The reception for Lewis Hamilton from fervent Ferrari fans was everything that might have been expected both before and after his comfortable victory at the Italian Grand Prix. He was booed but it was good-natured, with a pantomime air and he took it with equally good humour – as well he might. Playing the villain was something that he said he could take pleasure in and understandably so after such a successful weekend.
Hamilton loves his sport as much as the 93,000 fans who packed the temple of speed, hoping to see a red car take the flag on the occasion of the Scuderia’s 70th anniversary and he is appreciative of just what it takes to win at one of the classic circuits, having done so four times now. He is equally no stranger to the cauldron that awaits Ferrari’s rivals at their home grand prix.
He was then at home in this particular colosseum. “I love it here in Italy and I love the passion of the fans,” he said after receiving his trophy. “Particularly the Ferrari fans, they’re fantastic. This energy is like nowhere else we ever really get to see, apart from maybe Silverstone, so I respect it, I appreciate it,” But he could not resist a friendly jibe. “Mercedes power is definitely better than Ferrari power,” he added. “It worked well this weekend.”
On the grid there was theatrical jeering and thumbs-down gesturing from the grandstands as he climbed from his car but it was offered by fans who recognised the British driver as the main threat to their beloved Ferrari. Hamilton replied with a smile and a thumbs-up and most emphatically by then climbing back into his ride and winning the race from pole.
That pole had been the first high point in a remarkable weekend, Hamilton taking Michael Schumacher’s record with his 69th, driving a magnificent final lap in treacherous, wet conditions. But it was not job done, he had to follow it with a race win, in entirely different conditions on Sunday as the Autodromo Nazionale was bathed in bright sunshine and the temperature rose.
He rose to the occasion and led from the off to take a victory that was ultimately untroubled and almost perfect bar going wide once at the second chicane. Running at the front in clean air for almost the entire race, he concluded a one-two finish with his Mercedes team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, the third time the team has done so this season.
More importantly his championship rival Sebastian Vettel could do no better than third, turning his seven-point championship lead – and he has been on top of the table since the two drivers were tied on points at the second round in China – into a three-point deficit. It has taken Hamilton 13 races but finally he has the edge in points, a potentially key moment in the title fight. Vettel, a four-times world champion has never lost a championship he has led; to win this one he must now come back at Hamilton.
What will concern the German and give succour to Mercedes was the nature of the defeat. Vettel had done well to take third. Ferrari had qualified poorly and Vettel started from sixth on the grid, he moved through the pack well, but could not catch the two Mercedes up the road. The gap by the flag was a chasm – 36 seconds.
Vettel said he had been suffering some steering problems under braking for the last 20 laps after going off track at the first chicane had caused some damage. But he acknowledged that Ferrari could simply not match Mercedes for pace on the low-downforce, high-speed sweep of Monza. He was dropping between two and five tenths of a second a lap to the leaders early on – the gap to Hamilton going from 12 seconds to 17 between laps 14 and 20.
Such was the Mercedes advantage they turned the engines down on both cars for the latter stages. The previous round at Spa had suggested that Ferrari had moved much closer to their rivals in sheer pace and were expected to repeat their strong form here but the weekend proved difficult.
Toto Wolff, the Mercedes executive director, revealed afterwards that the gap at Spa had been narrowed because the team had compromised their set-up and they had learnt from it and applied changes that clearly allowed them to optimise the car in Italy.
Vettel and Ferrari knew they would have to perform strongly at the power-hungry circuit, with almost 60 seconds of the lap at full throttle and the team principal, Maurizio Arrivabene, admitted that the team had not set up the car correctly but Vettel remained optimistic Ferrari had more to come.
“I am not worried by the gap,” he said. “Monza is a specific place and, if you have that bit of confidence, it makes a difference. We knew it would be a difficult race but perhaps we expected to be closer. It’s not nice to see them winning but with third we gave everything we had. I am very positive right now.”
Behind him Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo had also given everything and emerged with a superb result in what had been the standout drive of the race. He had started in 16th after taking a 25-place grid penalty and on a long stint on the soft rubber he charged through the pack, including two bravura moves. He passed Sergio Pérez on the way into the second chicane, Varainte della Roggia, and flung himself up the inside of Kimi Raikkonen at turn one. His reward was chasing Vettel to the flag, finishing fourth only four seconds adrift of the German.
But the day had ultimately belonged to Hamilton and, as he took to the top step above a sea of red noisy with disappointment, he greeted them with a smile, as befitted a driver who had delivered another victory with serene confidence and leaves Monza on top of his game and importantly of the title fight.