MILAN (AP) — Formula One champion Max Verstappen is feeling unusually optimistic about his chances to finally get a good result at the Italian Grand Prix.
Monza is the only circuit where Verstappen has never even finished on the podium, with the Red Bull driver’s best result being fifth in 2018.
Verstappen did not even manage to finish the past two editions of the Italian GP at all, with his retirement last year coming after a spectacular crash with title rival Lewis Hamilton, who was also forced to abandon the race.
However, the Dutch driver will take to the track on Sunday on the back of four straight wins and with his Red Bull having had a superior straight-line speed all season, which is crucial on one of F1’s fastest tracks.
“We’ve always been slow on the straights, so then it’s normal when you get here that it’s never going to be a good weekend,” Verstappen said when asked about his previous problems at Monza. “And besides that, you know, a few technical issues as well around this track and we always had to take engine penalties around here as well. So naturally, it’s never going to be amazing.
“But now I think with straight-line speed, it can be a completely different weekend for us.”
Verstappen’s dominant performances have seen the championship leader build a 109-point advantage over Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc and teammate Sergio Pérez, with just seven races remaining.
Last year he led Hamilton by just three points heading into the Italian GP.
“I’m always relaxed,” Verstappen said. “Even last year, you know, when the lead wasn’t that big, I think we always felt good and confident. But of course, with the lead we have now, yeah it’s nice and it’s great, but we still want to win more races.”
Verstappen is one of a number of drivers set to be hit by grid penalties for changing engine parts. It was confirmed on Thursday that Hamilton will take a penalty for using a fourth power unit, and he will likely be joined at the back of the grid by Verstappen, Sergio Perez, Carlos Sainz Jr., Valtteri Bottas and Yuki Tsunoda.
Verstappen won in front of his home fans at the Dutch GP on Sunday and Ferrari will be hoping its passionate red-clad tifosi equally have something to celebrate this weekend on its home track.
Leclerc was on the top step of Monza’s iconic podium in 2019 but that was Ferrari’s only success since 2010 and he’s not expecting to repeat that this year, especially after another error-strewn showing from the team at Zandvoort.
“On paper at least, it looks like a difficult weekend,” Leclerc said. “We expect Red Bull to be stronger, the track characteristics doesn’t fit exactly our car but we’ve had some good and bad surprises this year so hopefully this is one of the good ones and we overperform compared to what we expect.
“Comparing to Red Bull specially … we are slower down the straights. Their main strength this year is straight-line speed, we seem to be a bit quicker in the corners. At tracks like here, it’s not enough to gain back the advantage that they have on the straights.”
There was positive news for Ferrari on Friday, however, with a one-two in the first practice session.
Leclerc waved to fans after finishing the session top of the leaderboard, 0.077 seconds ahead of teammate Sainz.
George Russell was third-fastest, ahead of Mercedes teammate Hamilton and Verstappen in fifth.
There was a minute’s silence ahead of the start in memory of Queen Elizabeth II, who died on Thursday at the age of 96.
A second practice was scheduled for later Friday.
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