Former F1 driver Jolyon Palmer, who left Renault during the 2017 season, is part of the BBC team and offers insight and analysis from the point of view of the competitors.
It’s about time Formula 1 had a good race and a new winner, and Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix delivered both, through a set of circumstances that really illustrate the flaws with the sport’s norm in 2020.
It was a chaotic race that had the order completely jumbled up at half distance after Kevin Magnussen’s Haas retired and blocked the pit lane, meaning drivers either erroneously pitted and incurred penalties, such as Lewis Hamilton and Antonio Giovinazzi, or couldn’t pit and lost time and position to the drivers further back who had.
By the time Charles Leclerc smashed his Ferrari into the barriers at Parabolica a lap into the restart, the red flag and a full grid restart was required.
This effectively meant there was half a race with a grid so jumbled up it could have been pulled out of a hat.
The result was some thrilling entertainment and a surprise result, but you did not have to look too far to see that the race also exposed the problems at the heart of F1.
Regular front-runners stumble
For the perennial front-runners Mercedes and Red Bull, this was a rare day to forget.
Hamilton had the race under lock and key before pitting, which I consider a team rather than a driver, error.
Mercedes should have spotted the message from race control and told their driver not to stop, but on receiving orders to come in, Hamilton duly did. Then, when it was too late, Mercedes spotted their error.
Hamilton could feasibly have spotted a sign saying that the pit lane was closed, but this situation is so rare and the sign was so out of view on the outside of Parabolica, that I don’t think he can be blamed for not, and in fact most others didn’t either.
So Hamilton’s race was done, and with team-mate Valtteri Bottas becoming a midfielder for the day after a poor start and then series of dropped places on the opening lap, Mercedes left the door wide open.
In any normal 2020 race, Max Verstappen would then win, with probably enough time to take a free pit stop at the end and pump in fastest lap as well.
But Red Bull struggled for pace in Monza and when Verstappen made a poor start from fifth on the grid, he too became mired in midfield battles before retiring from the race after contact with Sergio Perez’ Racing Point.
With Formula 1’s usual big three out of the picture, the race was wide open, as the battle for the ‘best of the rest’ usually is, and this highlights how – until Italy – it was a season with relatively little action.
The disparity between the teams is just too big, as the mighty manufacturers of Mercedes and usually Ferrari – until they botched 2020 horribly – have, along with Red Bull, just too much spending power and resource to build a better car than their rivals.
Mercedes have undeniably done a brilliant job to utilise that resource to an outstanding level to obliterate the opposition this year, and deserve credit for that, but it does mean that it would take a very poor day for them not to feature on a podium this year.
When you look at the midfield, there are still differences in spends, but the resource disparity is much closer, and thus the racing is much closer.
Midfielders step to the fore
With Hamilton out of the picture on Sunday, it could have been anyone from Racing Point, Renault, McLaren or Alpha Tauri who took the win and that set the race up for an interesting fight.
Not only that, but because these four teams or eight drivers never get to fight for a win in a normal Grand Prix, a new winner was inevitable. The man who did it was Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly, leaving McLaren’s Carlos Sainz in second, Racing Point’s Lance Stroll in third and the second McLaren of Lando Norris in fourth all still looking for a first Formula 1 win.
This feeling that anyone can win is exactly what F1 has been missing for a while now, and it is what made the Italian Grand Prix thrilling because, despite the drama, a closer look at the race shows the other big problem we still have – it’s far too hard to overtake.
The last few laps were full of tension and excitement, but there was still very little on-track battling.
This isn’t exactly a new problem for F1. It’s been difficult to overtake for quite some time, which is why the DRS overtaking aid was first introduced for 2011 and new tracks focus more on huge straights with hairpin corners at the end rather than the old school flowing feel of years gone by.
Since F1 changed to this current set of regulations in 2017, overtaking has been a struggle, and subtle changes promised to help for the start of 2019 don’t seem to have made any notable difference.
The cars are phenomenally fast, setting lap records at almost each circuit this year, and that is why the drivers were pushing so hard to move to this generation of car. Fans were pleased to see them come in as well initially.
The idea of F1 cars going as fast as possible is very appealing. It’s what F1 is all about. Yet people also love nothing more than an all-too-rare soaking wet track on a Sunday, where cars are scrabbling around 30 seconds off the pace with no grip at all – it helps overtaking and also increases the chance of mistakes.
Aside from Hamilton’s late charge through the field, and Bottas getting pummelled on the first lap, no driver made an overtake after the first lap of both starts, other than most of the field passing the out-of-position 2020 strugglers Kimi Raikkonen or Nicholas Latifi in the second half.
Sainz put in a strong move on Stroll for what was ultimately second place, and deserves a particular mention for then chasing down Gasly and piling him under immense pressure on the final lap of the race to create a showdown of great suspense.
But aside from that no other driver made a move all race. They mostly followed each other at that frustrating one- to two-second gap, where drivers are in the dirty air, overheating your tyres and don’t get the benefit of DRS.
On paper, Monza should be a great circuit to overtake on – it has long straights punctuated by big braking zones.
But, actually, because everybody trims the downforce off, the slipstream and DRS effect aren’t as big as at higher downforce circuits. And when the cars are in one long train, as they were for much of Sunday, you actually have no closing benefit to the car ahead at all until they drop back from the car in front.
Reverse grids are not the solution
There has inevitably been more talk of reverse-grid races again now that this was a very entertaining spectacle, but I’m not such a fan of the idea.
If F1 is to remain a credible sport, it needs to avoid unfair gimmicks in a rash bid to shake things up and put another plaster over the issues, rather than try and solving the root of them.
Sunday’s Grand Prix illustrated quite clearly where at least a strong part of the root comes from, and thankfully F1 already have things in place to combat these issues.
From 2021, there is a budget cap coming in, in a bid to neutralise the spending power of the bigger teams. In reality, this will be hard to police but hopefully it will at least curb the size of the disparity somewhat in the longer term.
For 2022, there will be a new iteration of car – and this is crucial for F1.
Hopefully, all of their efforts go into making it a car that can follow and pass more easily. It’s a shame that Covid-19 has delayed this change for another year, as it was originally set to come in for 2021, but with the budget cap coming in the season before it could inadvertently be well timed.
This year may not be a thriller, but there have been some great battles through the midfield, which thanks to circumstance gave a couple of standout drivers the chance to shine at the front on Sunday.
Gasly and Sainz both did a great job and have done for 12 months now. Few could say they don’t deserve a moment in the sun, and Sainz looked set to have it even before luck played its part as he was running strongly in second behind Hamilton from the beginning.
It’s been eight years since Pastor Maldonado’s Williams won in Barcelona in 2012.
Let’s hope with the upcoming changes, F1 doesn’t have to wait another eight years before another midfielder has his day.
These are the moments that an often all-too predictable sport thrives on.