An unintended consequence of the new wheelgun pitstop protocol created the circumstance that ended with Max Verstappen’s Red Bull perched precariously on Lewis Hamilton’s head.
An 8s delay at Verstappen’s Italian Grand Prix pitstop and a 1s delay in Hamilton’s put them on a collision course, one which this time took them both out.
If Verstappen had not suffered the pitstop delay two laps earlier he’d have been a long way up the road as Hamilton exited the pits. But he did.
Under the old pitstop protocol, the smart wheelguns used by the top teams automatically relayed a signal to the crew member on the front jack the moment all four wheels were tightened. There is a button on the wheelgun the mechanic presses to arm the system to do just that.
Previously they could press that button even before they’d begun tightening the wheels, all in one swift motion. But the ruling introduced at the last race insists that the button only works if pressed after the wheel has been tightened.
If you press it prematurely – just like a driver pressing the DRS button too soon – nothing happens. In which case the procedure has to be repeated.
That’s what happened on the right-front at Verstappen’s stop. Which is why the stop took over 11s rather than under three.
This and the way Verstappen and Hamilton fought out the corner put into place the accident and a McLaren 1-2. And like that, Daniel Ricciardo was back. On the very top step of the podium, as if the nightmare of his first half-season had never happened.
He may have been about to win it regardless of the Verstappen/Hamilton incident.
He made a stronger start in the sprint race than team-mate Lando Norris alongside – and ultimately that’s what decided which of them won the grand prix and which was runner-up.
That sprint race put Ricciardo on the front row for the main event and Norris a row behind. So while Ricciardo was out-accelerating Verstappen clean into the lead at the start, Norris was busy getting involved and losing time dicing with Hamilton.
But it was just a brilliant cameo from Ricciardo surely? From there, logically it seemed a McLaren wasn’t going to out-run a Red Bull for the whole distance – Ricciardo had been around 0.6s slower than the Mercedes and Verstappen the day before – but that was to think only of respective lap times.
The reality was a Red Bull without much end-of-straight speed at Monza behind a McLaren with plenty of it. In that first stint there was nothing Verstappen could do about his former team-mate, who was faster in all the places where an overtake might be on.
In fact, in hindsight, the only way of beating Ricciardo might have been to have dropped back in that stint and taken care of his tyres rather than sitting in his DRS range for lap after lap. Because when Verstappen needed those tyres – on lap 23, just a lap after he’d gone straight on at Turn 1 and had to take to the escape apron – they had nothing to give.
Verstappen couldn’t pass Ricciardo in the first stint and wasn’t going to pass him at the stops either. “I have no grip left,” he shouted in frustration at being told to give it everything. His in-lap was 1s slower than Ricciardo’s had been. The tyres take much more of a hammering closely following another car for a whole stint than running out front and clean like Ricciardo.
It looked for all the world like Ricciardo was going to remain ahead after the stops, in the slower car. He’s sure-footed in such situations, knows how to win, but could he remain ahead without error under pressure from a faster car for 30-odd laps?
That was going to be the shape of the race. That and how Hamilton’s inverted hard-medium tyre strategy might have played out.
But then came the 8s delay on the Red Bull’s right-front – and from that moment the interlocking arcs of fate went into a crazy routine.
Hamilton had got around Norris’s outside on the left-handed part of Turns 1-2 at the start and out-accelerated him out of there up towards Curva Grande, into third place. One McLaren dealt with, seemingly.
The Mercedes was much quicker up the straight and through the kink than the more draggy Red Bull of Verstappen, next in Hamilton’s sights. Which pulled Hamilton into the inevitable physical conflict that always seems to ensue when these two fight for territory.
He went for the outside through the left-handed part of the Roggia chicane and was forced over the kerbs and the escape apron in avoidance as Verstappen didn’t give an inch.
Slow back onto the track, Hamilton was repassed by Norris – and would spend all of the next stint stuck behind him, just as he had in the sprint the day before.
Once the cut and thrust of the opening lap was over, there was no way past, just as there’d not been the day before – and just as there wasn’t for Verstappen on Ricciardo ahead. The McLaren was too strong on the straights even if you had DRS on them.
So Hamilton, on his hard tyres with the rest of the front half on mediums, switched to tyre-saving mode. He was avoiding the kerb ridges which induce heat into the rear tyres, just as he’d been doing in Portugal. He was trying to be smart.
He’d not have been in this position but for being 2mm too deep on the clutch paddle off the sprint grid the day before. That resultant wheel-spinning start there was what dropped him from second to fifth and put him on the second row for Sunday.
His weekend could – probably would – have been perfect but for that Saturday clutch release; a straightforward run to the flag from pole in the fastest car. But things had got complicated.
On around the 10th lap Norris had backed away from the Ricciardo/Verstappen dice, forcing Hamilton to lose touch too. He tried a move on the 11th and got side-by-side but again the McLaren’s end-of-straight speed was just too good to allow Hamilton to complete the pass.
So he adopted a wait and see strategy. On the hard tyre he’d be able to run longer. They’d been chosen because that was the only way they might get past all three cars which started ahead, in the correct expectation they’d all be starting on mediums. If he could keep them in good shape he could run much longer – lap 38/39 was the target. But Mercedes would be tempted into a much earlier stop than that – which is where it all went wrong.
