MEDIA RELEASE/McLaren Formula 1 Team - Main Photo: Supplied The McLaren Formula 1 team have…
History will record that Daniel Ricciardo won the 2021 Italian Grand Prix in an almost unfathomable fashion, while championship rivals Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen crashed out in spectacular fashion at the mid-point of the race. The incident may well overshadow the dominance of the McLaren driver, who overtook Max Verstappen at the start of the race and then led for almost the entire race. It culminated an upturn in fortunes for the universally admired Australian.
The victory ended a three year winless streak for the Australian. It also broke a 9 year drought for McLaren and with it fulfilled the intention for which Ricciardo had been brought to the team by CEO Zak Brown.
“Thanks for having my back and for anyone who thought I left. I never left, just moved aside for a while.” – Daniel Ricciardo
With those words, Daniel Ricciardo left no-one in any doubt that the desire to win still burned strong. It also hinted that the criticism had been felt hard, despite the wide smile that greeted any such question which he was asked with almost monotonous regularity in 2021.
It was a somewhat unfamiliar territory for teams and drivers as the cars lined up for the start of the 2021 Italian Formula 1 Grand Prix. Under the Sprint Qualifying format, used for only the second time in 2021, teams were given a free choice of tyres for the start of the race. While most of the front running teams had chosen the medium compound tyre, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas were amongst the minority with the hard tyre fitted to their Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 cars.
The grid bore a different look for 2021, with Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo on the front row, followed by Lando Norris and Lewis Hamilton. It had been almost three years since Ricciardo had started a Grand Prix from pole position, the previous occasion being the 2018 Mexican Grand Prix. It was a rather ironic twist that he shared the front row with Verstappen back then, though the positions that time were reversed.
If the sprint race was anything to go by, Ricciardo and Hamilton had the run for the inside line at Turn 1, albeit after starting from the dirtier side of the circuit.
As the race began it was Verstappen who had the initial jump from pole position, but Ricciardo was quickly alongside and took the ideal position in mid track. Ricciardo led Verstappen, Hamilton, Norris through the Variante del Rettifilo, in what was a clean start for the entire field.
Ricciardo edged away as Hamilton ranged up alongside Verstappen on the run to the Variante della Roggia. Verstappen held the inside line at the first part of the chicane and forced Hamilton over the ripple strip and across the sausage kerbs after touching wheels. The #44 dropped a place to Norris as he bounded over the sausage kerbs and back onto the racetrack..
Antonio Giovinazzi had been involved in a battle for Italian honour and led the two Ferraris through the opening three corners of the lap. Charles Leclerc passed the Alfa Romeo at the exit of the chicane after Giovinazzi locked a wheel and ran across the chicane and into the path of Carlos Sainz. A touch from #55 Ferrari saw Giovinazzi lifted into the air and spun into the armco barrier. The Alfa Romeo suffered front wing damage but managed to return to the pits as Marshal’s recovered the debris under a brief Virtual Safety Car. Stewards indicated the both drivers were under investigation for their roles in the incident.
By lap 2 Ricciardo enjoyed a 1.2 second lead over Verstappen, while Norris sat 3.389 seconds from the lead. Hamilton was playing a strategic game some 4.8 second behind with the hard tyres bolted to his car. Leclerc, Sainz, Perez, Stroll, Alonso and Ocon were the top 10 at that time. Valtteri Bottas had made some progress to lie in 15th place just under 20 seconds from the leader.
Alpha Tauri’s run of point scoring finishes came to an end after 5 laps of the race. Tsunoda had mechanical problems on the opening lap, while Gasly parked the car in the garage on lap 5 with suspension problems after his crash in the Sprint Qualifying saw the team change a long list of components.
Verstappen closed on Ricciardo with the benefit of DRS with the gap between the pair fluctuating between a half and three-quarters of a second throughout the lap. Ricciardo continued to manage that gap to maintain the race lead from Verstappen.
By lap 12 Hamilton had moved to within 2/10th of Norris and made an attempt to pass as Norris weaved down the pit straight to break the slipstream. Hamilton backed out of the move at the Variante del Rettifilo and another attempt at the Variante del Roggia.
“I’m using a lot of tyres trying to do this,” Norris told his engineer on lap 14.
“Understood. We see the same with everyone on the medium. Hamilton has to go long. Ideally we do plan A but with Plan B target lap,” the team replied.
“So far, I’d say Plan A, Plan A at the moment” Ricciardo told his engineer later that same lap as the team looked to determine the strategy for the rest of the race, with a win surely in the mind of the McLaren team.
Sebastian Vettel was left to discuss the tactics of Esteban Ocon after the Alpine driver edged Vettel off the circuit and touched wheels at the Variante del Roggia, much to the ire of the Aston Martin Cognizant driver.
“He gave me no space on the outside, he pushed me off the track,” Vettel told his team. “Well he could have, might have taken himself off,” he then added as Ocon received a 5 second penalty for the incident.
Ricciardo continued to lead on lap 20 and was encouraged by his team who reported to the Australian, “Your lap times are still as good as anyone.”
There was some indication that not all was well with the Red Bull Honda after Verstappen was told to switch to “Mode 7”, by his engineer.
“Argh, I didn’t click anything with the over take, so why is it going lower?” A seemingly anxious Verstappen responded.
“We’re looking into it, hence the changes,” came the answer.
McLaren were the first to stop with Ricciardo sending up puffs of smoke as he locked the tyres at pit entry on lap 23, just under half distance in the 53 lap race. He was fitted with the hard compound tyres in a standing stop of 2.4 seconds and resumed in 7th behind Sainz.
