Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Simran Kanthi
"He won in Spa, he wins in Monza! Charles Leclerc is the winner of the 2019 Italian Grand Prix!" These were the famous words commentated by David Croft, as Charles Leclerc crossed the line to win the 2019 Italian Grand Prix, taking his second consecutive race win, also in his career too. It was a momentous occasion for the Tifosi, ending Ferrari's nine-year winless streak at Monza. The reception to the podium ceremony was scintillating, with the Tifosi thronging the racetrack to see their hero stand on the top step of the podium at their home race.
It wasn't an easy journey to the victory for Leclerc, though, as both Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas kept him honest throughout the race. The Monegasque had to use all his smarts to keep Hamilton behind for most of the race, in a battle that would be remembered for a long time to come.
Coming into the weekend, Leclerc had the momentum, having taken his maiden Formula One victory in the previous round at Spa-Francorchamps, having held off a late-race attack from Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton to take an emotional victory. As had been the case in Spa, Ferrari were expected to have the fastest car at Monza too, with their low-downforce and strong engine power expected to be class-leading down the long straights. The tow was also expected to play a key role in qualifying, with the extra speed on the straights helping improve lap times considerably.
Friday's Free Practice sessions were held in mixed conditions, with pockets of dry weather in between. Leclerc finished at the top of the timesheets in both sessions. The first session began in wet weather, with the racetrack drying towards the end of the session. Leclerc went quickest, setting a time of 1:27.905 on medium tyres. In the second session, which was dry but saw the threat of rain for the latter part of it, Leclerc again finished the session with the fastest time, a 1:20.978. He looked unstoppable, and it would have been difficult to upstage the Monegasque driver the rest of the weekend.
Saturday morning's Free Practice session once again saw a Ferrari at the top, except it was Leclerc's teammate Sebastian Vettel who topped the timesheets this time. He set a lap time of 1:20.294, which was 0.109 seconds ahead of Leclerc, who finished fourth and also set the exact same time as third-placed Bottas. Ferrari's blistering pace around Monza certainly meant that the team had high hopes for qualifying.
Qualifying proved to be an exciting affair, indeed. Leclerc set the fastest time for Qualifying One (Q1), and Lewis Hamilton led a session for the first time during the weekend, when he set the quickest time in Q2. Leclerc however, prevailed in a controversial Q3 session to set a time of 1:19.307 to take pole position for the 2019 Italian Grand Prix, only setting a time which was 0.039 seconds ahead of Hamilton. Leclerc's teammate Sebastian Vettel, who didn't get a tow from any driver, set a time of 1:19.457, which would eventually be the fourth quickest of the session. All three drivers managed to set a competitive lap time before Kimi Raikkonen crashed at the final corner, Parabolica, and brought out the red flag. On the final runs for the session, the drivers were reluctant to head out first, as they wanted the benefit of the tow from other drivers. With 1:40 minutes left on the clock, all the drivers headed out onto the track at once. What followed was a very strange sequence of events, though.
At the front of the queue, Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg locked his tyres and went into the run-off area at the first chicane. In response, Racing Point's Lance Stroll and McLaren's Carlos Sainz slowed down to allow Hulkenberg to rejoin ahead of them. This bunched up the rest of the grid and put all the drivers at risk of cutting it too close with the chequered flag. This was evident from McLaren advising Sainz to move ahead and defend his position, as he would just make it to the line to do another lap. Only 27 seconds were left on the clock as the pack made their way into the final sector. Eventually, only Sainz and provisional pole-sitter Leclerc would make it to the line to set another lap. The rest of the pack arrived together at the line, only to miss the chequered flag, thereby unable to set another lap. The drivers were not pleased at all, as was the case in point with Hamilton's famous radio message, "Interesting tactics", and Vettel's "Thank you, thank you". Leclerc made it to the line in time but backed off later on in the lap. Nonetheless, he was on pole but expressed his disappointment in response to the mess that had just taken place. An exciting race beckoned. Could Leclerc take his second consecutive victory in front of the loyal Tifosi?
Despite an overnight shower, the race was set to be held in sunny conditions. The top four qualifiers for the race, pole-sitter Leclerc, Mercedes drivers Hamilton and Bottas, and Leclerc's teammate Vettel, all started on the red-ringed soft compound tyre.
