Leclerc ends Ferrari's 9-year wait for Italian GP win
MONZA, Italy (AP) — Charles Leclerc hadn't even reached his teens the last time Ferrari won the Italian Grand Prix.
Only a week after achieving a first Formula One victory in Spa, Leclerc ended the storied team's lengthy wait for victory at its home circuit.
The noise from the passionate Ferrari "tifosi" (fans) was deafening as Leclerc roared to the finish line at Monza. It grew even louder when he became the team's first driver to step onto the top spot of the iconic podium since Fernando Alonso in 2010.
"It really means so much to me," said Leclerc in Italian, as he spoke above a sea of red as thousands of Ferrari fans wearing that color chanted his name and waved flags. Flares were lit, red, white and green ticker tape unleashed and giant Ferrari flags unfurled.
"It was already a dream come true at Spa (Belgian GP), winning here is 10 times more," said the 21-year-old Leclerc, who was only 12 when Ferrari won in 2010. "I don't have words."
Leclerc, who started from pole position, roared in delight as he crossed the line 0.8 seconds ahead of Valtteri Bottas and 35.1 seconds ahead of championship leader Lewis Hamilton.
"In the last two laps I started to believe that the win was possible. I let all my emotions on the radio, I don't think anyone could understand what I said," said Leclerc with a laugh.
Leclerc's credentials were tested to the maximum by Hamilton but the five-time world champion ended up playing second fiddle to the sport's rising star.
"Charles did a great job," Hamilton said. "He came under a lot of pressure from Valtteri and I.
"I did the best I could, but following so closely for so many laps, the tires just went off the cliff. It was not our day."
Hamilton hounded Leclerc, especially after pitting at the end of lap 19 and emerging on medium tires.
Leclerc pitted a lap later and although he managed to come out in front of Hamilton, he was on hard tires.
Shortly afterward, Hamilton almost got past but Leclerc held him off in a move that ended with the Mercedes on the grass. Leclerc was given a black and white warning flag for that but no penalty.
Another defensive move from Leclerc later in the race had Hamilton saying on team radio: "Some dangerous driving going on here."
Max Verstappen was given a five-second penalty for a similar move last year at Monza. When Hamilton was questioned about it, he replied tersely: "I guess the stewards woke up on a different side of the bed this morning, I don't know."
Any hope Hamilton had of snatching victory slipped away with 11 laps remaining as he made a mistake at the first corner, ending up on the escape road and allowing Bottas to take second.
With that, Hamilton gave up his pursuit of Leclerc and instead pitted for fresh tires in order to set the fastest lap and get the bonus point.
Bottas took over the attack on Leclerc and, on fresher tires, kept gaining but locked up with two laps remaining, paving the way for an emotional win for Leclerc, who recorded the first victory of his F1 career at last weekend's Belgian GP.
"The race felt a lot longer than 53 laps but the moment I crossed the finish line to now is just pure happiness," Leclerc said.
Leclerc's teammate Sebastian Vettel had a miserable race as he was given a 10-second stop/go penalty early on for returning to the track unsafely after spinning off at the Ascari chicane and almost causing an accident with Lance Stroll.
"He just came back onto the circuit like an idiot!" Stroll said on team radio.
Vettel, a four-time world champion, finished 13th and a lap behind Leclerc.
Hamilton saw his championship lead trimmed by two points but is still 63 points ahead of Bottas with seven races remaining.
"For sure it's a gap but it's not like night and day, so you never know what happens in the championship," Bottas said. "There still might be opportunities, even for the championship there's no point giving up because we still have seven races and things can happen."