Formula 1 Reporter & Columnist
Rachel's diary: Charles Leclerc, Ferrari and Monza emotions
Sky F1's Rachel Brookes reflects on a powerful Italian GP where Ferrari took centre stage and Charles Leclerc realised a dream
Last Updated: 11/09/19 11:47am
The range of emotions on display over the past 10 days in F1 have prompted me to write this diary. I'll be reflecting on those feelings as I go through the piece.
It's been a few years since I have been to the Italian Grand Prix but it always means a lot to me because, as I have mentioned before, it has a special place in my heart. Proud
Having checked into our hotel after an early flight on Wednesday morning, we headed into the centre of Milan to check out the venue for the Ferrari parade later that day and get some footage of the set-up and the fans queueing to see their heroes. The whole Piazza in front of the famous Duomo di Milano had been taken over. All ages were there and all waiting in the searing Italian sun to make sure they had the best spot possible to see the show that evening. Excitement
We then left Milan to go to the circuit in Monza and collect some more equipment - and even stop off for the first of many ice creams (or gelatos) over the week. When we returned to the square the scene that greeted us was phenomenal.
A celebration of the Scuderia
The Piazza del Duomo was now completely packed with Scuderia Ferrari fans. The crowd extended way beyond the square too. A friend further out sent me a photo of the scene beyond the boundaries of the throng of people too late to get a clear view but hoping to see something. It wasn't until we took up our position to the side of the stage that we were able to fully appreciate what was before us. Incredulity
Ferrari were celebrating 90 years of emotion, so said the posters and the backdrops. With that they brought out past drivers to the stage to rapturous applause and they all spoke to our Sky Italia colleagues who were hosting the event. Then the crowd were treated to the announcement that the Monza circuit had signed a five-year deal to continue hosting the Italian GP and the crowd cheered once more. Happiness
If that was loud, it was nothing compared to the welcome that Mick Schumacher received. It is clear that Michael is still very much close to every Ferrari fans' hearts. It felt like a genuinely emotional reaction from the crowd and a response that will hopefully carry a message to Michael and the rest of his family that all Ferrari fans, all motorsport fans, are still thinking of him. For Mick, it was a sign of what may come should he ever don the red F1 overalls that immediately carry with them the adulation of the Tifosi and the hopes of a nation. Expectation
Finally, it was time for Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel. Charles started the walk up the red carpet, sunglasses on, as one side of the square was still bathed in strong evening sunlight, and he made his way up the steps onto the stage.
For as far as he could see, people were cheering him, applauding him and filming him on their phones. He took out his phone and started filming them, a video I am sure he has watched many times since. You can only imagine what was running through his mind but coming there on the back of the win in Spa had already made him a hero to these fans.
People tell you all the time of the Tifosi, the fiercely loyal but demanding fans of the Scuderia, and of their incredible support for the team and its drivers, but there, laid out in front of him, in tens of thousands of faces was the reality of what it really means to drive for the most successful team in the history of the sport. Realisation
Seb then came onto the stage and again the crowd responded. He had respectfully let Charles enjoy his moment before joining him, and also taking out his phone. They clearly love Seb too, even though he hasn't given them a win since Belgium in 2018. The love is strong and the support is enduring through what is probably the toughest time in his career. If there is such a thing as an audible equivalent of a giant hug, that was it. Gratitude
I left that event with a better understanding of why every driver on the grid would love to wear red. I still believe we'll see Lewis in red at some point, maybe sooner rather than later. After all, almost everyone can move for 2021. Appreciation
I can't talk about the Monza weekend without referencing the tributes to Anthoine Hubert, who we tragically lost in Spa, and our thoughts and prayers continue to be sent to Juan Manuel Correa, his family and friends. The F2 drivers took to the track for the first time since those tragic events and did them proud. The French national anthem was played on the podium at the end of Race 1 at the request of the drivers and the Tricolore held aloft on the podium after Race 2. Respect
A mess of Monza qualifying
After qualifying on Saturday, Sebastian was clearly not happy. The tow can make such a difference at Monza. We had talked about it in every session across the weekend on Sky Sports F1 so it was no surprise to see teams trying to use it in qualifying.
What was a surprise was that while we were all watching the clock tick down at the end of Q3, we could see how tight the teams were leaving it - but they couldn't. Or if they could, they still believed they would be ok.
One or two teams can afford to take that risk but the whole top 10 sat in their garage waiting for someone else to break the air for them. In the end it was Nico Hulkenberg who started the stampede, but he immediately went down the escape road and slowly weaved his way through the chicane. The pack that had made the corner slowed down so Nico would have to rejoin in front again, wasting valuable time. Then came the jostling for position, no more Mexican stand-off but more of gentleman's excuse me!
Carlos Sainz went for it, his team making it clear on the radio he had to go. Other radio messages were equally as frantic, but in the number 5 Ferrari, Seb was waiting for Charles to get ahead of him for the pre-agreed tow. Leclerc did eventually get in front, but it was too late, neither driver would make it to the line before the chequered flag fell. Frustration. Disbelief
The driver interviews were interesting. I asked Nico if he took to the escape road in the hope that when he came out he would be behind someone. He gave me an answer but it wasn't to the question I had asked. Meanwhile, his team-mate criticised those who seemingly deliberately took to the escape road and said he thought they should incur penalties.
