It was a weekend of landmarks for Lewis Hamilton at the Italian Grand Prix, but how significant some of them are remains to be seen.
Breaking the all-time record for pole positions was a magnificent achievement that further solidifies the Mercedes driver’s standing as the fastest driver of his era and an all-time great. Like his 59th career win on Sunday, his 69th career pole position is hardly likely to be his last.
Taking the championship lead and becoming the first driver to achieve back-to-back wins in this intensely fought season may yet prove to be defining moments, too. But as the dust settles from Mercedes’ dominant performance on rival Ferrari’s home Monza track, it would be unwise to jump to too many conclusions.
Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel has led the championship since beating Hamilton in the first race of the season in Australia back in March.
That win appeared to established the Italian team as major contenders again for the first time in years and they solidified the impression convincingly over the first half of the season.
Hamilton shared the lead with Vettel after his victory in the second race in China. But the Ferrari’s consistency and usability over a wide range of tracks, generally impeccable driving from Vettel, combined with some difficult weekends for Mercedes and their lead driver, gave Vettel a comfortable lead on a number of occasions.
Vettel led by 14 points after one of those difficult weekends – in Hungary, the last race before the mid-season break – but since returning from his summer holiday Hamilton has been on fire.
A brilliant pole lap in Belgium was followed by a close, race-long fight with Vettel, which Hamilton won thanks to some clever racing nous. An arguably even better pole in Monza – more than a second clear of anyone else in difficult wet conditions – was the foundation for an utterly dominant victory on Sunday.
Hamilton was booed on the podium, something he described as “inevitable” given he and team-mate Valtteri Bottas had stopped Vettel winning. “This energy is like nowhere else we ever really get to see, apart from maybe Silverstone, so I respect it, I appreciate it,” he said. “I’m happy.”
And what did leading the championship at last mean to him?
“It’s an empowering feeling because it has been a constant search and battle for perfection which is what’s been needed to overhaul the Ferraris because they have been exceptional all year long,” Hamilton said.
“These last few races have been really solid races. I definitely feel like I have found more heart and passion within myself in the last three or four races I think it is – Silverstone and from there.
“Silverstone was a real empowering weekend and that has kind of sparked a forest fire in me and that is hopefully reflecting in my driving and the way I am working with my guys.
“While I feel I always drive with my heart, my heart is the engine, the power and the force behind what I do, but my mind is like the rudder and it has been really steering me in the right direction.
“So to be leading – while it is only a couple of points – I am grateful for it but by no means do I feel comfortable, I am going to apply myself as I have the last three or four races and hope. Earlier in the year it was 20 points or something like that so I am going to see if he can have that feeling for a while.”
A tough weekend for Ferrari
While Hamilton was producing one of his most convincing and impressive performances of the year, Ferrari came up with one of their weakest.
They were slow on the long runs in Friday practice, nowhere in the wet in qualifying on Saturday and nearly 0.7 seconds a lap slower than Mercedes on average in the race. This was not a defeat, it was an annihilation.
Monza was always expected to be a Mercedes track but their advantage surprised even them.
Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff said: “For me it looks like this weekend Ferrari has made a step back somehow. I think we were very solid but also they haven’t performed in the way everybody expected. Red Bull starting from the back of the grid almost finishing third tells you something is out of sync here, something is not how it should be.”
Ferrari, though, insist that this was not unexpected. The two cars have very different characteristics and their fundamental characteristics mean there are tracks that suit one and not the other.
Although Ferrari were closer to Mercedes than expected in Belgium, the general pattern is that high-speed tracks favour Mercedes, slower ones Ferrari, and on those in the middle they are neck and neck.
Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne said the team “screwed up” and got the car’s set-up wrong. But it’s also the case that their design philosophy meant that they always knew there would be races they had to sacrifice and ironically Monza was one of them.
“I am not worried too much about the gap,” Vettel insisted. “Monza is a specific place. If you have that extra bit of confidence [in the car] then it makes a big difference. So, I’m not too stressed about that.
“We probably knew it would be a difficult race. Probably expected as well that we would be closer but, all in all, it’s not nice to see them winning but I think with the third position, at least we gave everything we had and that’s the most important.