Off the five red lights, Hamilton got a better start compared to Leclerc, but the Ferrari driver moved to the right to prevent him from taking the lead. Into the first chicane, Bottas was slightly ahead of his teammate, but Hamilton had the better line into the corner, enabling him to stay ahead. In the other Ferrari, Vettel didn't have the best of starts, getting overtaken by Hulkenberg into the Della Roggia chicane. He eventually got past the fellow German driver once the Drag Reduction System (DRS) was enabled.
Things were about to take a turn for the worse for Vettel. On lap six, he had a spin at the Ascari chicane. Hulkenberg and Ricciardo went past, but as Vettel rejoined, his front wing hit Lance Stroll, who had also spun around. The Ferrari driver carried on, albeit having suffered damage to his front wing. Stroll rejoined the track only to force Pierre Gasly off the track. Vettel and Stroll were handed penalties for the same. The German pitted on the same lap, for a change of front wing and rejoined in last place.
Back at the front, the gap between Leclerc and Hamilton had stabilised, hovering just around the one-second mark. Hamilton, although unable to get close enough to pass the Ferrari, was able to keep him honest throughout the first stint. He admitted that the Ferrari was quicker on the radio. Bottas was also keeping up with the front-running duo, the gap being around the one-second mark.
The first round of pit stops arrived on lap 19. Leclerc experienced oversteer at the second Lesmo corner and stated to his team that his rear tyres were gone. Hamilton went for the undercut, pitting at the end of the same lap, onto a set of medium compound tyres. Leclerc came in at the end of the next lap but went onto a set of the slower, hard compound tyres. He rejoined just ahead of Hamilton. Both drivers closed up to Hulkenberg, who was running second but yet to pit. A lap later, Leclerc passed the German into the final corner of Parabolica. Hamilton followed through on the start-finish straight and attempted to overtake Leclerc as well.
This brings us to a major moment in the race. Leclerc fended off Hamilton into the first chicane, but Hamilton got the slipstream from the Ferrari and pulled alongside into the Della Roggia chicane. However, Leclerc squeezed Hamilton and forced him to take the run-off area at the chicane, thus staying ahead. Hamilton was given a black and white flag for doing so. Meanwhile, Bottas made his pit stop on lap 27, going onto the hard compound tyres.
On the next lap, Carlos Sainz stopped just outside the pit lane, due to a loosely fitted front-right tyre, bringing out the Virtual Safety Car (VSC). The race resumed soon but was interrupted by another VSC when Daniil Kvyat, running in sixth place, stopped just after the first chicane. These VSCs would lead to the hard tyres on Leclerc's Ferrari cooling down once again, and thus would go through the warm-up stage when the race resumed.
The next major talking point in the race was on lap 36. Leclerc made a rare mistake, locking up into the first chicane. He went over the bumps next to the chicane and rejoined ahead of Hamilton. Although going into Curva Grande, Hamilton was right on his tail. Leclerc jerked left in the right-handed corner, thereby thwarting Hamilton's attempts to pass. Leclerc stayed ahead again, into the Della Roggia chicane.
Soon, Hamilton's tyres began to lose grip, and he mentioned the same to his team on the radio. He was encouraged to keep the pressure on Leclerc. However, he made a mistake on lap 42, locking up into the first chicane and going straight into the run-off area. While this would be the end of his challenge for the race win, Ferrari were posed with yet another challenge - Hamilton's teammate Bottas, who was on much fresher tyres.
Bottas closed the gap to Leclerc and on lap 50, looked close enough to challenge the Ferrari and make a move for the lead. However, he braked too late and went deep into the first chicane, despite remaining on track. That would be the end of his challenge for the win. Leclerc soaked up all the pressure of the big occasion and the Mercedes, to take a scintillating victory in front of Ferrari's home crowd.
This was evident in his radio message after the race, too. The Tifosi thronged the track to see their golden boy celebrate a momentous victory at the home track. The victory moved Leclerc up to fourth, ahead of his teammate Vettel in the standings. This would prove to be the changing of the guard at Ferrari, with the spotlight shifting from the veteran driver, Vettel, onto the up-and-coming star, Leclerc.