Formula 1‘s not short of storylines heading into the 2023 Italian Grand Prix with Max Verstappen gunning for a historic tenth successive victory, Ferrari hoping for home glory and Mercedes announcing their long-awaited contract extensions.
Verstappen remains the odds-on favourite for victory though, it feels like in the past nine races he’s overcome every type of challenge he could face at Monza, can anyone beat the Dutchman if he has a straightforward race?
Regardless, there should still be a tight battle for the podium behind. Williams look well-placed to continue the resurgence that started at Zandvoort and Ferrari should also be strong contenders for their second home silverware in two years.
Monza curse stands between Verstappen and victory
While it seems nothing in the natural order of F1 seems to stand between Verstappen and victory these days, could a touch of the supernatural be his undoing?
The winner of the 2022 Italian GP, Verstappen will have to beat the ‘Monza curse’ – a streak that’s seen every victor since 2019 crash out of the following edition of the race.
Charles Leclerc, Pierre Gasly and Daniel Ricciardo have all fallen victim, but none went into the race next season with anything like the kind of momentum Verstappen has behind him.
He’s won in wet, dry and changeable conditions, from pole and from ninth, on power and downforce tracks, beaten every driver and team that’s entered the last ten grand prix thinking they have a chance.
Every weekend has started with new hope that maybe this time will be different, and every weekend Verstappen has crushed that with another dominant win.
Red Bull should be the fastest team at Monza, in which case Verstappen should start on pole, and in that case he should win. It doesn’t provide any disadvantage that he’s not already overcome on this streak, bar perhaps the opportunity to get caught out by traffic in qualifying.
Even if he is starting further back, Red Bull’s DRS cheat code should help Verstappen scythe through the field with ease.
And if the Dutchman’s on pole then forget it. The last time Verstappen finished a race without winning after starting on pole was Austria 2022, before that it was Bahrain 2021 – a stunning 92% hit rate.
So despite Pierre Gasly‘s prediction that this could be a more difficult weekend for the championship leader, it’s hard to envisage anything other than a record-breaking win.
“People are allowed to wish for these kind of things,” Verstappen told select members of the press, including Total-Motorsport.com. “But I think it’s going to be a good track for us. I know that some races will be more busy than others, this one is probably a little bit more relaxing.”
There’s various measures recording Milanese traffic as the worst in Italy, Europe or even the world in the past ten years. But for one weekend a year that’s broadcast to the world… sort of.
The difference having a slipstreamed run makes in qualifying means drivers can trip over themselves trying not to be first over the line, and any gentleman’s agreement for a sensible Saturday goes out of the window.
This most famously happened at the 2019 Italian GP, after Kimi Raikkonen crashed at Parabolica bringing out the red flag with less than two minutes to go in Q3.
That meant there was the surreal sight of nine drivers exiting the pits in a race for second place on the outlap. Nico Hulkenberg purposefully cut turn one to escape being at the head of the queue, all nine drivers inched round the track before realising they were going to miss the chance to get another lap in and Carlos Sainz was the only person to reach the finish line in time – but couldn’t improve his time after such an imperfect out lap.
And though we’ve not seen a repeat of this at Monza, yet, the 2023 British GP saw traffic problems and there was nearly a multi-car pile-up at Club.
“It’s racing,” Sainz said at Silverstone. “I think we are respecting it less and less, especially in mixed conditions, especially when the flag is coming and you have to put a lap in.
“The problem is people behind us started to overtake us, which meant if you give a four second gap between all the cars, it meant that I was not going to get a lap in.
“And because the gentleman agreement doesn’t exist anymore and it’s been completely forgotten to do something to stop.”
Who are the speed demons?
From the recent dry(ish) qualifying sessions, the Red Bull Ring and Silverstone provide the best look at which teams are fastest at full chat given the rain at Spa.
