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ANALYSIS: The 98.2% Perfect Performance in Monza

ANALYSIS: The 98.2% Perfect Performance in Monza

Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport achieved its third 1-2 result of the season at Monza, with Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and the team having another record-breaking weekend. Lewis took the lead in the Drivers' Championship for the first time in 2017 with his sixth victory of the season.

Lewis's historic 69th pole position

Monza is one of the most historic venues on the Formula One calendar. Dating back to 1922, it was the world's third permanent autodrome, after Brooklands in the UK and Indianapolis in the USA.

Mercedes has become the first manufacturer to win four consecutive Italian Grands Prix. Alfa Romeo managed a pre-war hat-trick and, after the official F1 World Championship began in 1950, Lotus scored a hat-trick in 1972-3-4, with Ferrari doing likewise in 2002-3-4. Three victories in the past four years from Lewis and one from Nico Rosberg have seen the Silver Arrows eclipse those feats.

Lewis also set a new outright record of 69 Grand Prix pole positions with a stunning lap in wet conditions on Saturday, which saw him a whole 1.15s quicker than nearest rival Max Verstappen, who was marginally faster than Red Bull team mate Daniel Ricciardo - although both Red Bull men were among no fewer than nine drivers who dropped down the grid with engine/gearbox penalties.

It is not often that the pole record has changed hands throughout F1 history. The great Jim Clark sealed his 33rd and last pole position at the Soiuth African GP on Jan 1st 1968, that total beaten by Ayrton Senna at Phoenix in 1989. Senna's 65th and final pole came at the tragic San Marino GP of 1994 and remained a record until Michael Schumacher eclipsed it at the same circuit 12 years later. Michael's 68th and final pole came at the French GP later that same year.

Lewis's historic 69th was his sixth at the Italian GP - another record, putting him one ahead of the five managed by legends Juan Manuel Fangio and Senna.

'Good, fair, hard wheel-to-wheel racing'

When Valtteri and both Ferrari drivers experienced problems generating tyre temperature on Pirelli's full wet tyre in qualifying, a topsy-turvy grid saw Mercedes-powered Lance Stroll (18) become the youngest driver ever to start a Grand Prix on the front row. Young Frenchman Esteban Ocon, also with Mercedes power behind his shoulders in the Force India, lined up alongside Valtteri on the second row, with the the two Ferraris of Vettel and Räikkönen on row three.

When the lights went out, Lewis converted his pole position and, after a slight lock-up into Monza's tight first chicane, was already 1.8s in front by the time he flashed across the line at the end of the opening lap. Behind him, Ocon led Stroll with Valtteri fourth, the No.77 Silver Arrow crossing the line just 0.06s ahead of Raikkonen's Ferrari after an exciting opening lap dice.

"I really enjoyed it," Valtteri said, "Good, fair, hard wheel-to-wheel racing. I had a bad start with a bit too much wheelspin, he got ahead of me, we had a small touch out of Turn 1 and he came out ahead. Then I had an opportunity going into Parabolica. I got a good tow, he was covering the inside and so I tried to carry a lot of speed around the outside knowing that we had good straightline speed and that I would most likely get a tow from the cars ahead. That worked."

Next on Valtteri's radar were Ocon and Stroll. The Force India and Williams not quite so quick in a straight line as they had been in practice after putting on a bit more rear wing for the wet qualifying session. Valtteri was able to pull off the more conventional Monza pass by pulling out of the slipstream on the main straight and going down the inside into Turn 1, which he did to the young Canadian on lap 3 and the Frenchman on lap 4. With four of the race's 53 laps down therefore, the two Mercedes were in prime position at the head of the pack - Lewis leading Valtteri by just under four seconds, a margin that stayed pretty constant throughout the race.

'Otherwise it was 98.2% perfect for us'

After wet qualifying, race tyre choice was free but degradation on both the Pirelli SuperSoft and Soft compounds was low, with the Medium white-walled tyre not called upon at all. Race strategy was universally single-stop and so Monza became arguably the most straightforward race of the season for the team, as Valtteri finished 31s clear of third-placed Vettel. Ferrari's relative lack of pace compared to Spa allowed the Mercedes team to extend the opening stints and only pit Lewis and Valtteri to go onto the Soft compound Pirellis after Vettel (already outside the 23s pit window) had made his own stop on lap 31.

Lewis' only 'moment' was running slightly wide out of the second chicane and dropping his left front wheel slightly into the gravel.

