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Mark Hughes: The ‘joke’ call central to Gasly’s shock win

by Mark Hughes
11 min read

Ferrari in its current woeful form was never going to win at Monza. But it managed to hand the other Italian team victory. That’s not to say AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly didn’t have to drive a masterful race to make use of the fantastic opportunity provided by:

  • The lap 17 Ferrari power unit problem in Kevin Magnussen’s Haas bringing out a safety car as the VF20 was moved from the inside of Parabolica.
  • AlphaTauri having pitted Gasly just before the Magnussen safety car was deployed – essentially to move him out of the way of his harder-tyred team-mate Daniil Kvyat, who was demanding that he was now being held up and that it was “decision time” for the team. The timing of the stop was described over the radio by Gasly at the time as “a joke”.
  • The failure of Mercedes to notice the FIA communication that the pitlane was closed and Lewis Hamilton coming into the pits illegally as the team tried to take advantage of the Magnussen safety car.
  • Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc crashing heavily at Parabolica on cold tyres shortly after the restart, triggering a red flag, just after everyone had pitted. Gasly’s “joke” timing of a stop was in hindsight absolutely perfect, effectively vaulting him to second place of a race in which he’d been fighting for 10th.

All Gasly had to do from there, as Hamilton served his stop/go and rejoined last by a long way, was out-race Lance Stroll’s Racing Point (which had been gifted a free, pitstop-less tyre change by the red flag) on the opening lap, then deliver a textbook pressure drive after the faster McLaren of Carlos Sainz made its way up to second. Gasly was perfect in this.

So the driver demoted by Red Bull just over a year ago defeated not only Red Bull in the junior team’s car but everyone else too, giving the Faenza team only its second race victory, 12 years after Sebastian Vettel scored its first at the very same venue. The same Vettel that retired his Ferrari early here with brake failure. The ironies were spilling over themselves. Not least the cruel one that a classic underdog victory for the little Italian team unfolded on home soil in the very year that spectators are banned.

“I’m still young in the sport, but I’ve been through a lot,” said the first-time winner, still in just his third season of F1. “It’s been a crazy ride in the last few months. I’m struggling to realise what we’ve just achieved.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Race Day Monza, Italy

Leclerc, his childhood friend and victor here last year, who had played a crucial part in Gasly slotting his day of dreams together, came over to congratulate him. They may have recalled that it was only a week ago they were in melancholic anniversary remembrance of the late third member of their gang, Anthoine Hubert. Yes, it’s been an intense 12 months for a 24-year-old to deal with.

“I thought we had pitted at the worst time possible,” he said. “I think we had a little angel looking after us today.” Maybe.

Quite aside from the Ferrari and Mercedes-related mayhem outlined already, Gasly’s angel took care to ensure that his hefty Turn 1 contact with his star-crossed Red Bull rival Alex Albon didn’t do any damage to the Tauri’s left-front. The angel then made it so Valtteri Bottas’s Mercedes picked up some mystery ailment that made it understeer so badly through the right-handers that he thought he had a puncture. Finally, the angel flourished a Honda engine problem on the telemetry of Max Verstappen’s Red Bull that caused the team to retire the car, but this was after he’d already fallen well back at the start with too much wheelspin, “because the engine was too hot for some reason”.

That was all in the first race, before the red flag. That race was all set to be a routine Lewis Hamilton Mercedes victory run. Bottas had made another, Hungary-like, jumpy start with the clutch paddle and was slow away, immediately passed by Sainz. That was a separate issue from his diabolical understeer that caused him to lose momentum and first lap places to Lando Norris, Sergio Perez’s Racing Point and Daniel Ricciardo’s Renault. He was barely fending off Stroll, the delayed Verstappen, Esteban Ocon’s Renault and the AlphaTauri pair, Gasly narrowly ahead.

