Prior to Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix, in the seven-and-a-half seasons held under the V6 turbo formula, 170 grands prix had been raced and won.
The total taken by every other team – just three.
But there was one common theme binding Pierre Gasly’s shocking victory for AlphaTauri at Monza last year, Sergio Perez’s career-saving triumph for Racing Point in Sakhir and Esteban Ocon’s out-of-the-blue win for Alpine in Hungary. All required major mishaps for the traditional frontrunners for their race-winning opportunity to open up to them.
So when Daniel Ricciardo led McLaren team mate Lando Norris home at the 2021 Italian Grand Prix, not only did they end the longest win drought in the team’s storied history, they arguably became the first manufacturer outside of the ‘big three’ to do so on pure pace.
True, if there was one blessing of good fortune McLaren could be thankful for that may have helped to make this improbable result possible, it was that the fastest man around the Monza circuit across Friday and Saturday would be doomed to start his Sunday from the rear of the field.
Valtteri Bottas had defiantly reacted to news that his services would no longer be required at Mercedes for 2022 by being fastest of all in Friday’s qualifying session before cruising to an easy victory in Saturday’s sprint qualifying race. But what should have been a reward of pole position would never come for the departing Bottas as a myriad of power unit component penalties had put paid to any chance of a top 10 start.
Instead, for the third Sunday in succession, Max Verstappen lined up at the front of the grid. But rather than the black silhouettes that have typically filled both the Red Bull’s mirrors at the start this season, two flashes of orange filled the championship leader’s his peripheral vision instead.
Ricciardo, refreshed and refocused after the summer break, had jumped team mate Norris on Saturday evening to line up on the front row of the grid for the first time since taking pole for the 2018 Mexican Grand Prix. With his two cars flanking the championship leader on the grid – and one of the longest runs down a first corner on the calendar – McLaren team principal Andrea Seidl recognised how vulnerable the championship leader was to them at the start.
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“Of course we will not try to do anything stupid,” Seidl had said, “but when you start from P2 and P3 here in Monza with the long run to the first corner as well there’s always a chance to get a good tow and maybe be first after the first corner.”
It did not take long for that to be proven true.
Ricciardo looked destined to reach the Rettifilo chicane ahead of his former Red Bull team mate from the moment he dropped the clutch. Such was his superior start, Ricciardo was already into the lead before the pit lane exit fully blends into the race track.
Despite the snaking in the field as the drivers dashed down to the tightest first corner sequence on the calendar, the pack successfully navigated the chicane without incident, with Ricciardo leading from Verstappen while Norris lost third to Lewis Hamilton as the Mercedes swept around the outside of him.
Hamilton was pulled along by Verstappen’s slipstream through Curva Grande, moving to the outside line as the pair approached the braking zone for the Roggia chicane literally wheel-to-wheel. They remained so as they turned in, with Hamilton sent bouncing over the run-off kerbs in a carbon copy of the first Italian round at Imola, Norris happily taking advantage to recover third place.
Further back, there was more tyre-to-tyre contact as Antonio Giovinazzi ran wide at the same chicane and rejoined in front of Carlos Sainz Jnr. The pair tangled awkwardly, pitching the Alfa Romeo into the barrier on the left-hand-side of the track and breaking its front wing.
As the Virtual Safety Car was called to clear the debris, the drivers slowed dramatically along the back straight to give themselves enough of a buffer to the compulsory time delta they were bound by. But the earlier than expected resumption of the race appeared to catch out many of the front-runners, with gaps of over two seconds now separating Verstappen, Norris, Hamilton and Leclerc.
Verstappen, however, rapidly closed the gap to the leader once the green flag was flown and was already comfortably within DRS range when the system was enabled shortly after. It seemed a swift resumption of the usual competitive order was on the cards. But even with the additional speed boost on what is already the fastest circuit in the championship, Verstappen was unable to press Ricciardo in a way the seven-time race winner couldn’t handle.
“It’s always the same garbage,” a frustrated Verstappen vented over the radio. “It’s impossible to get close.”
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“Verstappen reported overtaking is difficult,” McLaren race engineer Tom Stallard informed his race-leading driver. “Okay. Keep me posted,” Ricciardo replied, coolly.
Meanwhile, Hamilton in fourth was biding his time and managing his tyres. A quirk of the sprint qualifying regulations had opened up a rare option for Hamilton and Mercedes to start the race on hard rubber and they had exploited it. They were the only ones who started in the top 10 to do so.
With the effects of dirty air only amplified by the low-downforce nature of the Monza circuit, Mercedes were happy to play a patient game to gain an advantage in the latter part of the race. It was as much a ploy to give Hamilton the best chance to get ahead of Verstappen as it was to try and win the race.
When the drivers’ tyre choices were revealed on the dummy grid, Charles Leclerc behind remarked Hamilton’s selection of hards was a “weird” choice. But as the medium-tyred drivers began to hit trouble, with visible graining forming on the race leaders’ rubber, Mercedes’ strategy appeared to have merits.
