Coming fresh on the heels of Spa, the teams were probably hoping for a drama-free race weekend at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, but if that was the case they had come to the wrong place: Italians are addicted to drama, particularly in racing, and it’s simply impossible to think of a weekend passing without comment at their national circuit.
But there are few who would have predicted it would come from the weather. Spa is traditionally wet at some stage over a weekend but Monza, like the rest of Italy, is generally hot and bone dry at this time of year, which made the forecasts all the more surprising as the teams arrived in Italy on Wednesday to prepare for the races ahead.
There were a few clouds overhead as the teams made their way to the pitlane for free practice on Friday, the remnants of a brief shower earlier in the morning, but the track was dry as all of the drivers made their way onto the circuit for their programmes. Artem Markelov grabbed the top spot at the 15 minute mark, with championship leader Charles Leclerc falling in just behind the Russian before being nudged back a spot by Luca Ghiotto, putting his local knowledge to good use.
If everyone was fearful of the usual Leclerc roadshow in qualifying, they were to be happily surprised for once when Nobuharu Matsushita grabbed his first pole position at this level, and stopped the Monegasque driver taking P1 on the road for the first time this season, with a stunning lap in warm and sunny conditions for the top spot.
The McLaren-Honda development driver claimed P1 on his first flying lap, taking advantage of the F1 rubber laid down in the previous session to set a target to which his rivals could only aspire. Alexander Albon and Leclerc both briefly claimed the top spot with their first competitive laps, but further back Matsushita ran faster, setting the pace in sector 1 and 2 while missing the top spot in sector 3 by a thousandth, grabbing pole by 0.089s ahead of Nyck De Vries and Louis Deletraz.
“It is a really special day for me,” Matsushita smiled after the session. “Last week I had a really big crash in Eau Rouge, and it was a really difficult, really tough weekend for me, and actually this morning I had really good pace and we spoke a lot with the team about set ups for qualifying. My qualifying first lap was really good, no mistakes, really calm and not pushing: I think it was the best lap in my life!”
“At Monza it is easy to overtake because of the DRS and the long straight, but I’m in the best position to start and my main target is to get big points tomorrow, not make a mistake at the start and then take it easy, but not too easy! I think my pace will be very quick tomorrow, and then it’s all about degradation. It will be a good day, I think.”
There were a lot of descriptions made of Saturday, but it’s probable that none of them lead with the word good: the day was far too interesting for such mildness. The rain promised for the day before arrived in force, washing out the GP3 qualifying session and most of the F1 running, but when the storm strengthened during Q1 of the F1 qualifying session it was clear that the F2 weekend was about to be heavily affected.
Many of the drivers visited the F1 paddock while everyone waited for the rain to subside and qualifying to restart, talking to their national media and trying to stay dry. Eventually the schedule got under way once more, but GP3 was the main victim of the lost time, with the F2 race pushed back to their slot and the junior category pushed back until Sunday morning.
Rain was still falling when the F2 grid formed, with the new process instituted to run a string of formation laps behind the safety car until it was clear enough to make a standing start, and reducing the race length in the process. After 6 laps the safety car eventually pitted, with another formation lap required when Santino Ferrucci stalled, dropping the lap total to 23 for the race.
Matsushita was slow off the line when the lights went out, handing De Vries a clean line into the lead at turn 1, where Markelov broke his front wing by clattering into the Dutch driver and requiring an early stop for a replacement, with Leclerc attacking Matsushita on the back straight for P2 with Louis Deletraz, Roberto Merhi, Oliver Rowland, Ghiotto, Nicholas Latifi and Antonio Fuoco following the pair across the line at the end of the lap.
Rowland soon made short work of the 2 drivers ahead of him, with Ghiotto following his lead just behind him, while ahead of the pair Leclerc clearly had more speed than De Vries but was unable to use it: the Monegasque driver ran deep a number of times, with De Vries making the most of it each time by pulling away.
