Ten things we learned from F1’s 2021 Italian Grand Prix
After a long-awaited return to Zandvoort, F1 headed to one of its spiritual homes in Monza to complete its gruelling post-summer trio of races.
While the F1 driver market went into overdrive during the week between the Dutch and Italian rounds, it was the action on the track which dominated the headlines – both for the right and the wrong reasons.
Here are 10 things we learned from the 2021 Italian Grand Prix.
1. Daniel Ricciardo still has it
Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, 1st position, performs a shoey on the podium
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
“I would have moments of frustration or moments of dropping my head, but I kind of made a point never to let that last.”
It’d been more than three years since Daniel Ricciardo, speaking above about his start to 2021, had last won a race before his Italian Grand Prix triumph last weekend. In the two-and-a-half seasons since he’d left Red Bull and Formula 1’s ‘Class A’ to join Renault and then jump ship to McLaren for this year, there’d been more down moments than up.
He restored Renault to the podium for the first time since 2011 with his third place at the Nurburgring last year, but since changing into orange and blue he’d faced a major gap to highly-rated young teammate Lando Norris as he struggled to adapt his style to the MCL35M. Being lapped by Norris at Monaco on third anniversary of his most-recent triumph had clearly hurt. But the real Ricciardo was always there.
After being revitalised over the summer break, per his team boss Andreas Seidl, things began clicking into place. He’d qualified an excellent fourth at Spa and outqualified Norris as McLaren struggled badly at Zandvoort. In Monza, after being edged out of third place in qualifying by 0.029s Ricciardo was raging – albeit in a genial, very ‘Honey Badger’ way.
Sprint race progress and then seizing the lead from Max Verstappen from the off on Sunday proved his credentials at a track where McLaren has gone well of late. Then he held off the Red Bull, upped his pace when required to preserve McLaren’s 1-2 and delivered a famous win. The real Ricciardo is back in the F1 spotlight.
2. The latest Verstappen vs Hamilton clash changes their F1 title fight dynamic
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, walks away from his car after colliding with Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
When the dust finally settles on this year’s world championship, will there be any more iconic a shot than Verstappen atop Lewis Hamilton’s car in the gravel trap at the Italian Grand Prix?
The clash between F1’s title rivals at Monza has delivered the latest dash of controversy between the pair, and will likely result in a notching up of the intensity of this year’s title battle as the season heads to Russia.
Things between the pair had appeared to calm down after their British Grand Prix clash earlier this year, with the drivers pretty much staying clear of each other at Hungary, Spa and Zandvoort.
But, as Hamilton complained of being forced wide on lap one at Monza, it was a similar tight chicane moment halfway through the race that triggered another coming together.
With so much at stake, especially now as the races tick down to the last chance saloon at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the likelihood of more incidents actually seems to increase rather than decrease.
Neither driver seems willing to be the one who wants to concede positions, particularly as big points swings in the title chase could prove decisive in the title outcome.It will now ultimately boil down to a test of wills in not being the first to blink, but equally managing the risk versus reward factor.
Will it get deliberately dirty and one of them try to take the other out on purpose? No, it won’t go that far. But will there be more wheel banging, and potentially race ending accidents? It’s more than likely.
3. F1 is in debt to the halo again
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, crash out
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
The collision between Hamilton and Verstappen at Monza’s Variante del Rettifilo proved to be another win for F1’s halo device. When Verstappen’s Red Bull was launched into the air by the sausage kerbs on the inside of the chicane, it produced contact between the underside of his car and Hamilton’s halo.
Had the halo not been introduced to F1’s regulations in 2018, there is a very real chance that Hamilton would not have walked away from the incident. However, the strength of the secondary roll structure ensured that Hamilton’s head was kept away from being hit by the full weight of Verstappen’s car, and his helmet was only briefly tagged by the Dutchman’s right-rear wheel as they both came to rest in the gravel.
The halo was initially introduced to halt larger pieces of debris entering the cockpit and injuring drivers, such as Justin Wilson’s fatal IndyCar incident at Pocono in 2015.
It has since proved to be a valuable asset in F1 and its feeder series, keeping Charles Leclerc safe at Spa in 2018 and protecting F2 driver Tadasuke Makino from a crash with Nirei Fukuzumi at Barcelona the same year. The strength of the halo also ensured that, when Romain Grosjean sustained his horror crash in Bahrain in 2020, it was able to clear a space through the Armco barrier and keep the Frenchman’s head out of harm’s way.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been hit on the head by a car before,” Hamilton said after the impact.
“And it’s quite a shock for me because if you’ve seen the image my head really is quite far forward. I’ve been racing a long, long time. I’m so grateful that I’m still here and felt incredibly blessed that obviously someone was watching over me today.”
Although criticised for its aesthetics when F1 first introduced it, the halo has once again proven its value – otherwise, Sunday’s incident between the two title contenders could have proved to be a particularly nasty scenario.