“You can name the negatives but I’m very, very positive right now, to be honest. I know that people are going into the office tomorrow more committed than before. The spirit is there, we just need to keep it up.
“It’s a journey; we see where it takes us. It’s been a long way that the team has come from three years ago but we are nowhere near satisfied. Despite maybe having had a good season so far, it’s not good enough. Ferrari needs to be at the front and Ferrari needs to be on top of everything. So that’s where we want to go.
“For sure, they are giving us a very, very hard time, especially at the moment, but it’s a long journey still.”
Is it all about to turn around again?
Mercedes engineers agree with the general theory of car performance, and have been saying for a while that they expect Ferrari to be extremely strong at Singapore, the next race in two weeks’ time.
Hamilton feels he and his team have made progress in the last two weeks and says: “I think we will be able to give them a good race.” But he added: “I think still Ferrari are going to be quick there. They are rapid through the medium and low-speed sections of circuits.
“I am going there with a positive approach expecting to fight for the win, but if we can’t, we take it at face value and damage limitation.”
This is why, despite Hamilton having now won six races this year and Vettel only four, it would be a mistake to jump to conclusions at this stage that the 32-year-old is beginning to develop some kind of unstoppable momentum.
A mess at McLaren
While the fight at the front continues to fascinate, some other aspects of F1 were not so positive in Italy.
A four-hour qualifying session, including a two-and-a-half hour delay for rain, did not show the sport in a good light, and afterwards a few senior figures said they felt maybe the FIA had been overly conservative in their running of the session after Romain Grosjean crashed his Haas on the straight.
When qualifying did restart, still on a wet track, there were some superb performances, not only from Hamilton but also from new drivers Lance Stroll of Williams and Esteban Ocon of Force India.
So it was a shame that afterwards a series of grid penalties for various technical issues rendered the results largely irrelevant and meant that only two drivers ended up starting in the positions in which they qualified.
One of them – Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz – did so after receiving a 10-place penalty. Another, Force India’s Sergio Perez, received a five-place penalty and yet because of the complex way these things are worked out, ended up starting a place higher than he qualified.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner was far from alone in expressing his disapproval.
“It needs a serious look-at to see whether there is a better way of penalising a manufacturer or an entrant or a constructor as opposed to messing around with the grid,” Horner said. “I think it will only get worse and it would be a shame to see this championship decided on grid penalties.”
Most badly affected – unsurprisingly – were the McLaren-Honda drivers, both Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne starting at the back after the latest in a series of engine penalties. For Vandoorne, it was a particular shame after a strong weekend out on track.
Both cars retired from the race – Vandoorne with yet another engine problem, Alonso to avoid the risk of a gearbox penalty at the next race in Singapore, where McLaren expect to have one of their more competitive showings, and for which Honda has a development engine.
Briefly running that engine in Friday practice was the reason Alonso had his penalties in Monza – it avoided introducing the engine in Singapore and getting them there. Vandoorne used a version of it in the race in Italy, so another reliability problem and no obvious performance improvement was not a great sign.
Honda’s reliability has been nothing short of unacceptable this year – and the same can be said of their performance. And McLaren have had enough.
For some months, the team have been looking for a way out of their contract with the Japanese company and now the divorce appears imminent.
Mercedes and Ferrari turned them down months ago, but they are trying to finalise a deal with Renault, whose bosses were in and out of meetings with their counterparts at McLaren all weekend.
As of Sunday night, it appeared that while nothing was finally agreed, it was only a matter of time before an announcement that McLaren and Honda would split, Honda would supply Toro Rosso next year and McLaren will switch to Renault.
If that happens, Alonso will definitely stay in F1 next year with McLaren. And as long as the team has correctly assessed the performance of their chassis, the Spaniard will be much closer to the front of the grid.
He has his detractors, Alonso, but everyone admires his unquestioned talent, while McLaren have been through the mill in recent seasons but remain one of the sport’s most iconic teams.
A competitive Alonso and McLaren would be welcome news for F1. All the better if Honda can stick around and sort itself out away from the pressure and embarrassment that comes with failing while working with such big names.