“The rears are sliding,” warned second-placed Verstappen as he continued to drift in and out of DRS range of the leading McLaren ahead. But despite the constant presence of the Red Bull in his mirrors, Ricciardo was more than comfortable with the threat posed by Verstappen.
“I think there were definitely laps where I was going too slow, so then I’d pick it up and then just try to find that balance,” Ricciardo explained after the race.
“There were some laps where he pushed up closer but I never really had to properly defend. So he was there, but I knew if I didn’t make a mistake, it was going to be hard for him. Unless he kind of sent a little bit of a ‘Hail Mary’, it was going to be tough for him to pass.”
The difficulties Verstappen faced were demonstrated on lap 21 when he took too much speed into the Rettifilo chicane, forcing him to abandon over the escape road to the inside, dropping half a second to the leader.
McLaren knew that whatever they did with their pit strategy, Red Bull would do the opposite. So it was little surprise to see Verstappen continue on and inherit the lead when Ricciardo pitted for hard tyres at the end of lap 22. While it wasn’t the quickest tyre change executed by the McLaren pit crew this season, their chances of keeping the lead remained promising. Ricciardo was immediately four tenths of a second faster on his fresh hards in the middle sector than Verstappen was on old, grainy mediums.
“My tyres are fucked,” came Verstappen’s frank assessment when ordered to push.
Any slim chance that Verstappen had of resuming ahead of Ricciardo at his stop evaporated with a lengthy delay on his right front tyre. When he eventually rejoined the track, he was not surprised to learn that the rear wing of the McLaren he was now staring at ahead of him belonged not to Ricciardo, but to Lando Norris, who had also pitted. “I can see that, for fuck’s sake,” Verstappen replied, unimpressed.
Released from behind Norris, Hamilton was now in the lead of the race. But rather than pushing much further into the race to potentially attack Norris and Ricciardo, Mercedes’ focus was squarely on the opportunity that had just been presented to them to leap ahead of Verstappen.
Pitting at the end of lap 25, Hamilton’s stop was neither terrible, nor good. As he rejoined the circuit, Norris slipped by to retake his position ahead of the Mercedes, with Verstappen mere metres behind. The two championship rivals entered the braking zone for the Rettifilo side-by-side, with both equally aware that whoever exited ahead would most likely leave Monza in possession of the lead of the world championship.
Hamilton held the inside and refused to yield.
Verstappen held the outside and refused to yield.
The sight of Verstappen’s Red Bull bouncing into the air before crashing down on top of the Mercedes may well become one of the iconic images of this season or even of this era of the sport – but it was no less ugly for it.
As both rivals eventually climbed out of their cars and walked back to their garages with neither now taking a point from the other, the battle for this year’s championship appeared to have become even more intense than it had been before that afternoon.
Whether Hamilton, Verstappen, or the ridiculously narrow and awkward Rettifilo chicane itself was predominately to blame for the collision is a debate that will still be raging when the sport arrives in Sochi the following fortnight – but it also mattered little to the 16 drivers remaining in the race.
What was of far more pressing relevance to the field was the deployment of the Safety Car – especially for the seven drivers who were yet to stop. Suddenly, McLaren realised their lead was under very real threat for the first time.
“So, Leclerc is in our Safety Car window, Daniel,” Stallard warned his driver. “You need to minimise the lines and have the delta close to zero.”
Leclerc immediately pitted from the lead, but McLaren could breathe a deep sigh of relief when he rejoined behind Ricciardo in second place – just five seconds having been the difference in the end allowing Ricciardo to retain the net lead.
Ricciardo and Leclerc were followed in the Safety Car train by Norris, Sergio Perez, Carlos Sainz Jnr and Valtteri Bottas – the latter three having all made their stops when the safety car had been deployed.
With all cars in the top 10 bar Bottas on fresh hard tyres, the second half of the race was shaping up to be a straight sprint to the line. But no one was feeling more confident about their chances of winning than leader Ricciardo.
“When we came back out in the lead I was like ‘all right, we’ve got this today’,” Ricciardo said after the race. “‘Unless something unfortunate happens, we can really win this race.’”
Once the remains of the championship rivals’ vehicles was removed, the race restarted at the end of the 30th lap.
Ricciardo tried to break the tow to Leclerc behind, but the Ferrari driver was more preoccupied with the McLaren behind than the one in front. Maximising his straight-line speed by straying beyond track limits at the final corner, Norris had a go to the inside of the Ferrari into the Rettifilo chicane, but Leclerc defended strongly.
Norris got a far better exit and benefited from strong slipstream and bravely stuck his nose to the inside of the Ferrari as they rounded Curva Grande. Despite putting two wheels on the grass, Norris somehow found the space to make the move work, jumping into second place to see McLaren leading one-two for the first time in over a decade.
Leclerc was now under heavy pressure from Perez in fourth and was again having to take a defensive stance approaching the Roggia chicane. Perez took to the outside before finding, as so many drivers do, that there is barely enough room for two Formula 1 cars in the same chicane. Perez bailed out of the corner, bouncing over the kerbs and into third place. While it appeared certain the Red Bull would have to hand the position back to the Ferrari, Perez stubbornly stayed ahead, claiming he had been forced into the manoeuvre.
