For Charles Leclerc, Monza was a bit of a disaster: if it didn’t quite have the emotional resonance of Monaco, he was telling everyone who would listen in Jerez that Monza was a weekend to learn from and put behind him while he worked on getting back to business. That his main rival also failed to score points there didn’t enter into the equation for the Monegasque driver: he was determined to make up for the problematic weekend in the only way he knew, by getting back to winning ways.
Going unsaid, but very much at the front of his and everyone’s mind was the championship. With both he and Oliver Rowland failing to score in Monza it was basically a dead rubber, one less chance for his rivals to close the gap in the title race (although Luca Ghiotto did what he could to shrink the gap), and everyone was aware that if Leclerc re-continued his pole run, the title was up for grabs in the feature race.
Free practice opened to gloriously sunny conditions which held all weekend long, the first indication of what to expect from a Jerez circuit which had been recently resurfaced, smoothing out the old bumps and creating a less abrasive surface than the old tyre chewing track of old, with Rowland setting the first fast lap before Nobuharu Matsushita took over on the top of the timesheets just as Ralph Boschung got caught out behind traffic, getting beached on the kerbs and ruining the Swiss driver’s weekend at a circuit on which he had never previously driven, prompting a red flag period to remove him.
The track was green 9 minutes later, and Leclerc wasted no time stamping his authority on the session, claiming the top spot before getting to work on his race simulations and holding P1 all the way to the flag, ahead of Rowland and Nyck De Vries. It was a suggestion that usual service was being reinstated, one confirmed by the results of qualifying, if not by the manner in which it was achieved.
Leclerc grabbed the top spot early in qualifying before returning to the pits as Ghiotto and Sergio Sette Camara squabbled over P2, with the Monegasque re-emerging to improve on his best time at the halfway mark. But Leclerc thought Ghiotto was too close: he strapped on a third set of tyres before heading out again, with Ghiotto improving once more but Leclerc raising the bar again to claim pole by two tenths from the Italian and Sette Camara.
It potentially left him a bit exposed, but it was a risk Leclerc was willing to take: “We went for a bit of a strange strategy for this qualifying, because we went for 3 sets of new tyres: we went on prime first, and we were quite impressed with the laptime because we were the fastest at that time, and then we went for softs, which went very good. After the 2nd set Luca was very close, so we decided to go for a last set of softs, and it all went very well.
“We worked a little bit on the car and I am very happy with my lap, but I definitely think it helped to use 3 sets and to be sure of the references I took for the last lap. We did this strategy because here in Jerez it’s quite difficult to overtake, and we want to win the championship this weekend, so we have maximised our chances by doing a good qualifying to be well placed in Race 1.
“Now we have to work on the start to make sure we keep it tomorrow.”
Whatever he did, it worked: Leclerc easily contained Ghiotto at the start before heading off into the distance, while Rowland fought past Sette Camara and Alex Albon on the first lap but was unable to do anything about Ghiotto until just before the stop, where an uncharacteristic error gave the Briton a line through for P2.
Sette Camara came in early to get the undercut, making himself the target for the majority of the field on the soft/medium strategy: Ghiotto emerged just ahead but couldn’t stop the Brazilian coming through, as did Rowland (who soon made amended by re-passing), while Leclerc had a big enough lead to stay ahead after his stop, re-emerging in P5 and soon moving forward.
Leclerc, Rowland and Ghiotto were soon putting the commonly held view that it’s impossible to overtake at Jerez to the sword, overtaking at will (albeit with a tyre advantage) as they moved back up the field: Latifi was the last man to cede, handing the lead back to the Ferrari Academy driver on lap 19 before pitting himself to see what he could salvage from the remainder of the race, leading Antonio Fuoco on the alternate strategy.
But a safety car for a collision between Santino Ferrucci and Matsushita threw the race strategy into the air: packing the field back together again and giving a huge advantage to the drivers on fresh softs as the race ran live again, including a few who decided to chance a second stop to see what they could do.
