[Why Monza F1 qualifying has moved away from chaotic slipstream bonanza
The Italian Grand Prix has been the scene of many chaotic qualifying sessions in F1’s recent past, with drivers playing a game of chicken trying to position themselves for a strong slipstream on Monza’s long straights.
The situation got completely out of hand in 2019, when drivers were very reluctant to be the first across the line, and therefore not benefitting from a draft while instead just aiding their rivals.
In 2019’s Q3, only McLaren’s Carlos Sainz and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc just made it across the line before the timer ran out, while the other eight Q3 runners, including both Mercedes cars and the second Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, all looked silly as they crossed the line too late to embark on another flyer.
In 2020 and 2021, most of the traffic woes happened in Q1, with drivers dangerously cruising on their out-laps while cars on a quick lap were flying past.
But with F1’s new generation of cars, it appears that Monza issue has almost solved itself. The typical jostling for position naturally still occurs, but as the effect of the tow has diminished with the current spec of ground-effect cars, so has most of the silly gamesmanship.
“On the whole it was cleaner than I was expecting,” said McLaren’s Lando Norris when Motorsport.com/Autosport asked him about the traffic situation.
“I think more cars didn’t want to get as much of a tow. Tows were big in 2019, 2020, 2021. Around here it was like six tenths, seven tenths with a slipstream. Now it’s maximum one or two tenths probably in qualifying.
“No one wants to go first but I’d say no one was as bothered to kind of get the perfect slipstream because I don’t think that really existed today.”
“In the end for us it turned out that we barely gained anything in the straights, a lot less than I was hoping for, and it just seemed to maybe affect me a little bit in the middle sector through the two Lesmos and the Ascari.
“It just seems probably a bit better to be almost a bit too far rather than too close, too close hurt myself a little bit more.”
Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60
Photo by: Jake Grant / Motorsport Images
Team boss Stella confirmed Norris’ findings about the lack of benefit from the tow, although McLaren was perhaps a more extreme example due to its straight-line limitations.
“The extra speed that you get with this new generation of cars is not as rewarding as it was in the past,” team boss Andrea Stella explained.
“We thought around three, four seconds was the right distance [to the car in front]. This is actually where Lando was at the end, and pretty much Oscar [Piastri] as well. So, we are happy with the positioning of the cars in qualifying.”
Traffic in qualifying has still been a concern this year, however, as evidenced in recent races, including Belgium, the Netherlands and particularly Austria.
There were also farcical scenes in Monza F3 qualifying, where the slipstream is still a huge benefit, with drivers backing off even leading to a collision.
In an attempt to further reduce dangerous situations, FIA race director Niels Wittich issued an addendum to his event notes expanding the usual maximum delta time to out-laps as well as in-laps.
It is a measure that had been used in the past and was backed by the drivers in Friday evening’s briefing as a solid safety improvement.
Ironically, the measure almost caused a collision as Norris and Esteban Ocon had a close encounter at the entry to the Parabolica in Q1, with Norris forced to pass the Alpine driver to stay under the maximum delta time.
But otherwise, the tweak appeared to work as intended, resulting in perhaps the smoothest Monza qualifying in years.
“I think what we saw yesterday in qualifying was relatively clean,” said Ferrari’s senior performance engineer Jock Clear.
“Obviously, the race director made some changes before qualifying, pre-empting what we’ve seen in the last few years. I think that was helped by the fact that people are deciding that actually the tow is not as critical as it’s been in previous years.”
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, Esteban Ocon, Alpine A523
Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images
The reduced tow is a side-effect from F1’s efforts to reduce dirty air, which has made following easier through corners but had the opposite effect on the straights.
“Normally, we hear about people complaining you can’t follow cars,” he added. “And of course, it’s those very same characteristics that mean when you come to Monza, you have to follow a car.
“Well, we’ve got away from that, the cars follow each other better now. And you don’t have to go to Monza two seconds behind the car in front to make sure you get a qualifying lap in, and that makes life so much easier for everybody.
“It’s a testament to the work the FIA and the teams have done.”
Drivers are also expecting the race to feature less overtaking than with previous generations of cars, as the smaller low-downforce rear wings further reduce the already diminished effect of the DRS overtaking aid.
“With the skinny rear wings, overtaking is not actually that easy because even when you open the DRS you only gain one or two tenths,” said George Russell, who qualified fourth in the Mercedes that is at the bottom of the top speed charts.
“I expect to have better degradation than Ferrari, so our only chance is to be faster on the pitstops and do something different to them.”