Any opportunity Perez had to redress the illegally-gained place was complicated when Bottas passed the Ferrari within the next lap. Bottas had risen rapidly through the field from the rear of the grid – already up to 11th place by the 11th lap – and had been given a gift with the timing of the safety car. Now, the medium-shod Mercedes was just over three seconds of race leader Ricciardo and looking like a true danger to McLaren’s hopes of victory.
“With Bottas looking quick,” Stallard explained to Ricciardo, “we think the best thing is to be as quick as you can to the end of the race and just pull a gap on these cars behind if possible.”
But if he was to challenge the McLarens, Bottas would have to navigate past Perez in third. The Red Bull driver’s chances of a podium appeared to be all but over after the stewards had awarded him a five-second time penalty for leaving the track and gaining a lasting advantage. However, Bottas still needed to physically pass the Red Bull to have a chance at attacking the McLarens.
As Bottas laboured behind Perez, McLaren were increasingly aware that not just a race win but a one-two was now a very real possibility. The magnitude of the achievement within his team’s grasp did not escape second-placed Norris, even in the face of a potential first career victory.
“Do you think it’s best for us if I stay like this, stay where I am?” Norris asked his team.
McLaren agreed. “Lando, best for us, where you are,” they responded. “Hold position, hold position.”
Bottas eventually caught up to the back of Perez on lap 43, forcing an error into the first chicane which left him exposed through Curva Grande. Bottas tried to make the outside stick through the Roggia chicane and succeeded – but Perez was able to take a far tighter line and gain far greater momentum on exit to retake the position on-track. That was as close as the Mercedes would come to dispatching the Red Bull for the remainder of the race.
As the laps ticked down, the instructions from the tense McLaren pit wall became more and more scarce. It had been so long since McLaren had been able to celebrate a win that many of the team’s members had never gotten to experience that sensation before.
But perhaps the one person in the team who knew that winning feeling best was also the one in the lead of the race. Ricciardo was not only staring at his eighth career victory, but his first outside of the Red Bull racing syndicate and, with it, personal vindication for daring to seek an horizon beyond Milton Keynes three years ago.
As he exited the Alboreto corner for the final time and took the chequered flag, fists pumping in the cockpit, Ricciardo had ended the longest win drought that one of the sport’s most successful teams had ever endured. And when team mate Norris crossed seconds later, he secured the team their first one-two since the Canadian Grand Prix in 2010.
“Thank you, guys and girls.” Ricciardo radioed, savouring the familiar feeling. “Fucking dominated.”
And dominated he had. From taking the lead at the start, Ricciardo had never been forced to defend his lead on the circuit and had been able to dictate his own pace as required. Underlining his pace in hand, he had even set the fastest lap on his final tour of the afternoon. Quite the turnaround for the man who had been so consistently out-performed by his younger team mate throughout the first half of the season.
“Everyone’s been aware of some of the struggles that I’ve had this year,” Ricciardo afterwards. “I think to come back from that – not only to win, but as a team to get a one-two – I don’t know, it’s just crazy.”
As a home-grown McLaren talent, Norris was able to put aside his personal ambitions as a racing driver and appreciate what a moment it was for the team that had believed so much in him.
“To be honest I don’t know what it means to me,” said Norris. “The main thing it means to me is our resolve as a team. Whether I’m second, third or first, I think the best thing is having that one-two for the team and securing maximum points and it’s just such a cool feeling to be part of this.”
With Perez’s penalty dropping him behind Bottas and Leclerc, Bottas had inherited a podium place. That was some small consolation prize after what had been his strongest race weekend of the season.
“Overall I did everything I could today and this weekend overall. So, for that, I’m happy,” he said.
But even if he had passed Perez, Bottas doubted he would have been able to deny McLaren their one-two victory.
“Honestly, they’ve been strong all weekend and they have their strengths, especially on the straight line. Yesterday Lewis was trying everything he could but couldn’t get by so I honestly think it was the maximum today we could reach.”
Leclerc took fourth for Ferrari ahead of Perez demoted to fifth. Sainz was fortunate to avoid damage in the clash with Giovinazzi on the opening lap to finish sixth – happy for his former McLaren team mates but recognising how the result was the worst possible for him current outfit.
Lance Stroll finished in seventh ahead of Fernando Alonso, with George Russell securing his third points finish in four races in ninth and Esteban Ocon taking the final point in tenth.
As much as this race will be remembered for a potentially season-defining collision between the two championship protagonists, Ricciardo and McLaren’s achievement should not be overshadowed by it. Not just for securing a historic victory, but for doing so on merit.
For Ricciardo, the poignancy of joining the hallowed list of names to have won in a McLaren was not lost on him.
“When I think ‘McLaren’, I think of Senna,” he said. “That’s the early memories.
“I’ve seen the trophies in the cabinet at the McLaren Technology Centre. And to have a winning trophy now with my name in pretty much the same cabinet is crazy.”
And with how McLaren have shown such considerable and consistent improvement over recent seasons, who’s to say that trophy cabinet will not start to grow a little more in the years to come.