And still the great F1 races keep rolling in, ensuring we are on the edge of our seats.
Monza was a tense thriller with a fairytale ending. Charles Leclerc may appear to be Harry Potter’s polite younger brother but in combat his elbows have razor blades, he grows horns at 200mph, and his head appears to be as strong as the carbon fibre Ferrari chassis he steered to a glorious victory on home ground in front of the ecstatic Tifosi in Monza.
From pole position he just maintained the lead in to turn one. And for the next 53 laps he would have to absorb everything the mighty Mercedes team could muster to outflank him, two against one as his Ferrari team-mate Seb Vettel made yet another error by spinning off and then attracting an effective half-minute penalty by rejoining dangerously.
First off it was Lewis Hamilton applying all the pressure and looking like the potentially faster combo.
On a number of occasions Leclerc was very robust in defending, pushing the limits of several regulations. He was lucky to get a driving-standards warning flag rather than a five-second penalty when crowding Hamilton into the braking area of the second chicane, having already been dancing around through the previous flat-out Curva Grande.
Max Verstappen took a penalty last year in very similar circumstances in combat with Valtteri Bottas, and at other times or with different stewards Leclerc could have been handed the same pain. It was tough to call, and I’m very supportive of this ‘let them race’ philosophy so long as it’s consistent and the drivers don’t take liberties and spoil it all.
Mercedes pitted Hamilton first to try the undercut on fresh medium tyres. Ferrari reacted a lap later with Leclerc fitting hard compound tyres, and just maintained the lead.
And still Hamilton wouldn’t give up, but the fight would burn out his tyres prematurely in the turbulent air discarded by Leclerc’s flying Ferrari.
Meanwhile, Bottas had pitted eight laps later and was closing in on the leading two. It seemed Mercedes and Hamilton would surely have to let Bottas through to have a crack at the very wide Ferrari.
Hamilton went into turn one too deep on the brakes and solved that conundrum, and so it was then game on for Bottas. But Leclerc was too fast off the last Parabolica corner and also very rapid down the pit straight for either Mercedes to pass him.
He made a few errors of his own including a cheeky leap over the run-off zone in the first chicane, but in the end Bottas also got a touch too deep into the first chicane when it really mattered, and lost a little ground.
Leclerc was home and dry and won by eight tenths of a second, as his lapped team-mate came in an unlucky 13th. As I waited to interview the victor in parc ferme, Vettel cruised through without even a cursory look over to Leclerc embracing the ecstatic Ferrari team. It was a pivotal day for his relationship at Maranello, and he’s also now nursing nine penalty points on his race licence for that wild return to the track after his unforced spin, which means he is one major incident away from a race ban.
Come on Seb, you are much better than this…
With Hamilton making a late pit stop to claim the fastest-lap championship point, and with seven races to go along with well over the equivalent of two race victories in his pocket, surely a sixth world championship is beckoning.
Red Bull and Ferrari may take it in turns for the rest of the year to be the Mercedes challenger on different circuit layouts, but in all round performance and reliability Merc and Lewis should have it covered.
Renault had a very strong weekend both in qualifying and with a fourth and fifth in the race for Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg, their aero package working a treat on Monza’s high-speed challenges. With McLaren having a relatively miserable eight days giving away a bundle of points with both cars, the fight between the two Renault-engined teams will be tense in the closing stages.
Alex Albon had another solid race for Red Bull, once again stronger in the second half. After a trip through the gravel optimistically trying to go around the outside of Carlos Sainz in Lesmo 1, and then a penalty for completing an overtake off track, he settled back into it well.
Max Verstappen in the other Red Bull started at the back after engine penalties and was the last unlapped runner in eighth place. It could have been much better without front-wing crunching contact in the first corner for the second consecutive Sunday, but I felt sorry for him on that one as from the onboard camera he was clearly being very cautious. It sounded as though he locked the rear axle, hard on the brakes as the pack backed up.
Antonio Giovinazzi scored a couple of points for Alfa at home in ninth. I don’t know Antonio well yet but I did take a lady round the track in the Aston Martin Pirelli Hot Laps who jumped in the car and said ‘no speak English’. Giovinazzi Mamma’. So I have met his mum and hopefully she enjoyed the trip around Monza.
I know a lot of fans were less than impressed with the chaotic final qualifying lap when all bar Sainz timed-out a few seconds before attempting to start their fast lap. While remembering that nothing obliges any driver to go on track in qualifying for a second run, we were all looking forward to potentially the fastest-ever lap around the fastest circuit.
Lack of tyre overheating and plenty of aerodynamic drag from the latest cars meant a good slipstream at the right distance was worth up to half a second. Nobody wanted to be dragging round the rest of the field like the leader of a cycle peloton, so they all missed out.
There was a minimum time between two defined safety car lines which apparently was met, and so that obviously needs tightening up. But in the end data, strategy and bloody mindedness got in the way of opportunity and high-speed entertainment. Hopefully for the last time.
There are just seven flyaway races left in this season as the European season came to a close on Sunday. Where on earth has this season disappeared to? It’s seems inconceivable we can continually expect such great races, but when you think Leclerc could have won Bahrain, Austria, and Germany along with his victories in Spa and Monza, there could be plenty of surprises yet.