Leclerc and Rowland pushed hard to break from the rest of the field when the race went live but Ghiotto’s tyre disadvantage was soon working against him, with Fuoco running past Sette Camara and the Italian, as well as Latifi on the same strategy, to put himself in a podium position as the laps ran down.
On the final lap Leclerc tyres were spent: he slowed dramatically, bunching up his pursuers just as they found a battle between Sean Gelael and Louis Deletraz on fresh tyres and unable to run at their pace, which led to an ungainly squabble in the final sector before the five drivers fell over the line at the flag with Leclerc tumbling over first, having just enough left to lead the group for his 6th victory of the season, claiming with it the 2017 title.
Leclerc was delighted, naturally, but as a gamble it was very, very close to falling flat, and he knew it. “On the option tyres we were very, very quick, but then we were struggling more than Oli on the prime tyres: I don’t really know why for now. I pushed a lot, and when he was doing quite quick lap times I told myself he maybe just wanted to catch up a little bit and he might not be keeping the tyres, but actually he stayed on this pace until the safety car!
“Just before the safety car I started to pick up the pace also, and we were more or less equal: he was a little bit quicker, but not as much as the laps before. But when we saw the safety car I thought okay, it’s going to be a lot harder now! I was pushing to keep the gap up, and when the safety car came out I had no tyres left and I was a bit scared!
“[After the restart] the tyres seemed to cool a little bit and the team told me ‘last lap’ so perfect, only 1 lap to do so I will push like crazy, and then they said ‘no, 1 lap more’ and I thought another lap, okay, I can push again. But there was 2 laps more and I had absolutely no tyres left! That made things very, very hard but I managed to stay in front, and I had Sean [Gelael] behind me who was cutting the gap between me and Oliver, so he lost a bit of time.
“But I’m very, very happy overall, and we just need to work for tomorrow on the prime tyres…”
The temperatures were soaring once again on Sunday afternoon, with newcomer Alex Palou on pole after a tremendous drive to P8 in the feature defying the pressure of expectation from the home crowd and a delay caused by a technical issue with the safety car to tear off into the lead when the lights went out, easily containing Ghiotto into turn 1 and having an even easier time of it when the Italian and Jordan King came together out turn 2, with Ghiotto nudged into the gravel and falling to the back as Latifi, Artem Markelov, Rowland, Leclerc and Fuoco followed on behind the Briton.
King was soon looking for a lift back to the paddock when his engine let go on the back straight on lap 3, with Latifi using his experience to save his tyres as Palou flew off into the distance. Pitstops had been discussed as a possibility ahead of the race, and so it proved when Fuoco and Leclerc came in around the halfway mark, making the others reconsider the option: Ghiotto had spent his tyres trying to fight his way back up the field, and was in on lap 18 too.
Palou was already falling back to the pack, with Latifi weighing up his options as Markelov sliced by the Canadian on lap 22, grabbing the lead at Dry Sac and flying away, once again proving his mastery of the Pirellis as Rowland caught up to his teammate: the DAMS were soon through Palou but were unable to do anything about the Russian out front, who won by almost 12s over the pair.
Behind them Leclerc was paying for his earlier tyre misdemeanours: having overtaken his teammate along with much of the field, his last lap saw him drop like a stone, handing P4 to Ghiotto after a stunning recovery drive ahead of Fuoco and De Vries, with the new champion just holding out Palou for P7.
Markelov was his usual chilled self in the press conference when asked about his ability to get the best out of his tyres: “It’s a secret! I don’t want to say too much, but it’s a feeling I have with them: I know some lessons on how to save the tyres for the whole race.
“Actually yesterday was a bad race for me, but I had some experience from this and saw how the tyres were working all the race: today we looked at a pitstop as well as going the whole race on one set of tyres, and we chose this as Plan A. I was just trying to chill for the whole race and get some game later in the laps…”
But from a weekend where so much was close to going wrong, everything went right for Leclerc: if his tyres gambles were on the edge of disaster the scoreboard still reads pole, win and championship. If anyone wants to see an example of the motorsport dictum that it’s a sport of fine margins, this weekend is the one to point them towards as proof.