cars as souvenirs.
Ferrari’s Binotto goes through a moment of reflection seemingly unmoved. Then he sits on his chair against the wall of the hole, crosses his arms and begins to shake his legs. Leclerc has a good start and is leading, but behind him Verstappen is moving forward. After one lap he has already climbed to third place, a few laps later he is second. Now it comes to strategy: Leclerc chooses two pit stops, Verstappen for one.
Pit stops have been Ferrari’s weak point in recent races, and Binotto turns his stool on to see how his team fares. It’s going well. The pit stop is faster than Verstappen’s. Still, his Red Bull and his team’s strategy seems to be working better. When the safety car enters the track in the closing stages of the race with Verstappen in the lead, the race to the top ends with tiffs. Another no win for their favorite red.
When Verstappen is honored on stage, a loud voice can be heard. “It’s not a good situation,” says the Dutchman a little later. “But it doesn’t ruin my day.” Verstappen is 116 points ahead of Leclerc after sixteen of 22 grand prix and if he wins in Singapore on Sunday 2 October, he can claim his second world title if Leclerc does not finish in the top 7 with Sergio Pérez, his team mate. Red Bull, does not enter the stage.
For Ferrari, the conclusion remains that it finished this weekend without major mistakes. “I would have liked to win, so this is not a good day,” Leclerc says. “We made the choice, we executed the plan well, but unfortunately it didn’t go well. However, this race was better than how we entered [vergelijkbare] Belgian circuit, so it’s a positive weekend.”
CEO Elkann has said he expects Ferrari to win the world championship of drivers and constructors before 2026, to avoid a drought of titles in Ferrari that lasted more than 20 years. It will be music to the ears of Italian fans. They flock to the arena after the competition, unfurling their long banners once more and a light blaze of red smoke in the air. They cheer even more when they see Leclerc receive his trophy, albeit for second place.
Correction September 12, 2022: An earlier version of this article stated that Max Verstappen was already second in the race after one lap at the Italian Grand Prix. This is not right. Verstappen was in third place after one lap and a few laps later he moved up to second place. This has been fixed.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on September 12, 2022