The temptation to pit on lap 25 came as Mercedes watched Verstappen suffer his 8s delay at his lap 24 stop. Verstappen was there for the taking. It would be tight… but it was too good an opportunity to ignore.
Those fateful stops
The stops cascaded from McLaren bringing Ricciardo in from the lead at the end of lap 22. He hadn’t quite cleared Carlos Sainz’s sixth-place Ferrari but if McLaren had waited, Red Bull may have brought Verstappen in before clearing Sainz, using new tyre grip to quickly pass him on the out-lap – and in that way maybe undercut Ricciardo out of the lead.
McLaren anticipated it – and Ricciardo was able to quickly nail Sainz on the out-lap, just as Verstappen was complaining he had no tyre grip left with which to make a quick in-lap.
So a much slower in-lap than Ricciardo’s, followed by the disastrous stop amid the unfamiliarity of the new pitstop protocol. Then Mercedes bringing Hamilton in in response, a 1s delay on the left-rear, making things very marginal and as he exited the pits on his new mediums, there was Verstappen to his left, with the first chicane looming. And…
Which you’ve all doubtless watched and rewatched. The stewards reckoned Verstappen was primarily to blame. Which he may or may not have been. Certainly, he could have backed out of it by taking to the escape apron on the left, the small piece of survival space which allows you to miss the apex of Turn 2.
But he preferred to fight it out. Once he was there, he was at the mercy of Hamilton who wasn’t obliged to give any. But maybe should have, because unless Hamilton moved a little to the right, Verstappen was always going to be forced over the kerbs as the track came to a point and that was always going to clatter him into Hamilton.
The way it happened, with the wheels interlocking to launch the Red Bull over the Mercedes engine cover, was unfortunate and briefly terrifying given how the Red Bull wheel was resting upon Hamilton’s halo and head. Thankfully the wheel wasn’t turning.
“This will continue,” said a shaken Hamilton later, “until we learn from our scenarios on the track…
“The rear wheel landed on the halo and I think the inside of the most cambered part of the inside of the tyre landed on my head… it’s only when you experience something like that that you get that real shock and you look at life and realise how fragile we are.”
Verstappen: “He realised I was going for it so he kept on squeezing me. I wanted to work with him because I wanted to race.
“Of course, people then automatically start talking about Silverstone, but these things happen. Of course, it was not nice at the time but I think we are all professional enough to just get on with it and keep on racing each other.
“But then I didn’t expect him to keep on squeezing, squeezing, squeezing because he didn’t even need to.
“Even if he had left me just a car width we would have raced out of Turn 2 anyway and I think he would have probably still been in front.
“But then yeah he just kept on pushing me wider and wider and at one point there was nowhere to go, he just pushed me onto the sausage kerb and that’s why at the end of the day we touched.”
A few laps under the safety car and…
Defending the McLaren 1-2
All of which put McLaren 1-2, Ricciardo from Norris. Well, actually, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc briefly got ahead of Norris thanks to the timing of his pitstop around the safety car for the Verstappen/Hamilton clash, but Norris slipstreamed up towards Curva Grande, put a wheel on the dirt on the inside flat-out to reduce the angle of the kink and slipstreamed back ahead into the Roggia chicane.
Leclerc was later passed by Sergio Perez taking that Turn 2 apron. He didn’t give the place back, for which he would receive a 5s penalty. He never could stretch out that 5s over the Ferrari, as Leclerc used his DRS to be pulled along in his wake. Sainz did the same to Leclerc.
Early into this stint, with Perez’s potentially faster Red Bull right on their tail, Norris was suggesting the team hurry Ricciardo up, implying they should instruct him to let Norris by.
It was a delicate situation because Ricciardo was just trying to make his tyres last without losing position but Norris felt that was putting his own position in jeopardy.
“Would it be best for us if we stayed as we are?” he asked tentatively. Yes it would be, he was told.
The next McLaren concern was sprint victor Valtteri Bottas who, from the back row with his fresh engine, was flying. He’d started on the hards, had picked off car after car and then gained something like 20s on the Ferraris and Perez because of the safety car.
For a time, on his mediums, he was by far the fastest car on track. But after catching and passing the Ferraris, the best of his tyre grip was gone by the time he caught Perez.
McLaren had worked out that actually the best way of seeing off the Bottas challenge was to let rip with their best pace. It would hurt their tyres, but it would hurt Bottas’ more.
Thus let off the leash, Ricciardo stepped it up and Norris gratefully went with him. They finished the others off with raw pace to give McLaren its first victory in nine years, Ricciardo’s first since his Red Bull days three years ago.
Behind Perez (third across the line but fifth after the penalty) were Bottas, Leclerc, Sainz and – some way back – the closely-matched quartet of Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin, Fernando Alonso’s Alpine, George Russell’s Williams and Esteban Ocon’s Alpine.
“I wasn’t away,” said the delighted Ricciardo, grin set at 100. “I’ve just been a sandbagging SOB for the first half of the season.”
The McLaren team celebrated appropriately a momentous landmark for the team, its first victory in the Zak Brown era, and a 1-2 at that.
But it’s still McLaren. As Ricciardo and Norris were hoisted high up on platforms in the pitlane, the rest of the cheering team arrayed in front of them, a team guest was brought into the front of the picture: McLaren’s first world champion Emerson Fittipaldi.