If their performance at Spa-Francorchamps was anything to go by last weekend, Ferrari should win their first Italian Grand Prix since 2010 and bring their tally on home ground to 19. And the chances of a 1-2, which would be their eighth and their first since 2004, are also very strong.
Yet in the paddock at Monza this afternoon, when Lewis Hamilton was not present due to undisclosed personal reasons, both Belgian GP winner Sebastian Vettel and team-mate Kimi Raikkonen were at pains to play down their expectations.
The manner in which Vettel overtook Hamilton on the main straight on the first lap in Belgium sounded all the alarm bells at Mercedes, especially as the world champion was running their latest specification engine, but Vettel countered expectations of further Ferrari dominance in F1’s very fast ‘cathedral of speed.’
“I don’t know, I think in the end we were less dominant than you might think, but we did well. It’s good to see that we are able to improve our car, and had some new bits and the new engine. Monza is a bit similar to Spa, but the corners are quite a bit different.” But he confessed: “We’ve had some good races here.” In 2008 he won for the first time, driving a Ferrari-engined Toro Rosso. “We’ve also had some great podiums, but we want more than podiums, so we’ll see how we start out tomorrow.”
Being a Ferrari driver at Monza, especially a victorious one, is something only Alberto Ascari, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Lodovico Scarfiotti, Clay Regazzoni, Jody Scheckter, Gerhard Berger, Michael Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello and Fernando Alonso experienced since 1950. But Vettel knows what it’s like when you are the winning opposition. “My first win was here 10 years ago. Your first win is overwhelming in many regards, but I didn’t realise at the time that I was racing for an Italian team with a Ferrari engine in the back, so the crowd was happy for me too. Three years after I won in a different colour [for Red Bull Renault], and they weren’t very happy. I was wondering, because I hadn’t done anything wrong, quite opposite.
“But the story of Monza is the tifosi, and some podiums I have had here have been in the right colour. And now I want to win here for Ferrari. Others have done so, and I want to join them.” Ferrari came close to unseating Mercedes as world champions last year, but Vettel attributes that challenge to the restructuring that took place at Ferrari in 2016.
“I think that was the key year for us. It wasn’t great in terms of performance, and we lost a place, but in terms of setting ourselves up for the future it was the most important year so far. Then in 2017 the rule changes helped us use that restructuring in general, and since then we have been able to improve on all fronts, and able to keep ahead, whether with the car or engine power. Things are going in the right direction. Our opponent [Mercedes] is very strong. But it’s good to see that we are getting stronger and in some areas we have caught up and in others we have a little bit of an edge, and in the end that’s where we want to be. We are at least level, so we can fight for it. And if there is a gap, we want to be able to increase it. We have lots of things to help us to improve, lots of potential.
“It’s quite nice to be put in this position, after the last five years of Mercedes’ absolute dominance, especially in terms of their power unit. It’s nice of them to put us in that position, because they no longer believe they are as powerful any more.
“Now we know we have a great car that works fine on more or less every track. We are aware we have good package, but we cannot rest on that. We need to keep pushing, and just have to do our thing. The first aim is for victory on Sunday, that’s what you want first as a driver, but it’s better not to overthink.”
That includes not worrying too much about Mercedes, or what they think. “To be very honest with you, I don’t feel anything related to Mercedes, just about what’s related to Ferrari, and that’s what I want to enjoy. We are up against the team that have been the best for the last five years, and if we want to beat them then we need to be better than them, and that’s what we have to concentrate on. It’s up to them what they think.”
Mercedes’ chief Toto Wolff – operating alone while sidekick Niki Lauda recovers from his recent lung transplant – had much to say after the disappointing result at Spa.
“We did not return from summer shutdown the way we wanted to. The race in Spa clearly showed that the Ferrari was the better car around that track, both in terms of performance and tyre management. In the end, we were simply not fast enough to threaten Vettel after he had taken the lead in the first lap. Over the course of this season, the performance has shifted a number of times between Ferrari and us, so nobody can take anything for granted. We just have to keep our heads down, focus on the developing our car and take it race by race. We brought a good step forward to Spa with our new engines and we need to keep developing quickly over the next weeks.
“Last year, we celebrated a 1-2 in Monza. This year, nobody expects it to be easy and we will have to step up our game in order to challenge for victory. Ferrari have been impressively quick on the straights lately, which is certainly an advantage on a track like Monza. But we will be fighting them with everything we’ve got.”
It will not bode well for the rest of their season, however, if, for a second consecutive race, that proves insufficient.