For the first time this season, Lewis Hamilton leads the World Championship, leapfrogging Sebastian Vettel to a three-point advantage following his sixth victory of the season at the Italian Grand Prix.
The resultant praise was deserving following on from a record 69th pole in treacherous conditions the preceding day, potentially paving the way for another world title depending on how Mercedes fare at the subsequent Ferrari-suited circuits.
For Hamilton, it would be a fourth world title but for Esteban Ocon, another notable star from Monza, the aspiration burns bright for a first World Championship win.
And the signs are that Ocon could well find himself alongside Hamilton as his teammate for the 2019 season should the stars align.
Ocon may not have earned the plaudits that Hamilton did as a rookie, partly because he does not have a race-winning car at his disposal as the Briton did during his debut campaign at McLaren.
But the 20-year-old has earned no shortage of praise simply because of the fact he has won points at every single race bar the Monaco Grand Prix.
Force India are quick and competitive this season although not in the same bracket as Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull for that matter, meaning the true chance to shine is when the field is levelled by the rain.
It was in exactly such conditions that Ocon shone to park his car third on the grid for Sunday’s race, the latest in a long line of facets that have him earmarked as a champion in the making, and then backing it up with sixth in the race.
— Esteban Ocon (@OconEsteban) September 2, 2017
Prior to this season, he had already done enough to leapfrog Pascal Wehrlein for a Force India drive, the German the favourite at one stage to join Hamilton at Mercedes.
Like Wehrlein, Ocon is on Mercedes’ driver development programme but is clearly in the No1 spot and, with every drive, Mercedes know that sooner or later they will have to make a decision on his long-term future.
He is tied into Force India for a second season but looks a reasonable bet to step up to the Mercedes team full-time in 2019 depending on how the Hamilton-Valtteri Bottas dynamic works.
Ocon has all the signs of a future champion. There are the drives in the junior ranks: first as a national then international star in karting, a European Formula 3 champion in 2014 – in which he beat a certain Max Verstappen to the title – and the GP3 crown the following year.
DTM followed in 2016 before Manor came calling for him to drive for the latter half of the season – and then Force India took what many thought was a chance, but how he has flourished.
After a troubled spell at McLaren, Sergio Perez’s stock had fallen but a series of podiums with Force India restored a reputation, in fact a career.
Ocon, to a certain extent, has undone that, causing the Mexican to pull off unnecessarily dangerous manoeuvres – most notably at the preceding race in Belgium – to fend off his young upstart of a teammate.
It is the handling of his relationship with Perez that in some ways highlights his championship capabilities even now.
Not one clearly to suffer fools gladly, he accused his teammate of trying to “kill me”, in effect not afraid who he upset by saying how he had seen it in the moment. It was all very Hamilton-esque in the Briton’s infancy.
But in a calmer moment, he was able to show admirable maturity, adding: “We have lost points, we have lost money, we have lost parts of the car, it is enough.
“I am a professional driver and we are professional, Sergio and I. In the end, we are here because we are clever, I hope we will be intelligent enough to have respect and just move on.”
Such a comment hinted at another strength, that of being a team player. Ocon picked out his fifth place in Spain as his F1 career highlight, not because of the position so much but the celebrations with his mechanics on the pitwall as he crossed the line.
Then there is the intelligence, a race brain that defies his years and has left Force India, Mercedes and other suitors not so quietly impressed.
As for the team hierarchy, Force India chief executive Otmar Szafnauer said succinctly: “We knew he had the potential to do it. He has exceeded our expectation.”
Ocon’s expectations, though, are rather higher: “My target is to be world champion”. He’s started well in that quest.
Lewis Hamilton will start the Italian Grand Prix from pole position following his wet-weather masterclass in one of the longest qualifying sessions in Formula One history.
Hamilton’s excellence at a rain-hit Monza, following a delay which lasted two hours and 36 minutes, sees him stand alone as the sport’s all-time one-lap specialist with his 69th career pole.
The Englishman, 32, held his nerve in the shootout for pole as the rain, which wreaked havoc with Saturday’s schedule, returned with vengeance in the closing moments.
Hamilton was the last to cross the line, and his lap was an incredible 1.1 seconds faster than Red Bull’s Max Verstappen with his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo third.
It marks Hamilton’s fourth consecutive pole at Monza and moves him above Michael Schumacher’s tally which he matched in Belgium last weekend
Hamilton however, will be joined on the front row by the Canadian teenager Lance Stroll with both Verstappen and Ricciardo to serve grid drops following engine penalties. And to cap a remarkable day for Hamilton his title rival Sebastian Vettel will start only sixth.
— Formula 1 (@F1) September 2, 2017
Lewis Hamilton will aim to establish a new outright record for career pole positions and leapfrog Sebastian Vettel to take the lead in this year’s world championship at the Italian Grand Prix.
As four-time champion Vettel goes in search of his first win on Ferrari’s home track in Sunday’s classic high-speed charge, his nearest rival will be hunting a third victory in four years at the Autodromo Nazionale.
Hamilton has won the Italian race three times overall and secured pole each of the last three years, a record that has encouraged him to believe he can secure another vital victory.
He will attempt to extend that to four and, after equalling Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of 68 in Belgium, deliver his 69th pole.
If he succeeds, and wins, the Briton will close the seven-point gap between him and the German and lead the title race for the first time this year.
He currently has five wins to Vettel’s four, but knows, after last weekend’s hard-fought victory, that nothing can be taken for granted.
“Ferrari have the better car and we have to do all we can to stay in front this time,” said Hamilton.
Following Vettel’s decision to sign a new three-deal with Ferrari, Hamilton appears poised to remain with Mercedes, but the team have made clear ahead of Monza that they intend to delay contract talks until this year’s championship is decided.
Hamilton is committed to Mercedes until the end of next year, but has suggested he is ready to make a long-term commitment to the team.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff has said he wants to retain Hamilton, but will wait until the championship is settled before any talks resume.
“Our relationship is very good and I think each of us appreciates what he has in the other one,” said Wolff.
“But this is not a topic we want to tackle now over the last remaining races of the season. It’s an intense last third of the year and we’ll get that over the line and then we’ll pick up a discussion.”
The team is also expected to retain Valtteri Bottas who will have a major part to play in this weekend’s contest as he seeks to secure another podium finish.
For Vettel, however, it is a key opportunity to retain the momentum in front of the tifosi on a weekend when Ferrari will celebrate the team’s 70th anniversary.
“Monza is never a critical race for us,” said Vettel. “But I think it is the nicest race – we have a lot of support and the atmosphere is special. I am looking forward to it.”
Vettel claimed his maiden F1 win for Toro Rosso at Monza in tempestuous rain in 2008 and won again with Red Bull in 2011 and 2013. Since moving to Ferrari, he has had two podium finishes, but no win.
Red Bull’s current drivers Daniel Ricciardo, fresh from his podium in Belgium, and Max Verstappen, facing penalties following his early retirement due to an engine failure, should also be strong contenders.
So, too, should be the two Force India drivers Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon despite their collisions and post-race row last weekend when the latter accused his team-mate of risking their lives.