4. Sprint races still have room for improvement
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, and Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
Despite the protestations of Ross Brawn that it generated “plenty of action”, there was a feeling that F1 had once again been left short-changed by the Sprint format.
Although it created the conditions for Ricciardo’s shock win, with McLaren’s soft tyre gamble helping to get him onto the front row for the Grand Prix itself, the Sprint should also be judged on its value as an isolated entity. And as at Silverstone, the dearth of overtaking following first lap dramas for Pierre Gasly and Robert Kubica meant the Sprint’s spectacle paled in the drama stakes compared to the traditional qualifying format.
Valtteri Bottas dominated the sprint race from Verstappen, while Ricciardo and Norris were untroubled by slow-starting Hamilton behind, the positions unchanged from the first lap.
The main action was provided by Fernando Alonso’s switchback move on Sebastian Vettel exiting the second chicane, Sergio Perez taking two attempts to pass Lance Stroll, and Yuki Tsunoda’s progress from 19th to 16th after pitting for a new nose. It was hardly a great advert for F1, a point Perez made in no uncertain terms.
“There’s nothing happening in it, and I don’t see the benefit of having the sprint race,” he said.
“I can imagine it’s also boring for fans, boring for drivers. It doesn’t bring anything to be honest.”
With the Sprint format also resulting in unusual timetables that were a source of frustration, it still has work to do to convince F1 stakeholders of its value beyond the initial three-race experiment.
5. Bottas delivers for Mercedes – but not when it really counts
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 1st position, with his winners medal after Sprint Qualifying
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
On the week Bottas’s exit from Mercedes was announced, with the Finn finding new residence at Alfa Romeo from 2022, the Italian GP rather summed up his recent form and fortunes.
At a track where Mercedes was expected to be dominant, he duly delivered initially by taking pole position in Friday night qualifying and converting that into a trouble-free sprint race win.
While he can’t be blamed for being sent to the back of the grid when Mercedes opted to give him a complete new power unit to ensure he has enough parts to finish the season, Bottas faced a simple task over the 53-lap grand prix distance: charge from the back and finish as high up as possible.
He made a stellar start, climbing into the top 10 within 22 laps of the race, and the safety car after the Verstappen-Hamilton crash presented him with the chance to pick up the pieces. Restarting sixth, with the fastest car and faster medium tyres than his rivals on hards, this was his time to strike.
But, after dispatching both Ferrari drivers, his window of opportunity faded as he struggled to find a way by Perez. Although Bottas profited from Perez’s time penalty to take third, and going from last to the podium is no easy feat, he never found himself in a position to fight for the win against the McLarens.
Third was a result Mercedes needed to extend its constructors’ championship advantage over Red Bull. But what it really wanted was for Bottas to be making inroads on the victory. In the end, Bottas’s lack of cutthroat racing at Monza underlined one of the reasons why he’s being replaced by George Russell.
6. Monza misses the full roar of the tifosi
Fans cheer for Charles Leclerc, Ferrari
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
The 2020 Italian GP was something of a sombre affair. With the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic still wreaking havoc around the world and the wonderful vaccine breakthroughs still over three months from going into the first arms and saving lives, the event was held entirely behind closed doors.
As we’re all too aware, the pandemic continues to require our societies to implement restrictions and measures aimed at keeping us safe and healthy. And for the 2021 Monza race, that meant a 50% reduction in fan attendance.
So, although the exuberant Tifosi were able to re-enter the hallowed former royal park just north of Milan, they did so in much reduced numbers. There were also rumours that significant ticket price increases for this year’s had kept additional fans away.
The race just gone missed much of its usual fizz, even though what fans did attend gave the race back much of the sparkle that had been missing in 2020. Gates and access roads were less packed, social distancing measures in place still, but those who were there made their voices heard – particularly when Charles Leclerc entered the grand prix’s lead battle behind Ricciardo as a result of gaining time by stopping under the safety car.
Monza is still Monza – the cathedral of speed in a beautiful leafy setting. And Ferrari is still Ferrari to its fans, which is why Leclerc classily waved to every grandstand he passed on the way back to the pits after FP1 and did so again in the sessions that mattered along with teammate Carlos Sainz.
7. F1’s next generation of power units edge closer
Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR21, and others in the pit lane
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
F1 finds itself at an interesting point where, amid a fast changing automotive world, it needs to commit to engine rules for the longer term.
The series chiefs are clear that hybrid power units, run on fully sustainable fuel, is the direction that will put grand prix racing in a good place for years to come. Current manufacturers, as well as those not involved in F1, agree on that plan as a concept. But, as always, the devil is in the detail.
Things are nudging forwards, and the latest meeting at Monza on Sunday, has offered us some indications of where we might end up from 2025 or 2026.
