With Monza’s parklands swathed in a ribbon of red, Ferrari need no reminder as to what is required of them at the Italian Grand Prix. Yet at this home race the pressure has been applied with an added frisson of intensity. Their president, John Elkann, warned before qualifying that failure is no longer an option. Doubtless then there was a collective sigh of relief in the scarlet garage as the Scuderia rose to the occasion with Charles Leclerc securing pole position.
During a season littered with team and driver errors, reduced to the level of farce when they managed to bring only three tires to a pitstop at the last round, Elkann had fired off a stern warning as Ferrari entered the cauldron of Monza.
“We must continue to make progress and that goes for the mechanics, the engineers, the drivers and obviously, the entire management team, including the principal team,” he said. “We have seen that there are still too many mistakes when it comes to reliability, driving and strategy.”
His words ringing in their ears, Ferrari duly delivered. Perhaps a similar admonishment will be delivered before the race on Sunday, given it seemed to work in qualifying. With Red Bull expecting to be strong at Monza, Ferrari pulled out all the stops and Leclerc performed brilliantly with his car optimized for the straight line blasts of the autodromo.
Leclerc, who has seen his early season optimism of fighting for the title disappear, echoed Elkann afterwards but insisted the team had to do better everywhere, not just Monza. “We need to become a team that does not make mistakes wherever we go,” he said. “It is a special weekend for us but the target does not change. We need to have a clean race and a good race.”
Yet it surely does matter more at Monza, not least for the tifosi and Leclerc gave them reason to cheer, rightly taking pole on merit with a fine lap and beating championship leader Red Bull’s Max Verstappen into second by over a tenth of a second.
However, behind him F1’s torturous and unwieldy penalty system once more left the entire session anti-climatic and confusing. The session was marked by teams receiving a slew of penalties for taking new power unit and gearbox components.
Verstappen will drop five places to seventh, which will be of little impediment to the man who won from 10th in Hungary and 14th in Spa and he was expectant of cutting through to fight Leclerc in short order on Sunday. The penalties promoted the two British drivers George Russell and Lando Norris to second and third for Mercedes and McLaren respectively but both were 1.4sec off the pace and in no doubt Verstappen would scythe past them.
The musical chairs continued across the order with Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who was third, demoted to 18th and Lewis Hamilton, who was fifth, dropped to 19th, both with back of the grid penalties for power-unit changes.
For Ferrari the real test remains on Sunday. Keeping Verstappen behind will be an immense task but even should they not manage it, at least executing without error is the very least they and their boss, observing with a pitiless eye, will expect.
It is now a matter of pride as Verstappen remains in complete control of the title race, with a 109-point lead over both Leclerc and Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez.
To further make the event special, the winner will receive a unique piece of art in the form of a trophy commissioned by the tire manufacturer Pirelli. The company is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year and as part of Pirelli’s commitment to supporting the contemporary arts, the Italian artist Patrick Tuttofuoco has sculpted the trophy, reflecting what he described as the themes of time, dynamism and speed, and has titled “Eon ”.
Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez was in fourth and with his 10-place penalty will start from 13th. McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo was eighth but promoted to fourth. Pierre Gasly was in ninth for AlphaTauri and will start in fifth and Alpine’s Fernando Alonso in 10th but moved up to sixth.
Williams’s Alex Albon was diagnosed with appendicitis on Saturday morning and his place was taken by the reserve driver Nyck de Vries who finished in 13th place but is elevated to eighth. Esteban Ocon was in 11th for Alpine but has a five-place penalty and will start in 14th.
Valtteri Bottas was 12th for Alfa Romeo and has a 15-place penalty and will be in 15th. His teammate Guanyu Zhou was 14th and will start in ninth. Yuki Tsunoda was 15th for AlphaTauri but has back-of-the-grid penalties and will start in 20th.
Nicholas Latifi finished in 16th for Williams and will start in 10th, Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll were in 17th and 18th for Aston Martin but will start in 11th and 12th. Kevin Magnussen and Mick Schumacher, who both have 15-place penalties, were in 19th and 20th but will be in 16th and 17th on the grid.