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Formula 1 Italian GP

How Ferrari's Monza special shows there's still room for sentiment in F1

Amid Max Verstappen's and Red Bull's unprecedented win streak, Ferrari breathed some life into Formula 1 2023 with its special Monza approach.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing, 2nd position, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, Carlos Sainz, Scuderia Ferrari, 3rd position, on the podium

In a sport where numbers are everything, there has been ever less room for sentiment. But when Ferrari headed to Monza, it couldn't help but pull out all the stops.

Over 304,000 disciples headed to the temple of speed across the Italian Grand Prix weekend. While the wait for a first constructors' title in 15 years goes on, Ferrari fandom remains religion in Italy, with the pressure of expectation from the thunderous tifosi omnipresent regardless of the Scuderia's form.

In 2023 Ferrari has struggled to convert its often-solid qualifying speed into consistent race pace, floundering on most high-downforce circuits so far. So, when in Baku its relative strength on low-downforce tracks became apparent, it became an easy call for Ferrari to go all in for its home race.

F1's budget cap and its aerodynamic testing restrictions demand a certain discipline, as teams have to pick and choose their CFD and wind tunnel projects. Therefore, most teams, the dominant Red Bull among them, tweaked and trimmed existing wing profiles for Monza's flat-out blasts.

But Ferrari came up with a bespoke package for Monza, despite knowing its efforts would be useless on further tracks. The team also fitted fresh power units to the cars of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc to maximise its power output. 

The 'Monza special' paid off, with Sainz defeating Red Bull's dominator Max Verstappen in qualifying by a 0.013s margin, followed by the second scarlet chariot of Leclerc.

"[I've had] goosebumps since I crossed that finish line, the whole in-lap watching the crowd and obviously getting out of the car and seeing this," Sainz said after claiming the most meaningful pole of his career.

Pole man Carlos Sainz, Scuderia Ferrari, gives a thumbs up

Pole man Carlos Sainz, Scuderia Ferrari, gives a thumbs up

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

"I haven't stopped the goosebumps. It's incredible. In the hotel, arriving at the track, everywhere we go. It's just noise, support and encouragement and it's the best feeling you can have as a driver and as an athlete."

The first part of the job was done for Ferrari, with the team still basking in energy on Sunday morning.

"Have you seen how much red there is out in the crowd? Go figure," Ferrari performance engineer Jock Clear jests when Autosport asks him to what extent sentiment played a part in its decision to put a significant amount of its chips on a Monza glory run.

"Obviously, there's a cost cap and everybody has to decide what they want to spend their money on. Nowadays it's a unique race, the only place where we would run absolutely low downforce.

"But early in the season, we recognised that the lower downforce was suiting us better. Not just from a sentimental point of view, not just because the crowd is full of red. But it's clearly a circuit that was going to benefit us.

"Doing a bespoke package was the right thing to do from a performance point of view. Of course, it comes with the Ferrari being on pole in Monza. And that's worth huge amounts to all of us: motivation, the crowd, the tifosi, the drivers; there's nothing better."

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner didn't begrudge Ferrari its day in the sun, safe in the knowledge that while Ferrari had the best low-drag Monza package, Red Bull's additional downforce would stand it in good stead in Sunday's sweltering race.

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-23

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-23

Photo by: Erik Junius

Not only did Red Bull's race pace still look three-tenths quicker, but its higher downforce levels would also provide superior tyre management.

"Ferrari getting the pole position, you could see what it meant to the tifosi," Horner recognised. "I was in the same hotel as the Ferrari drivers. It was about 1am when they started to finally quieten down..."

To their delight, a spirited Sainz put up a stout defence against Verstappen but following a lock-up in Turn 1 on lap 15 the Spaniard finally had to relinquish his lead and would never get it back. Verstappen took his 10th consecutive win, and Red Bull's 15th, both all-time F1 records.

"Ferrari was very fast on the straights and I think Max could see that they were a little bit harder on the rear tyre," said Horner. "That was part of our strategy in terms of the setup that we adopted, knowing that the temperatures were going to be a little bit higher.

"Monza holds such a special place of importance in their season that you can see the package that they bought here was focused on straight-line speed. They did a great job in qualifying, but we put more bias towards Sunday than Saturday, and I think it paid off in the end with a very strong race.

"Carlos defended very hard and robustly, which you would in a Ferrari around Monza. But finally, Max was able to get that pass done."

PLUS: Why Sainz was able to make F1's 2023 Italian GP as good as it was

The battle with Red Bull eventually petered out, with the second car of Sergio Perez making it past both Ferraris to secure a Red Bull 1-2. But Ferrari didn't stop there.

Attention turned to a gripping intra-team battle between Sainz and Leclerc, the latter having been a step behind his team-mate all weekend until the race. With Sainz chewing through his tyres in his valiant but futile defence against Verstappen, which prompted an earlier pitstop, Leclerc appeared to have the upper hand in the second stint.

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-23, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Kevin Magnussen, Haas VF-23

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-23, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Kevin Magnussen, Haas VF-23

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Neither driver gave an inch, now wanting to be the hero receiving the plaudits from the tifosi on Monza's uniquely iconic podium. A third place that would be celebrated like a victory in the face Red Bull's hegemony.

One could have easily forgiven team boss Fred Vasseur for freezing the positions, with Ferrari often having been criticised in the past for being afraid of mistakes, an attitude which has sometimes led to strategic slip-ups.

But to its credit, Ferrari let its drivers free to race until the end, which provided much-needed entertainment during a season suffocated by Red Bull's unprecedented dominance.

"If I had frozen the position, you would have exactly the same question: why did you freeze the situation?" a typically jovial Vasseur explained. "I think it was the best way to thank everybody, the support of the tifosi.

"I was not that comfortable to freeze something five laps before the end. I trust them but I told them no risk at all. I'm quite proud of the decision and of the job done by the drivers."

Sainz eventually hung on to secure third, a just reward for one of his strongest weekend performances in F1. It was clear what it meant to the Spaniard, but even more telling was Leclerc's response after the race.

PLUS: The numbers that prove Monza 2023 was Sainz’s best F1 race weekend

Having experienced Monza ecstasy when he won the 2019 edition, Leclerc didn't begrudge Sainz his turn to greet the masses. And their thrilling battle left him full of adrenaline.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing,Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing,Carlos Sainz, Ferrari

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing,Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing,Carlos Sainz, Ferrari

Photo by: Erik Junius

"I honestly really enjoyed it. It's probably the most enjoyable race of the season inside the helmet at least," Leclerc beamed. "I am sure the pit wall wouldn't give the same answer, but this is exactly what race should be.

"I'm sure Carlos lived a very special moment, so he should enjoy it."

Ferrari's memorable Monza weekend won't be the cure for all maladies, with the next race weekend likely much more difficult on a hot and twisty Singapore street circuit.

But as the Scuderia shifts focus to its 2024 car project, it can be a reinvigorating tonic that lifts heads around the Maranello factory. Ferrari also proved that, sometimes, there is still room for sentiment in modern F1.

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari

Photo by: Ferrari

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