Leclerc was second in ‘Class Ferrari’ sandwiched by the Alfas, Kimi Raikkonen in 12th, Antonio Giovinazzi in 14th. Albon, forced over the turn 1 run-off area as the traffic crowded him out, was somewhat stuck and would later collide trying to fend off Romain Grosjean’s Haas, heavily damaging the Red Bull’s floor, compromising its performance for the rest of the event. Vettel was next, making for quite the worst combined Ferrari Monza performance in living memory, fending off the two Williams but soon to be noticing his left-rear brake temperatures to be rapidly rising. Magnussen was in at the end of the lap to replace the front wing damaged in standard Monza Turn 1 melee.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Race Day Monza, Italy

That looked to be that. Hamilton pulled away from Sainz a few tenths each lap until the gap was big. Norris didn’t have quite his team-mate’s pace and dropped back, thereby keeping back Perez/Ricciardo/Bottas (the latter also in trouble now with excessive engine temperatures, as the cooling package proved a little optimistic for running in traffic on a hotter-than-forecast day) from being a threat to the McLaren’s second place, built upon the foundation of Sainz’s superb, on-the-limit, third-fastest qualifying lap. Verstappen was making no progress from the tail of this group and it seemed the new single engine mode regulation contributed to this stalemate in the DRS train.

Vettel left the fray with total brake failure on the sixth lap, destroying the polystyrene boards at the Turn 1 run-off and cruising gently round to retire. Leclerc’s tyres were finished by the 15th-16th lap and after being passed by Albon he pitted. Alfa pitted Raikkonen in response to prevent an undercut. Then Magnussen pulled off to the right at Parabolica after his engine died. That’s what turned this race from routine to sensational.

But just before then was a little detail that determined who was going to be the beneficiary of this randomising incident. The AlphaTauris were running 10th and 11th, Gasly still ahead but his soft tyres now beginning to wilt. Kvyat was on hards and being delayed. He was on the radio demanding to be let by so he could chase Ocon and Stroll up ahead. It was within a sensible pitstop window for Gasly and so he was brought in at the end of lap 18. Much to his irritation.

Phase 2

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Race Day Monza, ItalyA few seconds prior to Gasly’s stop, Magnussen rolled silently to a halt by a gap in the barriers – but it wasn’t a designated car-parking one. It tapered sharply behind and was there only to give marshals access, which would have been blocked if the Haas had been moved there. The only alternative was to push it to the nearby pitlane. The safety car was deployed and eight seconds later the pitlane was officially closed so as to protect the marshals.

Hamilton was then the first to arrive on the scene on lap 20. As he came into Parabolica his initial attention was diverted to the Haas to his right. He wasn’t looking left to where the two crosses were lit up, indicating pitlane closed. The team was busy looking at gaps and safety car announcements and didn’t notice the single three-word line on the screen amid all the other messages. Hamilton pitted and had a set of mediums to replace his softs.

With the exception of Alfa’s Giovinazzi, none of the others followed Hamilton in. Because they’d spotted the instruction. There was no alternative but to apply stop/go penalties to both Hamilton and Giovinazzi. This was obviously going to be race-costing penalty for Hamilton. With the field bunched up tight by the safety car and him not being able to serve the stop/go until after the safety car (within three racing laps), he was going to be rejoining at the back (apart from Giovinazzi) by a very long way.

Meantime, the Haas was delivered to the pits and the pitlane was opened, but with the race still under the safety car as it completed its lap. This was lap 22 and pretty much everyone piled in to take advantage of the 10-11s time-saving such a stop offers over a full racing speed one. The one notable exception was Stroll, who stayed out. Perez in the other Racing Point was delayed by Norris immediately ahead of him backing the pack up, as McLaren stacked its cars. That was followed by a slow pitstop. The combined effect was to drop Perez out of contention. From being one place ahead of Ricciardo, he emerged three behind. Bottas was turned around sufficiently quickly that he jumped both Perez and Ricciardo.

Lined up behind the safety car as it made its way in were Hamilton, Stroll, Gasly, Giovinazzi, Raikkonen, Leclerc, Latifi – and only then Sainz. Had Leclerc not crashed on his cold, hard tyres a lap later, those needing to pit for their penalties or tyres would have left the order as Gasly-Raikkonen-Leclerc-Sainz. But Leclerc, after picking off the Alfas after the restart, did crash. Which was a fantastic present for Stroll, because the red flag it brought meant he’d get to change his tyres without the inconvenience of a position-costing pit stop. He would be starting second only to Hamilton, whom he knew would be taking a stop/go. Stroll was effectively the new race leader.

