Walk the parklands here at Monza and the history of the grand old autodromo is inescapable. It looms overhead in the magnificent banking and stoically endures below in the cobbles of the old paddock demanding attention through time’s mossy embrace. The temple of speed is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year but this weekend for Ferrari – Monza’s team, Italy’s team – the present is tense. The weight of history hangs heavy, with expectations inevitably high at the Italian Grand Prix.
The Autodromo Nazionale di Monza was built in only 110 days in 1922. Finished in July, its first race was the second Italian GP in September that year and established the venue as only the third permanent track in the world, after Brooklands and Indianapolis.
The circuit nestles elegantly into its surroundings outside Milan with such grace it can be passed on the nearby roads of Lissone without noticing it. Yet on Sunday, Monza will come alive to the roar of engines amid a sea of red-clad fans. However, while the tifosi doubtless enjoy the rich history of Monza, they are here to see Ferrari win.
The team is running cars with additional yellow livery this weekend, the colour Enzo Ferrari chose in honour of Modena where his team was founded, as the background to the prancing horse emblem to celebrate Monza’s anniversary. Yet what happened on the track was what mattered to Enzo and a difficult weekend is still probably in store after a season he would surely have decried as not good enough.
Ferrari opened with Charles Leclerc’s two wins from three races: they had the car to beat to end their title drought, having been without a drivers’ championship since 2007. Leclerc led Red Bull’s Max Verstappen by 46 points after round three in Australia, a gap many believed would be difficult for the reigning champion to claw back. But Italy is round 16 and Verstappen leads Leclerc by 109 points. The title is in the Dutchman’s hands. He could win it in Singapore and Japan, the two races after Monza.
Ferrari faltered after a bright start amid a series of team and driver errors. As they have foundered, Red Bull have grown stronger. Where Ferrari’s misjudgments this season were epitomised by bringing only three tyres to Carlos Sainz’s pitstop at the last round in Zandvoort, Red Bull have repeatedly delivered almost flawless races. Red Bull’s biggest advantage has been a punishing straight-line speed and at Monza, the fastest track on the calendar, running with as little downforce as possible and a skinny rear wing, they will probably be unstoppable.
Ferrari are only 30 points in front of Mercedes in the constructors’ championship, which is extraordinary given their car has barely been close to the pace of the Scuderia for most of the season. The Ferrari team principal, Mattia Binotto, believes they are going in the right direction and that stability and time are key. “Right now, we need to find some good results,” he said. “We are still looking for victories and our intention is to win at every single race, including Monza.”
Leclerc, who took his second win here with Ferrari in 2019, to the delight of the tifosi, has been trying to stay upbeat as he watched his title hopes slip away, but was blunt that a repeat at Monza was far from likely. “I think it’s going to be a bit of a difficult weekend,” he said. “We expect Red Bull to be stronger. The track characteristics don’t fit exactly our car.”
Ferrari are one down from the off with Sainz starting from the back of the grid with penalties for taking a new power unit. However, with Verstappen also having a five-place grid penalty for fitting a new engine, Leclerc will enjoy some advantage. However, Verstappen proved with wins in Hungary and Spa that starting down the field is no impediment, such is his current dominance.
Ferrari had reason for some limited optimism in practice. In the first session, which was preceded by a minute’s silence held in the pit lane in honour of Queen Elizabeth II, Leclerc was on top, but notably Verstappen did not set a time on the soft rubber. In the second session, Sainz was on top with Verstappen just over a tenth of a second back. However, with the Dutchman’s penalty his team were, ominously, focussing on his long run pace.
Monza has hosted every Italian GP bar one since the world championship began in 1950 and Ferrari’s history is entwined with that of this great circuit. Yet the past will probably offer no solace on Sunday for the team that promised so much this season but must now weather what are likely to be sighs of disappointment rather than roars of approval echoing around Parco di Monza.