Matsushita was the first of the leaders to pit, coming in on lap 17, one lap ahead of Leclerc, leaving De Vries, Rowland, Ghiotto and Fuoco little choice but to stop next time through to cover. Racing Engineering made a great stop to help De Vries maintain his lead as he emerged ahead of Leclerc, and battle recommenced for the win, with Rowland just behind the pair. Unfortunately for the Briton his left rear only made it to the Roggia chicane before detaching, stranding him by the side of the road and bringing out the safety car while the marshals worked to remove his car.
The race was live again with just 2 laps remaining: Leclerc got a good jump on De Vries but ran too deep at turn 1, taking to the escape road while Ghiotto snuck past the Dutchman for the lead. But De Vries got a good tow and ran inside the Italian at Parabolica, reclaiming the lead for the final lap as the trio ran tightly together to Variante Rettifilo for the final time. Ghiotto cut the chicane and re-emerged, Leclerc attacked De Vries at the exit with the pair coming together behind Ghiotto, with Leclerc running wide and De Vries picking up a puncture as Ghiotto pulled away from Fuoco for the win by 2 seconds, with Matsushita (who also cut the corner) just behind in P3.
There was never any doubt about what the win meant to Ghiotto: “It feels amazing! We’ve been working hard all through the season, we’ve been through difficult moments in the second half, and we definitely needed it. It was a pretty crazy race, but wet races are famous for this! I was expecting that at the beginning, and after the safety car came out I was wondering if I could have a go for the win when I was P3: the other 2 drivers had a pretty bad first corner, and I could overtake both of them.
“It’s not easy on cold tyres in these conditions, especially at this track with the hard braking: you really need to have the tyres and the brakes ready! The last 2 laps were really long for me but I’m really, really happy to win my home race: it’s my first feature race win, because I won a sprint race last year but I was missing this, so I’m really happy.”
Unfortunately for the popular Italian the stewards were less happy, handing him a 5 second penalty later than evening for gaining an advantage after cutting the corner, dropping him to P4 and handing the win to countryman Fuoco, and pushing him a few spots up the grid the next day for the sprint race.
When the lights went out poleman Gustav Malja bogged down, leaving a clear run for a fast starting Sean Gelael to blast into the lead ahead of Louis Deletraz, Sette Camara, Malja and Ghiotto, with the Swiss driver back ahead of the Indonesian on lap 4, just before Ghiotto dispatched Malja on the inside of Parabolica for P4.
Ghiotto was on a charge to reclaim a home win, and his job was made a little easier when Sette Camara cut Roggia next time through and had to cede position to the Italian, who now had just Deletraz between him and victory: the inevitable pass came on lap 11, when Ghiotto mugged the Swiss driver at Lesmo 1 for a lead which he would hold tight for the remainder of the race as he eased away from the squabbles behind him.
Sette Camara was determined to show that his Spa victory was the start of a purple period for him, easing by Deletraz on the front straight for P2 but unable to close down the leader, while Fuoco used his home advantage to dispatch the Swiss driver late in the race for a second home podium, much to the delight of his vocal fans in the main straight.
After the emotional rollercoaster of the previous 24 hours, the effects were clear to see on Ghiotto’s face as he discussed the race afterwards: “as I said on the radio after the finishing line, this is probably the victory that feels the best of my career. When they take away a win from you and the day after you win again, it is just the best feeling in the world!
“I think we proved that we were really quick yesterday, and we didn’t win just by luck: I’m really happy about that, and we also proved to be quick in wet and dry conditions, which is really good I think. It’s very good to know that we are competitive in both conditions, even if I don’t think it will be raining in Jerez and in Abu Dhabi! We made a good step forward since Spa, and the momentum looks like it keeps on going. I feel really good right now, because it’s my home race and I really wanted to bring home a trophy.
“I think I slept three hours last night: we were at the stewards’ until almost midnight, then I found it hard to remain calm and it took a while to fall asleep… This morning I was not 100% ready because when you don’t sleep enough you don’t feel ready for the race, but my emotions were in check once I jumped in the car: the rest just disappeared, and I was ready for the race.
“After that, everything went my way, and I’m really happy.”