Sainz was infuriated. Perhaps he hadn’t quite taken on board that Gasly and Raikkonen had already stopped before the safety car and weren’t therefore ahead of him just because of the red flag. He knew he could probably pass the Alfa. But the Tauri and the Racing Point would be an altogether tougher challenge.

Second standing start

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Race Day Monza, ItalyAt race director Michael Masi’s discretion, the race was restarted from a standing start. Here was a crucial moment where Gasly was able to maximise his good fortune. As the lights went out, he stayed arrow-straight in the tow of Hamilton. Stroll, meanwhile, had got way too much wheelspin – and that was Gasly into what would be the lead as soon as Hamilton pitted for his stop/go at the end of the lap.

Sainz made up a place as Giovinazzi took his penalty a lap later and emerged on top of a hard dice with Stroll for third. The Alfas had switched to soft tyres during the red flag period and Raikkonen was soon wilting fast, enabling Sainz and Stroll to quickly pass. Kimi would subsequently be picked off by Norris, Bottas, Ricciardo and Ocon in fairly quick order. Verstappen was already out, though, with a serious engine problem.

By the time Sainz had made his way up to second, Gasly was 4.3s up the road and the race had 19 laps to run. The McLaren was probably a sniff quicker, but not by as much as qualifying had made it look, when the Tauris had lost pace from Friday, leaving Gasly only 10th on the grid, seven behind Sainz. Now the Tauri was right back into its Friday form and Gasly pressed on. Not too hard, but with a perfect blend of pace and keeping the tyres alive. This is perfect, his engineer was telling him, but no harder than this. The lower drag McLaren was around 0.3s quicker in sector 1, the higher-downforce Tauri quicker through the Lesmos and Ascari, but not by quite as much.

Sainz gave it his all – and gradually edged out a little distance on Stroll as he closed Gasly down. The tension built this way pretty much to the end. Calm, grimly determined Gasly in his rhythm, Sainz furiously trying to get within striking distance. Into the last few laps, Gasly’s tyres were on their way to oblivion. “I began to have problems with traction out of turn 1,” he recalled. “When he got to within 1.5s, I began to use the battery energy to defend. But I had very little rubber left.”

But then that 1.5s buffer seemed to stabilise. “Yes, our car doesn’t work very well in the tow,” revealed Sainz. “It becomes a lot more loose. Once I got to 1.5s it became very difficult to close any further.”

Pierre Gasly wins Italian Grand Prix 2020 Monza

On the penultimate lap, Gasly’s tyres really were done and he was visibly struggling to get the power down. As they went down the pit straight at the end of that lap Sainz was within DRS reach for the first time. But from too far back to make it count. One more lap and we might have had the first McLaren victory since 2012. Instead we got the first for the Faenza team since 2008.

Stroll, taking the second podium of his career, just didn’t quite have the raw pace to fight it out but kept out of Norris’ reach, with Bottas a frustrated fifth from Ricciardo. Hamilton – having rejoined over 20s off the back of the pack – was up among the points scorers and picked off Ocon for seventh on the final lap, taking fastest lap along the way. Kvyat and Perez took the last couple of points places, unfavoured by fate.

Gasly stood in the middle of that beautiful Monza podium, looking down not upon the hordes who would doubtless have been deliriously happy for his part in an Italian team victory, but to his the guys and girls of AlphaTauri. And quite a few of the other teams besides. This was a hugely popular victory. After it had all died down, he stayed up there by himself for a while, tried to pull himself into some sort of shape.

Later he reflected: “I grew up with four brothers and I think as a child, I had to work through quite difficult moments, which built me a pretty strong character and I always had to fight for everything I wanted.

“I always, in some way, managed to turn that negative energy into something positive and I knew last year what happened, deep inside me, obviously I felt hurt and I didn’t feel it was fair to myself and I really wanted to make a clear point in that moment but look, I know I’m fast, I know what I can do, I know I can believe, I’ve been fighting for victories, for pole, championships in my early years, in my career and that’s what I want in F1. I really worked very hard with the team and I knew that with them I had everything in my hands to show my potential.

“After, I just tried to focus on my own performance, not really looking at the others, taking race after race, looking at what I can improved on my side, what I can improve with the team, with my engineers, just to extract more from myself and more from that package and combination and yeah, honestly I can’t be happier with the team I have at the moment. They are doing an amazing job; they are giving me everything.”

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