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WALTER BUCHIGNANI: The Italian Grand Prix and Ferrari's future


The Italian Grand Prix is always special for Ferrari, but this weekend’s homecoming could prove to be a defining moment in the history of the storied squad.

At least, Charles Leclerc hopes to make it so.

The 21-year-old Formula One sophomore has already made a bit of Prancing Horse history by becoming the youngest Ferrari driver to win a Grand Prix , a feat he achieved last weekend in Belgium.

It marked the team’s first win of the season and gave its worldwide legions of tifosi something to cheer about after a long run of failures, mishaps and missed opportunities.

But that’s nothing compared to what might happen if Leclerc follows up with another victory on Sunday at the famed Autodromo Nazionale Monza north of Milan, stop No. 14 of 21 on the F1 calendar.

Never mind the euphoric celebrations and outpouring of emotions in Italy and beyond that would follow a Ferrari triumph on home soil.

A win by Leclerc at Monza could be seen as something much more profound — a definitive shift in the balance of power at the scuderia.

It could mark the moment when the kid from Monaco is no longer regarded as “the future of Ferrari,” but the present.

Put another way: the moment when the heir apparent ascends to the throne and displaces Sebastian Vettel as the team’s de facto No. 1 driver.

In short, a very big deal.

We could see this shift coming, even before Spa-Francorchamps, where Leclerc took the victory ahead of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes while Vettel had to settle for fourth.

If it weren’t for bad luck, Leclerc would have scored his maiden F1 victory in only his second appearance for Ferrari, in Bahrain, where he was leading with 10 laps to go when his car gave out.

There was another near-win in Austria, where Leclerc again was leading but was pushed off the track in a controversial overtake by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen three laps from the end.

Overall, it’s fair to say Leclerc has made a bigger impression so far than the more experienced Vettel, though he trails the German in the standings by 12 points.

The two share the same number of podiums — six — but the newbie has three pole positions to the veteran’s one, and has out-qualified him in the last six races.

When he joined Ferrari this season, Leclerc understood he would be expected to play a supporting role to Vettel, who, after all, won four drivers’ titles during his years at Red Bull.

At the same time, Leclerc did not hide the fact he felt his job was to change the team’s mind about his No. 2 status, sooner or later.

Clearly, he seems well on his way to doing that in a hurry.

Spa marked the first time Ferrari called on Vettel to help Leclerc secure the victory instead of the other way around, notably by holding off Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes to allow his teammate to build a cushion at the front.

The strategy proved crucial to the win — Leclerc crossed the finish line 0.9 seconds ahead of Hamilton — while sacrificing Vettel’s race.

And the youngster got the job done with poise and maturity in tragic circumstances during an emotional weekend when fellow driver and friend Anthoine Hubert was killed in a crash during an F2 event at the same track.

That does not mean Ferrari principal Mattia Binotto in his mind has already demoted Vettel and embraced Leclerc as his new No. 1.

Nor should he. A proven champion deserves better than that.

Vettel arrived at Ferrari five years ago with the goal and expectation of leading the team back to championship glory after a drought that extends over a decade, and he should be given every opportunity to see that through.

However, nothing lasts forever, and it is the duty of the Ferrari leadership to do what’s best for the team and its fans, and to recognize when the time is right for a change in approach and tactics.

The team is under intense pressure to perform well at its home race at Monza, whose free-flowing track — like Spa — is expected to play to the strengths of the red cars.

Like last weekend, it won’t be easy. There is simply no room for error. As Binotto put it, “we’ve seen that to win you have to do everything perfect.”

Under the circumstances, victory on Sunday by either Ferrari driver would be a moment to remember.

For one in particular, it might just be the moment that changes everything.

walterb@postmedia.com

twitter.com/walterbF1

AT A GLANCE

Italian Grand Prix live coverage. Qualifying: Saturday at 8 a.m. on TSN1, TSN5; 8:45 a.m. on RDS. Race: Sunday at 7:30 a.m. on TSN1, TSN5; 8:30 a.m. on RDS.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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