The recent, contentious Formula One race in Italy is outlined by our regular contributor Nick van der Meulen in his report F1 Review Italy 2021.

The Autodromo Nazionale di Monza is synonymous with the Italian Grand Prix (the only time the Grand Prix was not hosted at the legendary circuit was in 1980, when it was run at Imola). It is the lifeblood of Italian motorsport and anyone who has visited the venue can immediately sense that this is a special place – hallowed ground. Every driver who visits the venue is in awe and tends to fall in love with it.

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It is located in a large park and spectators have to walk a fair distance through trees and brush to reach the grandstand. It is steeped in history, hosting races since 1923, and virtually every legend in motorsport history has set foot here. The banked part of the circuit, discontinued after the huge accident in 1961 which killed Wolfgang von Trips and 15 spectators, is still there (in regular use for motoring photo shoots), adding to the mystique of the venue.

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Saturday sprint

F1 hosted its second ever sprint race at Monza this weekend. The aim to produce a greater spectacle has hardly been convincing thus far. Valtteri Bottas qualified in pole position and waltzed to victory unchallenged, while Max Verstappen (Red Bull Racing-Honda), Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris (both McLaren-Mercedes) both got the jump on Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) at the start and chased Bottas to the chequered flag.

Pierre Gasly (Alpha Tauri-Honda) had a nightmare weekend, lightly tagging Ricciardo while scrabbling through the Rettifilo chicane (Turn 1) at the start, damaging his front wing, which went under his front left tyre and pitched him into the wall at Curva Grande (Turn 3). On race day, the Frenchman, last year’s winner, was an early retirement after pulling into the pits on Lap 2.

Bottas netted three points, but had a fourth engine change earlier in the weekend, which resulted in a penalty: he had to start the main race from the back of the grid. Interesting how the sprint race at Monza (one third race distance) dished out points for the first three finishers, while Spa allocated half points for the first ten finishers for completing three laps behind the safety car…

Main event

Verstappen start from pole position on race day, with Ricciardo alongside him on the front row of the grid. When the lights turned off, Ricciardo got the better launch and took the holeshot. Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) made short work of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz and aimed to chase Charles Leclerc (Ferrari). There was contact between Sainz and Giovinazzi at the exit of Curva della Roggia (Turn 4), pitching the Italian sideways and losing his front wing in the process. Giovinazzi was penalized 5 seconds, as a result.

Moments before, Hamilton tried to pass Verstappen around the outside at the same corner and was escorted over the rumble strip for his efforts, losing a place to Norris. The corner was a popular place for incidents, as Esteban Ocon (Alpine) received a five-second penalty for crowding Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin-Mercedes) to the outside of the corner on the brakes, forcing the German onto the grass.

Later, Sergio Perez (Red Bull Racing-Honda) passed Leclerc, cutting the corner at the exit in the process, and was penalized five seconds for his indiscretion. Another rivalry which has been intensifying in 2021 is that between the two Haas-Ferrari drivers, Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin. Mazepin has been aggressive in his passes and defense and he tagged his teammate into a spin at Curva Roggia, resulting in the Russian being slapped with a 5-second penalty.

Heating up

The rivalry between Hamilton and Verstappen may just be the most intense since that of Senna and Prost in the late ’80s. The two championship protagonists had yet another coming together halfway through the race, when the Englishman exited the pits after his pit stop. Verstappen, still smarting from a poor pit stop, lunged around the outside on the brakes.

Hamilton had the corner, the Dutchman tried to force the issue over the kerb and the rumble strip launched the Red Bull into the air and over the back end of the Mercedes, causing significant damage. Verstappen’s rear wheels were left spinning on top of the nose of Hamilton’s Mercedes, both of them out of the race and bringing out the safety car. The reinforced cockpit area proved its worth again in this incident, with Hamilton miraculously escaping injury. Verstappen receives a three-place grid drop at the next race and two penalty points on his super license as the race stewards deemed that he was responsible for the incident.

Fast restart

The restart saw Norris getting feisty and attacking Charles Leclerc at the restart, getting two wheels on the dirt at Curva Grande as he carved his way past into second place. This resulted in McLarens running first and second for the first time in almost a decade. The two papaya-coloured machines ran in formation until the fall of the chequered flag, resulting in Ricciardo’s first victory since Monaco 2018 and McLaren’s first victory in nine years.

The Honey Badger showed what he had in hand, posting the fastest lap of the race on the final lap. His race day achievements earned the fans’ Driver of the Day accolade. Due to Perez’s penalty, Bottas was classified third after a hard charge through the field, ahead of Leclerc, Perez and Sainz. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin-Mercedes) had an anonymous run to seventh position, ahead of Fernando Alonso (Alpine), George Russell (Williams-Mercedes) and Ocon.

The next round of the 2021 F1 world championship takes place at Socchi, Russia, from 24 to 26 September. This is a happy hunting ground for Bottas, who took his last victory here. He will be aiming to repeat that feat…