We had seen cars bunch up in F3 and a minimum out-lap laptime rule was quickly brought in to try and prevent the same in other races but it didn't matter, qualifying was over by the exit of turn 2 when only 1 min 18 was left on the clock and it was clear we were going to be denied an exciting shootout for pole. Annoyance
The sharp Ferrari contrast
Race day was chaos. We were on our minibuses outside the Monza park when we got word that it had been closed to vehicles. After waiting 15 minutes on the bus without moving at all we disembarked and decided to walk. We joined the thousands of fans who were making their way into the circuit and then faced gridlock. No one was going anywhere. It was like Q3 all over again as we waited for the smallest sign of movement up ahead.
Eventually someone explained to the police that there were people working at the race who couldn't get through and the route down the side was opened to us. I have never seen that in my previous visits to Monza but maybe this year the fans wanted to get to the track earlier than before and bag their spot because they genuinely believed they may see a Ferrari win again for the first time there since 2010. Hope
And they did. Despite all of Mercedes' best efforts. There has been much talk of Leclerc just getting the black-and-white flag for his defence of his position, we even had FIA race director Michael Masi on the programme afterwards to explain the stewards' decisions, but the debate between fans rumbles on. Lewis told me after the race: "It seems like the new generation get away with a lot more in that space of how they manoeuvre their car compared to, I would say, the more experienced drivers, but it's good knowledge, now I know and look forward to the next one."
He was smiling as he said it and that is the only way he can deal with it, seeing what is considered ok and using that to his advantage next time. We want the best drivers duelling, battling for position, stalking the car in front ever closer lap after lap, and finally making the move. We don't want positions handed over from the stewards' room, within reason of course. Anticipation
Charles' win was a popular one in the paddock. Not just because it meant a Ferrari win in Monza and the astounding scenes that always follow. Not just because he fought so hard for it. Not just because he is a popular guy who is a pleasure to work with. This is a 21-year-old who has lost his father, his godfather and mentor, and his friend, in the space of the last four years. One of which was just last weekend when he had his first race win and understandably and rightly celebrations were muted. This is a young man who was finally able to express everything he had been feeling for so long in several very loud screams on his team radio. The emotions in those exclamations sent goosebumps through all who know his story. Exultation
Talking of experienced drivers, it was a day to forget for Sebastian. There has been quite a lot of reaction to my question to Seb in the pen about whether he still has a love for the sport. The question wasn't pre-planned at all, but from his body language and his previous answers it was a question I genuinely wanted to know the answer to. We have all had days where we don't love our job for one reason or another but when you can't do that job as you know you can and have done previously, the knot in the stomach and the trepidation of what the next day at work will bring, can leave you low and feeling discombobulated. That is the look I saw in Seb's eyes.
Whatever you think of him, it takes an inordinate amount of hard work to get to Formula 1 in the first place, more again to stay there, and I cannot begin to imagine what it takes to win one, let alone four world titles. Unfortunately for Sebastian, some naysayers cry 'but he had the best car' during those years at Red Bull. Knowing that the draw of driving for Ferrari and maybe one day winning a world title in red like his hero Michael Schumacher had done, persuaded him to leave the comfort of Red Bull for a new challenge. Because it was comfortable at Red Bull. Yes, he may have been beaten by Daniel Ricciardo in his last season there, but it was still very much his team.
You could tell from how gutted Christian Horner was to lose him and the warmth with which Sebastian is still spoken about by the team that the relationship is still strong. If rumours are to be believed he would like to return there at some point. Who knows, if the performance clause in Max's contract had been triggered could we have seen a straight swap? Curious
The difference at Ferrari seemed to be that instead of getting in the car and doing what he does best, he had to get involved more than he had in Milton Keynes. Whether he was asked to, or wanted to, or even felt he needed to, it seemed to distract from the driving and his performances weren't what we were used to seeing from Seb.
When I spoke to him post-race and said we weren't used to seeing mistakes like that from him I didn't mean the spins - we know that has been creeping into his racing for a while now albeit usually while battling for position with another car close by - I meant the returning to the track when it wasn't safe to do so. To anyone watching that looks a rookie mistake, a move made in anger at the previous error. Seb says he didn't see Lance Stroll, couldn't see him in fact because of the high sides of the cockpit, but that doesn't deter from the fact that it feels like the Seb of 2010-2013 wouldn't have returned to the track like that, high cockpit sides or not.
When he joined the team for the celebratory victory photo in the pit lane after the race, he moved back and next to one of the team's electricians who has been with Ferrari a long time. The man in question put his arm around Seb's shoulder and spoke to him throughout the photo session. I hope an arm around the shoulder is enough right now, because viewers are missing out on seeing the very best Sebastian Vettel, for whatever reason, and the sooner he returns to the top of his game the better for the sport. I wouldn't want him to leave like this, he is so much better than what we have seen recently.
If there is one thing that he takes away from this weekend I hope it is the energy of that crowd which he then channels into ruthlessness, determination and fighting spirit - the emotions of a true champion.