The Monza F1 Grand Prix ended under unfavorable circumstances, but there was still plenty left to unpack.
Another Grand Prix weekend, another Max Verstappen victory, and another step towards a second title for the young Dutchman, who could clinch the title at the next race if he wins and Charles Leclerc finishes 9th or lower and Perez fourth or lower. Whatever the case, the final Grand Prix (Abu Dhabi) won't be the decider it famously was last year.
We'll have to wait a while for the next race, as Sochi (Russia) would have been the next stop but was canceled due to the ongoing Ukrainian invasion. F1 returns to Singapore for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic in early October.
The second Italian race of the season (by location, not name) was rife with grid penalties at the Temple of Speed. But despite Verstappen walking away with what ended up being an easy victory, Round 16 provided lots of information to unpack, including the focus on being on another Dutch driver entirely. But before we get to that, there's some controversy to unpack.
When Daniel Ricciardo's McLaren broke down on Lap 46 of the race, a safety car was deployed that effectively cemented the racing positions of everyone at that point. Verstappen was 20 seconds ahead of Leclerc, affording him the ability to pit for fresh tires and retain his position. The Safety Car never returned to the pits and the race finished behind the only Aston Martin to finish the Grand Prix.
No, the FIA did not keep the safety car out there so that Max Verstappen could win - although there will be those that argue (without supporting evidence) that Leclerc's Ferrari would've been more competitive in those final laps than he had been all race. If anything, the safety car stopped Red Bull from scoring maximum points. Sergio Perez pitted for a new set of softs and set the race's fastest lap on lap 46. He was working his way up the grid and had Hamilton in sight.
Many fans are disappointed that a Grand Prix at the Temple of Speed finished at a snail's pace behind an Aston Martin Vantage, as teams and drivers have repeated on numerous occasions that, where possible, they want to finish under race conditions.
This was what Michael Masi was trying to avoid at the end of the 2021 season, and we all know how that worked out.
Yes, the end was dull, but it was legally correct. Could it have been handled differently? With a red flag and a restart for a final five-lap sprint to the finish? Well, the race was not red flagged as it did not fit in with the FIA's Formula 1 Sporting Regulations, Article 57.1, which says that a race may only be suspended if "... the track cannot be negotiated safely, even behind the safety car ..."
We're now seeing certain people calling for Verstappen's 2021 championship to be revoked now that an actual Grand Prix finished the way it "should have" at Abu Dhabi in 2021. But the critical reason why this won't be done is that Masi's interpretation of the rules in Abu Dhabi was never deemed incorrect. The FIA stated there was "human error," but his ruling was determined to be within the regulations. Following the controversy, the FIA changed the rules.
Alex Albon is a rising star at Williams. The young driver failed to make an impression at Red Bull, but he was perhaps too young for so much pressure. He left F1 for a year, returned as a Williams driver, and scored his first points for the team within three races. It's one of those F1 feel-good stories.
But Albon didn't race this weekend. He was diagnosed with appendicitis ahead of Free Practice 3, prompting Williams to call in a replacement driver. Luckily, Nyck de Vries was at Monza driving free practice rounds for Aston Martin as part of a driver development program all teams have to participate in. The Mercedes-contracted driver, and Formula E champion, was called in to save the day at Williams.
Imagine the pressure for a second. Sure, he had done a few laps in an Aston Martin and FP3 in the Williams, but that's it. Most of his experience comes from F2 and Formula E, and suddenly he has to race against 18 of the best drivers on the planet on the fastest circuit of them all. If he had come last or binned it into the wall, nobody would have blamed him.
Instead, Nyck went out there and scored two points after putting in a stellar qualifying session on Saturday. Williams' other driver, Nicholas Latifi, has yet to score a point this season. When George Russell drove for Williams, it took him 48 races to score a point.
Verstappen and de Vries are out there proving that an old rally racing adage ("If you want to win, employ a Finn") can now be updated for circuit racing. If you want to win, hire a Dutchman.
Several drivers were handed grid penalties, and the starting order was only confirmed hours after qualifying ended. Carlos Sainz Jr. and Lewis Hamilton had to start from the rear in 18th and 19th positions, respectively. By the halfway mark, Sainz had battled his way to third place in a remarkable drive. He went in for a tire change, dropped back to sixth, and was well on his way to third place until the safety car brought an end to proceedings.
The safety car secured Russell's third place, but the final results can't hide a terrific drive from the Spaniard. Leclerc might have finished 2nd for the Tifosi on home turf, and at a race where the Ferrari team sported a special celebratory livery, but Sainz appears to be the in-form Ferrari driver of late. He's slowly becoming a threat to everyone currently competing for second place in the drivers' championship. Leclerc is on 219 points, Perez on 210, and Russell on 203.
Sainz has collected 187 points so far, but he had a rough start to the season. Now that he's found his groove, he is quickly proving himself as a potential future champion.
Norris is often overlooked, as there's too much controversy going on at the moment. McLaren lost fourth place in the constructors' championship to Alpine, and Daniel Ricciardo lost his seat to Oscar Piastri.
After he pulled a fast one on Alonso on Lap 1, we decided to have a look at Norris' progress so far this year. McLaren might be in fifth thanks to a decent effort from Alpine this year, but Norris is the leader of the midfield, carrying McLaren on his back at this point. He may have started 3rd and finished 7th, but in a subpar car, that was a fine effort.
In retrospect, his multi-year contract with McLaren seems like a bad move. He's a talented driver that was no doubt on the radar of top teams like Red Bull and Mercedes but is now locked into a deal with McLaren that could ruin his career if the team can't provide him a winning car.
The F1 Circus returns to Singapore Grand Prix for the first time since 2019 in a few weeks. Like Monza, it's another race Max Verstappen has yet to conquer, but he has been on the podium before. Following that, the teams return to Japan, also for the first time since 2019.
The six remaining races are a blend of street circuits and purpose-built tracks, but they all have one thing in common. The technical races are now done, and the remaining races are all high-speed.
This bodes well for Verstappen, but it's even more beneficial for Red Bull as a whole. Charles Leclerc and Sergio Perez are battling for second place, and Leclerc is currently nine points in the lead. With the Drivers' and Constructors' Championships all but wrapped up, Red Bull's main aim will now move toward giving Checo the best chance to finish in second place, ending the entire season on a one-two.
Verstappen may have the title in the bag, but don't expect him to slow down. There are still two crucial records to aim for. By winning the Italian Grand Prix, Verstappen claimed his 11th victory of the season. He's officially tied with Sir Lewis Hamilton for the most wins in a season. But the record is a tie between Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel with 13 race wins each. This season has six races left, and Verstappen needs three more to claim the record.
The record for the most points scored during a single season belongs to Hamilton, with 413 points during the 2019 season. Three more wins and Verstappen is there. Even if he comes second or third in the remaining races, he'll still better the record.