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Ricciardo returns McLaren to top step

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JUST when you thought the drama of the Formula 1 season might be ebbing, it delivers the 2021 Italian Grand Prix.

The sprint format last seen at Silverstone was utilised this weekend, which included an 18-lap sprint-qualifying race to determine the starting grid for Sunday’s race. While Valtteri Bottas walked away the victor of the sprint qualifying race, a raft of penalties, incurred for fitting a new power unit, dropped him to the back of the grid.

It promoted Max Verstappen to pole with Daniel Ricciardo alongside in second. In third on the grid was Lando Norris, while Lewis Hamilton, due to a bad start in the sprint-quali race, lined up in fourth.

The first corner, or chicane, if you will, at Monza has more often than not delivered a tense opening salvo to many a Grand Prix. It was no different this time around at Ricciardo scythed into the lead of the race ahead of Verstappen and his McLaren teammate Norris. Hamilton and Mercedes decided to play the long game by starting on the hard compound tyre but the Brit was stuck behind Norris for the majority of the opening stint of the race. But because Verstappen was unable to pass Ricciardo up ahead, the gap to the leading duo didn’t grow as much, which left Hamilton well within striking distance.

As the laps ticked by, Ricciardo held his own in the lead of the race. The Aussie dived into the pitlane while Verstappen stayed out. One lap later the Dutchman stopped on his marks in the pitlane and disaster struck. From the Hungarian Grand Prix onwards, the FIA has implemented a mandate, which requires a mechanic to press a button once a wheel has been fastened onto the car. Verstappen’s 11-second pitstop was due to the mechanic in question not pressing this button which, in turn, meant the light that signals the driver remained red. It dropped Verstappen well behind Ricciardo and should have dropped him behind Hamilton as well.

But the Mercedes driver had his own tardy stop of four seconds, which saw him emerge from the pitlane alongside Verstappen.

Neither driver yielded as they went into the first chicane, which resulted in a spectacular clash and the end of both their races.

Verstappen’s rear tyres climbed over the cockpit of Hamilton’s car, which looked a frightening incident in slow motion. It was clear that once again the Halo had protected Hamilton from sustaining serious injuries.

As in Silverstone, the Hamilton and Verstappen fans will be steadfast in their blame of the other driver.

Those for Hamilton will argue that he was ahead in the corner and those for Verstappen will contend that he wasn’t left enough space.

Because both could make a valid argument, it does tend more towards a racing incident. However, the race stewards found that Verstappen was proportionally more at fault and thus has been given a three-place grid penalty at the next race.

The only potential solace of this penalty is that it may amount to nothing, as it is likely that Red Bull will take several grid penalties for installing fourth power unit to Verstappen’s car at the Russian Grand Prix.

As much as the championship protagonists dominated the headlines, it is Ricciardo, Norris, and McLaren who deserve all of the plaudits. New to the team in 2021, Ricciardo has struggled at times to find his feet but with the support of McLaren, the highly rated “Honey Badger” delivered a race victory that will live long in the memory.

The win wasn’t due to luck, as Ricciardo led the race from start to finish on pure merit, while Hamilton and Verstappen played bumper-cars behind him. Norris’s second-place finish earned McLaren their first one-two finish since 2010.

It has been a remarkable journey for the Woking-based team, which found themselves occupying the back rows of the grid just a few years ago. The combination of Zak Brown and Andreas Seidl and many others behind the scenes has eventuated in a turnaround every single member of McLaren should be utterly proud of.

The pit wall was draped in papaya orange, as the mechanics cheered home Ricciardo, who crossed the line for his eighth and probably most memorable win, closely followed by Norris in second. Sergio Perez was third on the track for Red Bull but a five-second time penalty, incurred for cutting the track and gaining an advantage, dropped him down the field. Bottas, thanks to the safety car deployed for the Hamilton/Verstappen crash, finished fourth but moved up to third due the Perez penalty. The Ferrari of Charles Leclerc was fourth with Perez in fifth ahead of Carlos Sainz in sixth. Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll was seventh, as Fernando Alonso was eighth for Alpine. Mercedes-bound George Russell was ninth as Esteban Ocon rounded out the top 10.

There will be vociferous agreement and disagreement on the Hamilton/Verstappen incident. But one thing that is unanimously true is that the 2021 Formula 1 season is mind-bogglingly spectacular.

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