MONZA, Italy (AP) — After retaking the championship lead with a victory in his home race last weekend, Max Verstappen now has to face Lewis Hamilton on a track the British driver has long dominated.
Verstappen won the Netherlands Grand Prix on Sunday to move three points ahead of seven-time world champion Hamilton but the lead could again change hands at this weekend’s Italian GP.
Hamilton is a is a five-time winner at the Temple of Speed and the Mercedes driver also has three additional podiums at the track.
In contrast, Red Bull's Verstappen has never even set foot on the iconic Monza podium, with a best finish of fifth in 2018.
“I imagine it’s going to be potentially different this weekend,” said Hamilton, who is again seeking a record-extending 100th victory after being thwarted in three races since winning the British GP.
“I think we can hopefully still be quick but if you look at that (Red Bull) engine, it’s had the legs on us this year, particularly along the straights. So no doubt these guys are going to be very, very fast … So it will be close.”
Verstappen and Hamilton also have very contrasting qualifying records at Monza. The Red Bull driver has never started higher than fifth, while Hamilton has seven poles to his name.
But this year sees the second sprint qualifying after its debut at Silverstone.
Rather than the standard format of two practices on Friday and a third practice and qualifying on Saturday, there will be one practice on Friday followed by a qualifying session that will determine the grid for Saturday’s sprint qualifying.
The sprints will be over 100 kilometers and the top three finishers will also receive points toward the championship. First place will receive three points, second place two points, and third place one point.
Hamilton was fastest in qualifying at Silverstone but Verstappen topped him in the sprint to take pole.
“For sure we have a more competitive car compared to previous years but I’m not sure if it’s going to be enough to fight them (Mercedes),” Verstappen said. “But nevertheless this weekend again it’s sprint qualifying, so it’s going to be very different so I just hope... we did our homework before getting here and we can be very competitive.
“It’s a bit difficult to say where we will stand. I definitely don’t expect it to be like Zandvoort.”
Ferrari will be hoping to avoid the embarrassment of last year, especially with the passionate "tifosi" back at Monza.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic there were no fans last year to witness the ignominy of both Ferrari cars failing to finish the Italian GP in its worst display at its home circuit for 70 years.
But the red-clad fans will be back in their droves this weekend, with Monza allowed to be at 50% capacity.
“I’m very excited. It’s always a special place as a Ferrari driver so I’m really looking forward to it,” said Charles Leclerc, who ended the team’s nine-year wait for a win at its home race in 2019. “It’s not going to be an easy weekend for us; on paper it is one of the most difficult tracks for us this year but we’ll try to give everything.
“The amount of support we have here, it doesn’t get close anywhere else in the world … even just leaving the hotel this morning there’s hundreds of people just waiting for you and they yell and it’s just so nice to see and to feel that much support, so it’s definitely very special.”
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