Chances are increasing that F1 will abandon the MGU-H, which converts heat from the engine exhaust into battery power that can then be deployed by drivers. The incredibly complex and expensive technology was always viewed as an area that F1 could lead the world on, with knowledge flowing into road cars. However direct transfer has been limited.
The MGU-H’s complexity has also been a turn off for new entrants, with Volkswagen in particular not especially eager to join the F1 party if it faced catching up on more than a decade’s knowledge its rivals had gained. Current engine makers have accepted that the MGU-H can go as part of a compromise to get VW in.
But nothing is set on that yet, especially as they won’t want to lose the MGU-H, if there is no follow through from VW. Current F1 manufacturers got burned in 2014 when a lot of compromises were made with current turbo hybrid rules to get Audi in; only for the German car maker to decide against it in the end.
There had been hopes that the Monza meeting would deliver a breakthrough. That hasn’t happened, but there remains plenty of time to get things sorted yet.
8. Ferrari enjoys a solid homecoming, but still has a long way to go
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
The Ferrari SF21 was not expected to excel at Monza, owing to its specialism on the lower-speed circuits on the F1 calendar, but the brace of red cars still managed to grasp a good haul of points to minimise the damage to McLaren in the constructors’ standings.
Leclerc benefitted from the safety car period, during which he made his sole stop and emerged in second place, but the Monegasque was unable to fend off a brave pass from Norris at the restart. He also lost places to Perez and Bottas, but was able to stay on the coat-tails of the leading pack to assume fourth once Perez’s five-second penalty had been applied.
Meanwhile, Sainz had to contend with a wayward Antonio Giovinazzi on the opening lap, the Alfa Romeo skipping across the second chicane and into the path of the Ferrari that only thrust Giovinazzi into the outside wall. Sainz shuffled up to fifth at the restart but, like his teammate, could not resist the advances of Bottas and was resigned to sitting behind Leclerc as the Ferraris were unable to mount an assault on the cars ahead. Sainz was also unable to close up enough to benefit from Perez’s penalty, scoring a sixth-place finish as a result.
Although the haul of 20 points from its home race would otherwise be a solid result for Ferrari, McLaren’s stranglehold on the race has thrust the British outfit back into third in the constructors’ championship. A little more soul-searching is required at Maranello if it is to turn the tide over its long-time rival during the final eight rounds of the calendar.
9. Giovinazzi fluffs big audition to convince Alfa Romeo to keep him
Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo Racing, on the grid
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
The only Italian on the F1 grid is driving for his future at the moment. With Ferrari no longer having any influence over Alfa Romeo’s driver choice next year, Giovinazzi’s place isn’t assured and the team can afford to take its time over deciding who will partner Valtteri Bottas next year with every other F1 seat now filled.
As the incumbent, Giovinazzi has the advantage over other rumoured candidates, including F2 title contender Guanyu Zhou, as he can demonstrate to the team’s hierarchy exactly what he is capable of. But having put himself in a promising position to shine at his home Grand Prix, Giovinazzi fluffed his lines and missed a golden opportunity to score big points in Alfa’s increasingly forlorn quest to get back on terms with Williams in the constructors’ championship.
Making Q3 for the second consecutive weekend, Giovinazzi impressed further by finishing the sprint on the coat tails of the Ferraris in eighth, holding off Perez’s faster Red Bull.
But after passing Sainz for sixth at the start, he tried to force the issue with Leclerc at the second chicane and came off worse – earning a five-second penalty for an unsafe rejoin and getting hooked into the wall by Sainz in the process, ripping off his front wing.
What should have been a comfortable points finish instead turned into a long slog with floor damage, as Russell’s ninth place for Williams poured salt into the wound. Giovinazzi is now running out of opportunities to make amends.
10. F1’s super summer is over – now a step into the unknown
Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
F1’s trip to Monza is the traditional end of summer scene, the final mainland European race before the autumn flyaways as focus shifts to the title-deciding events.
Even with a shaken-up calendar due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, it was still the case this year with the Italian GP marking the end of a dramatic run of races since Monaco GP with arguably only the French GP failing to deliver genuine excitement or controversy.
While the remainder of the 2021 F1 calendar presents eight more races, including one soon-to-be announced mystery round, the only thing that’s certain is uncertainty at this stage.
The Turkish GP remains under threat due to the nation being on the United Kingdom’s red list for travel while the COVID-19 situation in the United States, Mexico and Brazil still makes the trio of Americas races far from nailed down.
It all adds up to increased intensity and unpredictability for the climax of the 2021 F1 – which hardly needed much more drama after the action Monza hosted as the final act to an enthralling summer storyline.
By Alex Kalinauckas, Jonathan Noble, James Newbold, Jake Boxall-Legge and Haydn Cobb
The McLaren pit crew cheer the efforts of their drivers at the start
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images