F1 title fight comes to a head (literally) in Monza

Daniel Ricciardo wins the Italian Grand Prix as title rivals Hamilton and Verstappen crash out

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Andrej Isakovic, Getty Images

The defining image of the race will be this: Hamilton ducking to avoid Verstappen’s tyre.

The enduring image of the 2021 Italian Grand Prix won’t be Daniel Ricciardo’s shoey following a stellar win, nor will it be the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas charging up the field to finish third from 20th on the grid.

 No, it’ll be the left rear tyre of Max Verstappen’s Red Bull dangling over the halo of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes, touching the car’s halo and the Briton’s head as he ducked to avoid contact. In any other era of Formula 1 history, Hamilton would have likely died from the impact, but his car’s halo saved his life. This was no ordinary crash between drivers, either; this was direct contact between title rivals, as it knocked both out of the race and kept Verstappen’s five-point lead over Hamilton in the Driver’s Championship intact.

 But before we discuss this incident more, we have to look at the race in general. Sprint qualifying saw Verstappen on pole, having finished second to Bottas before the Finn took an engine penalty which dropped him to the back of the grid; Ricciardo would move up to second while Hamilton started a lowly fourth (for his standards). Ricciardo beat Verstappen from the start, taking a lead he’d hold for the first 21 laps before his pit. Antonio Giovinazzi, whose Alfa Romeo seat is under scrutiny amidst links with Alpine junior Guanyu Zhou, had qualified a stellar seventh but he was spun around by Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, ending his chance of points from the get-go. 

 Verstappen would take the lead following Ricciardo’s pit, attempting to overcut the Australian; however, the normally lightning-quick Red Bull mechanics dropped the ball, with an eleven second pit stop dropping him down the order to fourth. Lando Norris of McLaren would inherit the lead before he pitted, which put Hamilton in front until his pit on lap 24. He exited the pit with Verstappen and Norris just behind, and the two title rivals engaged in wheel to wheel racing until the first chicane. And that’s when it happened. 

 Verstappen turned into Hamilton at the exit of the Rettifilo chicane, launching his car over Hamilton. The two cars were beached in the gravel; Verstappen angrily left his car, glanced at Hamilton struggling to get out of the cockpit, and just… walked away. Hamilton would eventually get out, and Verstappen would later be given a three-place grid penalty (which will be enacted following qualifying) at the next race in Sochi, but the implications of this crash go far beyond that.

 This is the second time that the title contenders have crashed, first at Silverstone where Hamilton’s refusal to budge saw him squeeze Verstappen out at Copse, sending him into the barriers and ending his race. Hamilton would be given a ten second time penalty (what Verstappen would’ve been given if he’d been able to continue at Monza), but came back after serving it in the pits to win his home race for the eighth time, passing Leclerc at Copse with three laps to go. None of them are going to be willing to give the space anymore, especially after Hamilton’s backed out at Imola and Portimao in the past. 

 Verstappen’s reaction after the crash, whether it be his indignant radio response (“This is what you get for not leaving the space”) or continued insistence that Hamilton hadn’t left him enough space just comes off as general whining. He didn’t get what he wanted, almost seriously injured his title rival (whose own response on the matter placed no real blame), and felt entitled to complain about it. Which is fair, but at the same time shows a real lack of respect and maturity on Verstappen’s part (and he’s been rightfully criticized for it by former world champions Damon Hill and Jackie Stewart). 

 The safety car came out following the incident, and Norris overtook Leclerc (who had pitted under the safety car) for second place at the restart, where he’d remain for the rest of the race. Red Bull’s second driver, Sergio Perez, attempted an overtake on Leclerc at the second chicane on lap 29, cutting it to pass the Ferrari for third place; he never gave back the position and was given a 5 second time penalty for an illegal overtake. That penalty would drop him from third to fifth after Bottas passed Leclerc for fourth on lap 34 as both drivers stayed within 5 seconds of Perez and moved up a spot as a result.

 The race ended with millions of McLaren fans screaming at their televisions as the beloved Ricciardo, dominant all race, won for the first time in three years; teammate Norris finished second as McLaren won their first race since 2012 and their first 1-2 since 2010. Going unmentioned until now were two drivers who had quiet yet stellar races in Lance Stroll, who finished 7th for Aston Martin, and George Russell, who dragged his Williams to another points finish in 9th. Another mention goes to Alfa Romeo reserve driver Robert Kubica, who stepped in to replace the COVID-stricken Kimi Raikkonen for a second successive race, finishing 14th.

 The outcome sets up the next race at Sochi, a notoriously drab and boring track with a lack of spots to overtake, as one that could be championship defining. Will Verstappen be able to overcome his 3-place grid penalty (and possible engine penalties as Red Bull boss Helmut Marko had suggested) to stay ahead of Hamilton? Can Bottas continue his record of success at Sochi, where he’s won twice and finished on the podium five times? Will Mercedes keep their lead over Red Bull in the ever-tightening Constructors Championship as McLaren and Ferrari fight for third? 

 All will be answered (to some extent) at the Sochi Autodrom on September 26.