Watch Saturday’s 18-lap Sprint live only on Sky Sports F1 and Main Event at 3.30pm; Result sets grid for Sunday’s Grand Prix and offers points to top three; Bottas starts ahead of Hamilton and Verstappen but has Sunday grid penalty
By James Galloway
Last Updated: 10/09/21 10:22pm
Lewis Hamilton says Mercedes need to maximise the full Italian GP weekend after locking out the front row for the first leg of the weekend’s racing action, Saturday’s sprint.
Hamilton will start the 18-lap race – which sets the starting order for Sunday’s grand prix and awards points to the top-three finishers – second on the grid to team-mate Valtteri Bottas after the Finn pipped him in qualifying with what the Briton acknowledged was a “mega” final lap.
The biggest significance for Mercedes was the scale of their advantage to championship rivals Red Bull. Max Verstappen, the points leader, lapped 0.4s slower than Bottas and just fended off the rapid McLarens for third place.
Reflecting on qualifying, Hamilton said: “Valtteri did a great job at the end. Not the best of qualifyings for me. P1 was really good, for whatever reason just struggled in this session.
“But, still, on the front row and great to have a front row lockout for the team. Particularly with the news last week, it’s great to see Valtteri driving so well.
“I don’t know where they [Red Bull] pulled out their pace but it’s going to be close. They were miles off in [qualifying] one and two but all of a sudden were right there with us, so still shows we’re still close.”
Hamilton, who started at the front for the previous F1 sprint at Silverstone in July but lost out to Verstappen, added: “We’ve got to get off to a good start and try and maximise both days.”
The sprint starts at 3.30pm on Saturday, with Sky Sports F1 build-up from 2.35pm. Sunday’s Italian GP is underway at 2pm.
Wolff hints at switch if Bottas stays ahead in sprint
Thanks to the addition of the sprint race, there are a maximum of 49 points available for teams to score at Monza compared to the usual 44.
But although they start with their two cars at the front for Saturday, Mercedes are highly unlikely to take the full haul from the weekend given Bottas will serve a grid penalty for engine changes and start Sunday’s Grand Prix from last place.
“We had a little bit of a worry [on the engine] because we wouldn’t have taken it otherwise,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff of the penalty to Sky F1.
“In the sprint race format, it’s quite good because you can take the penalty only for Sunday.”
Bottas’ Sunday grid position is now known and Wolff hinted they might have to consider switching the order in the sprint if the Finn stays ahead of Hamilton.
Hamilton is locked in a tight title battle with Verstappen, which the Dutchman leads by three points. Three points are available for the winner of the sprint compared to two for second and one for third.
“It’s difficult generally when you have to call team orders because all of us as racers we don’t want to see us,” said Wolff. “Everybody here should be aware he’s [where he is] on merit.
“But in that case, Valtteri is going anyway all the way to the back on Sunday, so we need to see how the start pans out because there is not too much to discuss [apart from] just be careful in the first corner. Then we’ll see where they are.”
Asked if they would presumably try and switch the order later in the race if Bottas still ran ahead of Hamilton at the front, Wolff said: “Presumably, yeah.”
Can Verstappen challenge Mercedes in the sprint?
Monza’s ‘Temple of Speed’ has not been a happy hunting ground for Red Bull in the hybrid-turbo engine era. The team last finished on the podium and started from inside the front two rows for the race in 2013.
Third on Saturday’s initial grid therefore presents an improvement and team boss Christian Horner said: “To be honest, based on what the deficit was last year [0.9s], we’ve pretty much halved that gap.”
Verstappen, who benefitted from an orchestrated ‘tow’ from team-mate Sergio Perez on his best Q3 lap, said: “It wasn’t the best qualifying session but I think for us this track is always going to be difficult. We struggled a little bit more than we wanted to in FP1, but I think we recovered quite well throughout qualifying.
“I’m happy with third and it would have been unrealistic to hope for more. I think for the sprint race maybe we can be closer but you never know around here, so of course we will try and keep the pressure on.
Looking ahead to the first of two starts this weekend, Horner added: “What’s interesting is the run down to Turn One. Max is on the right side of the grid, hopefully picks up a tow on the run down to Turn One.”