The Red Bull mechanics had also been in the pit lane ready for Verstappen but quickly retreated to the garage after Verstappen soldiered on for one more lap on tyres well past their prime. Ricciardo, on the other hand piled on the pressure with personal best sectors on his out lap. Things went from bad to worse for the Red Bull Honda driver after a troubled pitstop saw the #33 stationary for 11 seconds and Verstappen return to the track in 10th, four places behind Ricciardo.
Hamilton had finally passed Norris and held the effective race lead on lap 24. Leclerc sat 4 second behind Norris in 3rd, while Perez, Sainz, Ricciardo, Bottas, Stroll, Alonso and Verstappen made up the top 10.
Norris stopped on lap 25 and came back onto the Pit Straight ahead of Verstappen as Ricciardo stormed around the outside of Sainz for 4th under brakes for the first corner. The key to the race now lay with Lewis Hamilton and how his reverse tyre strategy might play out during the latter portion of the race.
The #44 stopped on lap 26 and changed to the medium tyres. Hamilton emerged with Norris and Verstappen in a three-way battle for position. Norris was safely ahead at the Variante del Rettifilo. Hamilton held the mid line into the corner and Verstappen tried to go around the outside. When squeezed for room, Verstappen refused to take travel across the kerbs and the pair made collided. Verstappen rode over Hamilton’s front wheel and both cars ended in the gravel with the Red Bull Honda’s nose buried in the gravel and rear of the car perched on top of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1.
“That’s what you get when you don’t leave the space,” Verstappen radioed through to his team just before he climbed out of the cockpit of his Red Bull Honda.
“Switch off the engine please Lewis,” Hamilton was instructed by the team as he tried to reverse out from underneath the Red Bull Honda that refused to budge from the Halo of the #44.
The rest of the field made their pit stop as the Safety Car was immediately deployed. Leclerc stopped from the lead and returned in second place, much to the delight of an already ecstatic tifosi.
Ricciardo leapt early at the restart and accelerated through the Curva Parabolica to start lap 31. Cars snaked down the Pit Straight on the run to Turn 1 to break slipstream or to set up an overtaking opportunity. Norris and Leclerc ran through the opening turn two abreast and made some contact, but managed to avoid the same fate as Verstappen and Hamilton. Norris then struck at the Curva Grande to make it a McLaren 1-2.
Perez took 3rd from Leclerc shortly after and then came under attack from Bottas, who had moved into 5th. The Finn fancied his chances of catching the Red Bull Honda and McLarens ahead. Bottas moved into 4th place and closed on Perez as a few second separated 1st to 4th.
Ricciardo rolled off the laps to the finish while keeping the gap to teammate Norris in the region of 1.7 seconds. While the Australian was no stranger to leading, it had been three years since he had last done so. He took the chequered flag cheered on by his McLaren team and former World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi in what was his first victory since Monaco in 2018.
Lando Norris made is a memorable day for McLaren with second place, which was also his best result in Formula One, while Bottas was handed 3rd after Perez was handed a 5 second penalty and dropped to 5th. Leclerc took 4th, Sainz 6th with Stroll, Alonso, Russell and Ocon completing the top 10.
“Ahaa, yeah, he won,Yes boys we won!” Ricciardo screeched with jubilation into the team radio, while making faces into the in-car camera as he continued with his cool-down lap. “Deep down I knew this was going to come. Thanks for having my back and for anyone who thought I left. I never left, just moved aside for a while, thanks guys,” He added in a more sombre tone, having also scored an extra point for the fastest time on the final lap of the race. That lap was 1/10th faster than Norris.
“Amazing! Let’s go boys! Come On! Let’s get in there!” yelled an equally excited Lando Norris as he moved alongside Ricciardo to share in the celebration.
“We’ve had a pretty awesome weekend,” Lando Norris later told Sky Sport. “Four years ago I joined the team and have been working towards this and we finally got a 1-2. A good step for us, I’m happy for Daniel getting the win and me in P2, so just happy for the team. You have that position where you want to go for it, but I’m here for the long term and the team. It could have ended up like the other two (Verstappen and Hamilton). “I’m happy with P2 and I’m happy for Daniel. I will have my chance one day.”
“Can I swear? I want to swear,” Ricciardo told David Coulthard from Sky Sport, who firmly said no. “… About time,” Ricciardo then said with that trademark smile at optimum power. “I knew it (the start) worked well for me yesterday and to be honest when we got the start there was no guarantee that we’d lead the whole race. I was able to hold firm out front in that first stint. I don’t think that it was mega speed, but it was enough to keep Max behind. Then, I don’t know. There were Safety Cars and this and that. To lead literally from start to finish I don’t think that any of us expected that.
There was something in me on Friday. I knew there was something good to come, let’s just say that.”
“I’ve just been a sandbagging SOB all year,” Ricciardo quipped when asked by Coutlhard of the recent improvement in his pace. “I mean, 3rd, 4th 5th, you might as well just win, so that’s what I did. The August break was good, just to reset. I felt better the last three weekends. To not only win, but get a 1-2 is insane. For McLaren to get on the podium let alone a 1-2 is huge, so this is for Team Papaya… I’m for once lost for words!”
There were dangerous moments ahead for Norris and Zac Brown, CEO of McLaren as they joined Daniel Ricciardo on the dias, with the threat of another shoey at the forefront of everyone’s mind. True to form, Ricciardo held back some champagne, removed his racing boot and celebrated in his unique tradition. Norris and then Brown needed little encouragement as they too tasted bubbly from Ricciardo’s other shoe, Brown doing so with gusto, while Norris has seemed a little more hesitant as Ricciardo approached.
It was McLaren’s first Grand Prix win since 2012 and the champagne was sweet from wherever it was served.
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