Red Bull are obviously up there, but two more names also stand out – Williams and Ferrari. All four drivers were in the top six for the Austrian GP speed trap, while only Sargeant was missing from the party at Silverstone.
|Austria speed trap
|Silverstone speed trap
Just as notable are the names missing from the list. Norris was the faster McLaren at both races but was 14th and 9th respectively, while Mercedes were outside the top ten in Austria.
And these figures are more reliable than in previous years too, as the budget cap means teams don’t have so much scope for developing a Monza-specific package.
“Ferrari looked like they struggle at the maximum downforce tracks, McLaren looked like they struggled at the lower downforce in Spa but it will no doubt change from track to track,” Mercedes‘ trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin told media among Total-Motorsport.com at a Dutch GP show-and-tell.
“The wings for Monza are actually very close to what you’ve got in Spa now so they’re basically the same with some tuning, there might be elements where you remove parts from the car.
“The wind tunnel resource restriction is the thing that would stop you doing loads of work on a Monza package. But there might be a few bits that come off.”
Williams to repeat Zandvoort success?
Speaking of which… Williams‘ pace at Zandvoort did come somewhat out of nowhere – even given the potential for an upgrades jump after the summer break it’s tracks like Monza where you’d expect Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant to shine.
It’s not getting ahead of anyone to say that Albon is a legitimate podium contender in Italy. Williams are super quick in a straight line and should be strong enough in the turns (there’s only seven corner sections) to stay in contention.
He was fantastic in Canada – driver of the day in fact, for all that means – and the FW45 has only got better since then.
Logan Sargeant‘s best performance this season was at the British GP where the Williams looked pretty strong in general, and he also showed he was able to get something out of the car in the Netherlands.
However, Sargeant came into Silverstone having won there from pole in the 2022 Formula 2 season, while he didn’t do fantastically at the F2 Monza round last season. He qualified ninth for the feature race but was taken out at turn four, after botching his start from the front row and slipping to fourth.
Monza is a much simpler track than Zandvoort and Sargeant should really be targeting this race for his first points of the season, but there’s not too much to suggest the gap to Albon will shrink.
It’s amazing to think Williams could be the best-performing Mercedes-powered team of them all – McLaren and Mercedes have been good all-rounders but Monza shouldn’t play to their strengths on paper.
Meanwhile Fernando Alonso has high hopes for Aston Martin and scored a podium in Canada but the AMR23 has performed on high-downforce circuits.
Ferrari have big potential on home turf
“I think two teams in our numbers will stand out here, one is Williams, they will be fast in the top speed that they show through the season.” Alonso told the Monza media, “And the other one would be Ferrari.”
“Like in Canada it’s long straights, short corners, chicanes and things like that they are super fast so those two teams will be, I think, the biggest challenge for us in terms of competitiveness. They could fight for the podium between between them.”
This weekend Ferrari are paying homage to their Le Mans victory earlier this year, with their livery invoking that of the 499P that won in France, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see them emulate that success at Monza.
If any misfortune does befall Verstappen, Ferrari should be right up there to take advantage with a similar formula to Williams – they’re lightning-quick in a straight line and weren’t bad at the twisty stuff in Zandvoort either.
Sainz also admitted Ferrari are using free practice sessions to begin data-gathering for their 2024 car but that won’t be the case here given Monza‘s highly-specific nature, so they should enter qualifying fully locked and loaded.
Perhaps the biggest question is can Ferrari maximise whatever opportunity arises though, they’ve not exactly proven themselves the most streetsmart team in the past few years.
But if they can get it together, and record just a second home win in 13 years, you certainly don’t want to miss it.
It’s lights out at 14:00 GMT on Sunday, with qualifying starting at 15:00 on Saturday. Meanwhile FP1, FP2 and FP3 begin at 12:30, 16:00 and 11:30 respectively. Total-Motorsport.com will be live-blogging each session and providing plenty of reaction to whatever plays out at Monza, as F1‘s European leg comes to an end.