"I hit the kerb a little bit hard going in and the front jumped and slid a bit wide. It was just a little bit - not all of my tyre was in the gravel!" he smiled. "That, and the small lock-up into Turn 1 on lap 1 were the only things. Otherwise it was 98.2% perfect for us."

The margin enjoyed at Monza allowed the team to turn down its engines from around a quarter distance with one eye on the reliability issues that could prove crucial later in the 20-race season.

So, what had changed from Spa seven days earlier, when Vettel and Ferrari had put Lewis under such sustained pressure throughout?

'This weekend it really worked'

"I think the job the guys did analysing the deficits we had at Spa was awesome," Toto Wolff explained. "We had some very strong sectors in Spa and sacrificed raw speed for race speed and therefore lacked low downforce performance, braking stability, apex stability and traction. We tried to understand and optimise that for Monza and straight from the get-go we had a car that was really solid and good to drive. In that wet qualifying there was so much opportunity to make mistakes but we had lots of grip and a good margin. It was the same in the race. We proved that we had recovered well from Budapest and, in a certain sense, from Spa."

Lewis, of course, won superbly in Spa despite being pushed so hard, so perhaps Valtteri's take was even more relevant after his fifth place in Belgium.

"Spa," he said, "is such a different track. There's a lot of high and medium speed corners, so in general you need a much stiffer car and then the traction can be really poor. Here at Monza though, there's not really high speed corners and so you can set the car up a bit more for the chicanes and for traction. This weekend it really worked, whereas at Spa we didn't really have an opportunity to set up the car for the slow speed stuff."

Toto, however, refused to get carried away by the team's comfortable margin in Italy, with strategists also pointing out that the margin to Force India was relatively normal, that Red Bull's back of the grid starts disguised their true pace (Ricciardo finished fourth from the back, just 4s behind Vettel) and that Ferrari had likely underperformed.

'When you have a bad day you can't hide it'

"When you have a bad day you can't hide it," Toto commented. "For me, it looks like this weekend Ferrari made a step back somehow. I think we were very solid but they also haven't performed the way that everyone expected. Red Bull starting from the back of the grid and almost finished P3, so there's just something that's out of sync there - that's not how it should be. So I can understand if Ferrari are upset about it."

Conventional wisdom suggests that Ferrari is likely to hit back strongly around the slow and medium speed turns of Singapore's Marina Bay Street Circuit in a fortnight. Although Nico Rosberg won for the Silver Arrows last year, he was pushed hard by Ricciardo's Red Bull, which split the two Mercedes on the grid, while Vettel was effectively removed from the equation by starting at the back.

"I think Ferrari will be very rapid in Singapore in the low and medium speed corners," Lewis confirmed.

It is certainly not a challenge and threat that the team is shying away from, as Toto pointed out: "Singapore wasn't the best place for us in the past and we were delighted to win it last year because we had such a difficult time in 2015. I still believe there are certain characteristics of track that suit your car or not. You can see that slow, twisty circuits have rather suited Red Bull and Ferrari, whereas lots of high speed downforce is good for our car.

"But, I don't think that's a pattern that you can't break. It's all about understanding the car and the more we clock mileage the more we learn about it. Nevertheless I still expect it to be a more difficult weekend for us than Monza, Spa or Silverstone."

'It's an empowering feeling, for sure'

For the moment though, Lewis, Valtteri and the whole team are happy to savour such a dominant record-breaking weekend in the Monza royal park, and the fact that for the first time this season Lewis leads the Drivers' Championship.

"It's an empowering feeling, for sure," he beamed. "These last races have been real solid. I feel like I've found more heart and passion in these last three races. And while the lead is only three points, I'm grateful for it."

He was even able to remain sanguine about some booing as Ferrari's tifosi had to see their main rivals standing on the top two steps of the Monza podium... 

"The booing kind of went over my head," Lewis smiled. "It's to be expected here in Italy. In the last five or six years it's been common if the Ferrari drivers are not on top. Inevitably you are going to be the villain here in Monza if you're the one stopping the Ferraris. If Valtteri and I hadn't been driving today, Ferrari would have won. Some days I'm really happy to be the villain! And I actually admire the fans' passion. It feels a bit more like football fans here - the aggressive ones! But it's all in the name of love for the red cars. It might be a slow process but hopefully I'm converting a few!"

Monza brought down the curtain on F1's European season and the championship now turns to its hectic flyaway finale with seven races in 12 weekends amid busy travel schedules that test stamina to the limit. Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport embarks upon it with a 62-point lead over Scuderia Ferrari in the Constructors Championship and with the Drivers' score at Lewis, 238; Vettel, 235; and Valterri, 197. Roll on Singapore!

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