Leclerc sends Tifosi wild by winning dramatic Italian Grand Prix

Charles Leclerc followed up his brilliant Belgian Grand Prix victory with an obstinate defensive drive to become the first Ferrari driver to win the Italian Grand Prix since Fernando Alonso in 2010.

With Lewis Hamilton all over the back of the Ferrari for the majority of the race, the Monegasque pushed his defensive skills to the limit and also tested the patience of the stewards, before a mistake from Hamilton on blistering tyres into Turn 1 handed him breathing space.

Leclerc then had to withstand a late charge from Valtteri Bottas but was able to hold out and take the chequered flag for his second successive victory and send the assembled home Ferrari fans, know as the ‘Tifosi’, into raptures of joy. It was not all good news for Ferrari, however, as Sebastian Vettel could only finish 13th after spinning into Ascari and receiving a penalty for rejoining in an unsafe manner.

Vettel’s latest misfortune meant a season-high fourth and fifth place finish for the Renaults of Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg, Alex Albon recovering from a drive through penalty to finish an excellent sixth ahead of Sergio Perez, who produced a stunning drive from 18th on the grid.

But the day again belonged to Leclerc, who could not contain his delight after winning for Ferrari at their beloved Monza.

“Yeeees! Yeeees! Yeeees! Yeeees! Yeeees!” was all Leclerc could scream after taking the chequered flag. Having barely had time to recompose himself, Leclerc explained the significance of such a huge win in the context of winning as a Ferrari driver at its home circuit.

“Thankyou so much. What a race,” added Leclerc after climbing from his Ferrari. “I have never been so tired. I did a few mistakes, but in the end, I finished first, so very happy with this. But I need to be careful with the mistakes but obviously none of them made me lose position today.”

It was a frantic start, Leclerc maintaining his farcically-earned pole from the Mercedes duo, whilst at the back, any chances of getting points for Max Verstappen suffered a blow, the Red Bull breaking its front wing after contact with Sergio Perez at the start and running through the escape road. It was to the Dutchman’s credit that he was able to fight back and cross the line in 8th place.

Then, on lap eight, came a defining moment. Vettel, his season quickly beginning to unravel, spun into Ascari to the dismay of the Tifosi in the stands, rejoining the track and forcing Stroll to take evasive action, which, in turn, forced Gasly onto the gravel.

It meant a ten second stop/go penalty for his troubles, Stroll receiving a more lenient drive through penalty. It also meant the Renaults of Ricciardo and Hulkenberg moved up to fourth and fifth – positions they would not relinquish.

The trials and tribulations of Vettel meant that Mercedes could go about setting about leader Leclerc with both undercut and overcut options available, Leclerc told to with to ‘Plan B’ and stay out on the circuit for longer on his soft tyres.

Mercedes were the first to roll the dice, Hamilton pitting on lap 20 for the medium tyres to take him until the end of the race. Leclerc followed a lap later, the Ferrari interestingly bolting on the harder compound tyres and emerging just ahead but on colder tyres.

It made for a cracking battle between the two in-form drivers on the grid, gritty defending from Leclerc squeezing Hamilton wide through the Ascari chicane. “He didn’t give me a car’s width there,” exclaimed Hamilton over the radio. A tight call for the stewards, showing a black and white flag for naughty driving, but only, in effect a warning not to repeat the move.

With Leclerc’s hard tyres seeming to be working fine, the whip hand now turned back towards Ferrari. But a virtual safety car caused by Carlos Sainz stopping at the exit of the pit lane, followed by Daniil Kvyat grinding to a halt at Turn 1, allowed Hamilton to again close the gap and force Leclerc into an error on lap 36, the Ferrari locking up through the chicane on lap 36 but luckily scampering through the escape road and back into the lead.

“Some dangerous driving going on,” was Hamilton’s response to Leclerc’s latest defensive move but the stewards were this time unmoved.

And then, another twist to proceedings. With Hamilton running out of tyres and Bottas closing, it became a three-way fight but with Bottas on the fresher tyres after pitting for mediums on lap 28. Yet a mistake from Hamilton into Turn 1 meant that team orders were unnecessary, Bottas streaming past into second and setting about Leclerc.

The chance seemed to have appeared with two laps remaining, Bottas closing right up on Leclerc but a mistake into the chicane cost him the chance of a late win.

“I’m gutted, you know. I was trying everything I could to get him but there was no way past,” said Bottas afterward. “Always when I was getting close enough, I started front locking because of the lack of downforce. They are so quick in the straights as well, but I tried. I think it’s the best we could do today.”

For teammate Hamilton, who almost forced his way past Leclerc on a couple of occasions, an extra point for the fastest lap was a bonus that means he is still very much in command of the championship, leading the standings from Bottas by 63 points.

“He did a great job. Congratulations to Ferrari,” said Hamilton. “To Charles, he did a great job, a lot of pressure from both Valtteri and I. I did the best job I could, I think. Obviously following so close for such a long time, the tyres eventually went off the cliff. Nonetheless they were just quicker today, much quicker in a straight line so even if we did get close, we couldn’t pass.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.

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