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Reflections on the Italian Grand Prix

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

There’s no doubt that Pierre Gasly’s win at the 2020 Italian Grand Prix for Alpha Tauri, and podiums for Carlos Sainz and Lance Stroll, provided the most surprising F1 result since Sebastian Vettel took victory at Monza back in 2008. A safety car and resulting pit-lane closure caught out the Mercedes team and Lewis Hamilton, who had previously appeared to be coasting to victory, and a red flag owing to barrier damage from a huge Charles Leclerc crash added another element of unpredictably that the sport so often craves. But beyond the scarcely believable result, what can we actually learn from the race?

(Image Credit: Sky Sports)

Shock Result but Driver Form Guide Stays the Same

Once the dust has settled on a magical weekend for F1, it will quickly be realised that the race only sought to emphasise the general opinions about driver performances over the 2020 season.

Pierre Gasly has arguably been the highest overachiever this season, consistently impressing and outpacing team-mate Danil Kvyat. Whilst the first half of his race was unspectacular, if anyone deserved a slice of luck then it is surely the Frenchman, having been harshly dropped from the Red Bull team last season and losing his close friend Anthoine Hubert in a Formula 2 crash in Belgium last year. There’s no doubt that he drove sublimely once he found himself in the lead, coping on worn tyres and facing sizeable pressure from Carlos Sainz, who had brought the gap down over the final 20 laps.

Sainz’s championship position would be much higher but for unreliability and bad luck in previous races. He has barely put a foot wrong all season and would likely have finished second in Italy anyway on merit, without the safety car and red flag. Lando Norris’s solid performance once again showed that he has great potential for the future should McLaren’s upturn in pace continue.

Once again, Albon and Bottas did not deliver performances expected by Red Bull and Mercedes drivers respectively, which will only seek to heap the pressure on both drivers.

Lewis Hamilton will win the 2020 World Championship

Once again Hamilton delivered a flawless weekend - taking pole position and coasting towards a 90th career win - but the pit-lane closure caused by Kevin Magnussen’s stricken Haas was not picked up on by Mercedes in time. Hamilton was told to pit by the team and so was hit with a penalty by the stewards.

Hamilton managed to nullify the damage done by the penalty, which demoted him to the back of the field, and fought his way back through magnificently to take 7th place and the fastest lap. Crucially, his title rivals failed to capitalise on his misfortune, with Verstappen suffering an engine problem and Bottas struggling for pace all day.

The Red Bull may be able to challenge Mercedes in Verstappen’s hands on the occasional race day, but simply lacks the pace to pose a genuine threat for the championship. Bottas did his reputation absolutely no favours today with a truly shocking first lap, dropping from 2nd to 6th and failing to make any further inroads on the cars ahead, and the 47 point gap is surely too much to prevent Hamilton from reaching a record equalling 7th world championship.

Racing Point Have a Ginormous Headache…

Lance Stroll was the luckiest driver of all and had the win in his grasp, being the only driver yet to pit before the Red Flag came out and able to change tyres without making a pit stop. But a fluffed restart and mistake at the chicane, locking up heavily, resulted in the Racing Point driver losing places to Gasly and Sainz.

Stroll showed a lack of emotion or desire in his post race interview, blaming the car for his bad re-start, and emphasising his happiness with getting on the podium rather than disappointment at throwing away a potential first win. By contrast, you could hear how much Sainz wanted the win on the Team Radio and showed much more desire during post-race interviews.

In the other Racing Point, Sergio Perez was unlucky today, but has yet to deliver on the car’s potential during the season so far, whilst Sebastian Vettel, who has been linked with the team for 2021, has not convinced at all this season, lagging behind team mate Charles Leclerc in an uncompetitive Ferrari.

As Racing Point become Aston Martin next year and strive to move from a competitive midfield team to one that competes for victories, they will be desperate to have 2 drivers who can extract the maximum performance from the car - and it's not clear exactly who they are most likely to get that performance from.

Stroll appears to lack the ambition and drive of other drivers such as Sainz.

(Photo Credit: Twitter @RacingPointF1)

Read more about the Racing Point driver conundrum here.

…and so do Red Bull

Ever since being dropped by Red Bull mid-way through 2019 and demoted back to Alpha Tauri, Gasly’s performances have been sensational, with a win and second place now complemented by assured drives and consistent points finishes.

By contrast, Alex Albon, who was promoted to Red Bull in place of Gasly, has struggled over the course of the 2020 season, lagging considerably behind team-mate Verstappen and failing to secure a podium so far, despite seemingly having the second fastest car.

Red Bull now face a difficult choice for 2021 - do they reverse their decision and put Gasly back in the team instead of Albon? Gasly has another years experience under his belt and is outperforming team-mate Danil Kvyat in a way which Albon wasn’t able to do in 2019 - but can Red Bull afford to make another driver change which could backfire if Gasly fails to transfer his performances over to the senior team and the move crushes Albon’s confidence?

Does F1 Need to do more to mix things up?

Gasly’s victory is the first win for any team outside Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull since 2013. Whilst this dominance of the ‘Big 3’ makes this result all the more satisfying, with every driver and team principal agreeing that the result is ‘good for the sport’, it goes to show that the sport truly needs to do more to engage new and potential fans.

The sensational reliability of teams nowadays has minimised the unpredictable elements that made F1 races of the past so much more unpredictable. Today’s race featured 4 retirements- more than usual - and Magnussen and Leclerc’s were what prevented the race being another from another simple procession to victory for Hamilton.

The sport can’t be designed to have less reliable cars, however there are radical steps that can be taken to improve the quality of the racing. The new regulations for 2022 and budget caps will hopefully bring the field closer together, but the sport has missed a trick in failing to experiment with reverse grid races in the 2020 season, which has had more flexibility and alternative planning to any other season owing to Covid-19.

In fairness, the first ever standing restart from the grid after a red flag rather than a rolling start- a recently implemented rule- provided us with another element of entertainment and a further test of driver skill. Lance Stroll would likely have taken the victory but for this change in regulations, and allowed Gasly to benefit from a strong restart.

If F1 can continue to make positive changes, and the 2022 regulations bring the field closer together as planned, then it begins to tackle the challenges it faces to make the racing more entertaining and secure a greater appeal to a wider fanbase.

There's a long way to go yet; but today's result shows that the sport can still provide huge entertainment on Raceday.

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