Mark Hughes: Where Leclerc’s apparent Monza edge has come from




“I’m not going to lie,” said Carlos Sainz after qualifying his Ferrari second fastest despite no drag but knowing he will start from a place close to the back for various PU penalties, “it hurts to start from the back, knowing how good I feel in the car.”

The Ferrari is in a happy place in its low Monza trim, its power unit sings loud enough to have impressed Red Bull and its balance is good. It was good enough for Charles Leclerc to take pole position, regardless of Max Verstappen’s penalty.

The theoretical drag advantage here with this generation of cars around this track according to team simulations is between 0.25-0.3s. Hard to tell if Leclerc took all that, but Verstappen, driving without the benefit of the tow, was 0.145s slower.

The outright raw performance of the two cars looks very close, although the Red Bull, with its greater wing level, looked stronger on Friday’s long run. Good enough for Verstappen to challenge Leclerc for the win starting P7? Yes probably, given that the five cars between them qualified somewhere between 1.2s (George Russell’s Mercedes) and 2.3s (Pierre Gasly’s Alpha Tauri) per lap. round slower.

Like Sainz, Leclerc was highly complimented by Ferrari. “The balance was a lot better as soon as we put it on the ground this weekend,” he said.

“It’s been a nice surprise considering where we came from, especially Spa. We didn’t expect to fight for pole here. We tested a lot of things across both cars and found a different direction which was quite interesting.”

He refers to back-to-back tests carried out between a single and double sub-beam wing and an old floor specification compared to the one introduced in France. The team settled on the single beam wing and the newer floor for both cars. It runs a smaller wing than the Red Bull, but their speeds in the various demands of the downforce-rewarding mid-sector are remarkably close.

In particular, it is Leclerc’s speed through the second Lesmo on his final Q3 lap that has made the difference. In a car running less downforce than the Red Bull, he has driven it extremely close (0.062s) in the sector to Verstappen where the advantage of the drag is at its minimum.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Monza, Italy

So within six-hundredths of Verstappen in the Ferrari’s weakest sector, he was able to enjoy the benefits of the car’s big power output and the move by Sainz to be significantly faster than the Red Bull in Sector 1 (by 0.185s). The Red Bull’s greater speed through the Parabolica allows it to almost claw back in Sector 3 what it has lost to the Ferrari’s acceleration and towed straight speed.

Q3 run 1 sector times

Sector 1 Sector 2 Sector 3
Sainz (drag) 26,721 p 27,185 p 26,678 p
Leclerc (no move) 26,804 p 27,197 p 26,762 p
Verstappen (no move) 27,124 p 27,051 p 26,684 p

Q3 run 2 sector times

Sector 1 Sector 2 Sector 3
Sainz (no move) 26.85p 27,055p 26,524 p
Leclerc (tow) 26,733 p 26,875p 26,553 p
Verstappen (no move) 26,918 p 26,813 p 26,575p

“They definitely seem to have cranked that thing up,” said an impressed Red Bull man of the F1-75’s acceleration and duration of deployment. Starting six places behind a car with such a potent Monza package might sound like a tough challenge, “but the race sims on Friday felt really good,” Verstappen points out. “I’m very happy with that pace and with the downforce level we’ve chosen we should be better on the tire grade… I just need to clear the cars between us pretty quickly.”

Asked if he felt it likely he would be able to hold off Red Bull, McLaren third-starter Lando Norris replied: “No way. They’re 1.4s quicker than us. You’d just slow yourself down [trying to defend].”

Here’s how the long race pace on the mediums (which are expected to be the tire of choice in the likely one-stop race) looked in Friday FP2:

Verstappen 1m26.09s (12 laps)
Sainz 1m26.32s (6 laps)
Perez 1m26.48s (7 laps)
Russell 1m26.481s (6 laps)

Leclerc had concentrated his long run on the softs, but comparing Verstappen to Sainz, it can be seen that the Red Bull averaged over 0.2s faster despite running twice as long. Hence Verstappen’s optimism.

But how could Sainz have performed in this race if he didn’t take his grid penalties? Does his faith believe he would have fought for the pole stack up? Because Ferrari felt confident of beating George Russell to pole (discounting the penalized Verstappen and Perez) when the Merc was around 1s slower, it decided to use the first Q3 races to maximize Sainz’s chances by giving him the tow to Leclerc.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Monza, Italy

The positions would then be reversed for the final runs. This resulted in Sainz heading for Q2 times of almost 0.2sec. ahead of Leclerc and faster in all sectors. In the second race, he remains marginally faster than Leclerc in Sector 3 despite the towing situation, mainly due to how much more momentum he is able to take into Ascari, an advantage that makes him faster for quite a long way through the race to Parabolica despite it being the tower instead of the tow.

But it is Leclerc’s speed through Lesmo 2 that is the deciding factor – and it is not related to the drag. He takes 0.2s from Sainz through there, although Carlos has improved on his previous run there.

Had Sainz managed to force Lando Norris to pass him on the out-lap, as he attempted to do, he might have made up the slack he lacked on Leclerc through Lesmo 2 and challenged his team-mate for the honor of fastest. Not that it would have changed the face of the grid.



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