MILAN (AP) — Ferrari has got its fighting spirit back. And it couldn’t have found it at a better place.
While the cars are clearly off the pace of the all-conquering Red Bull, Ferrari thrilled the passionate fans at its home track with an intense tussle for third place at the Italian Grand Prix.
In the end it was Carlos Sainz Jr. who edged Charles Leclerc for the final spot on the iconic Monza podium, behind runaway Formula One leader Max Verstappen — who claimed a record 10th straight victory on Sunday — and Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez.
“It was tough. It was tough, hard racing. It’s always been a pleasure to race Charles whenever we’ve had the chance. And today was the same.” Sainz said. “A great racer, same as Max and Checo (Pérez). We had fun out there today and I hope you guys enjoyed it.”
It was the first podium for Sainz this season to cap a great weekend for the Spanish driver, who turned 29 on Friday. Sainz was fastest in two of the three practice sessions and qualified in pole position.
And he had the thousands of red-clad fans dreaming of a rare Ferrari win, especially when he was leading the first 14 laps — the longest that any non-Red Bull driver has led a race in 2023.
So impressive was Sainz’s performance that he was asked if it was the best weekend of his career.
“Of this year, for sure. Of my Ferrari career probably. Of my F1 career, it’s a tough call but I felt like this weekend I was on it from the beginning,” Sainz said. “I felt really, really at home.”
Sainz’s gutsy defending — first from Verstappen and Pérez and then Leclerc — had some jokingly saying that he should be appointed Spain’s Minister of Defense.
“Depends on the weekend. We can be minister of attack or defense,” Sainz said with a laugh.
The most intense battle was with his own teammate as Leclerc tried everything to get past but eventually finished 0.184 seconds behind Sainz after a lockup on the final lap.
“To be honest, I feel good. OK, I missed the podium, but Carlos is on it anyway, so a Ferrari is on there,” Leclerc said. “In the end, it was really fun. I enjoyed it a lot.
“I’m sure many people did not enjoy that. The guys on the pit wall perhaps had one heart attack or two, the tifosi (fans) probably also, but … for me, this is Formula One, this is what it should be all the time.”
Indeed there were nervous moments as both cars locked up at times and they appeared to risk touching in other instances, with the possibility that if they had they could have missed out on a podium place or, worse, both crashed out of Ferrari’s home race.
Ferrari has been plagued by a number of botched strategy decisions and bizarre incidents over the past two seasons and not imposing team orders could have become another one.
“We let our drivers fight it out for third place … because we know how special it is to be on the podium here, but we also told them not to take any risks and they complied with that,” Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur said.
Leclerc was told “no risk” but appeared to pay little heed as he almost ran into his teammate on the final lap.
“If they would have given team orders, I would have understand,” Sainz said. “If I would have been Charles trying to get a podium, obviously I wouldn’t have liked the team orders. So it completely depends on the position you’re in.
“I’m not going to lie, it is very depending on a very subjective position or feeling. I think it was on the limit but it was nice teammates, hard, F1 battle you know … And I had fun doing it.”
Ferrari will be hoping their drivers will be able to use that same fighting spirit against rival drivers rather than each other if they are to prevent Red Bull from becoming the first team to complete a perfect season.
Red Bull has won every race so far and there are eight remaining, starting with the Singapore GP on Sept. 17.
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing
Daniella Matar, The Associated Press