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Should Ferrari be worried by the gap to Mercedes at Monza?

The ground underfoot was still wet as more than 90,000 Tifosi made their annual pilgrimage to Monza's royal park on Sunday morning. Rain during qualifying had left their beloved Ferraris fifth and sixth on the grid, but it's often said that hope springs eternal in this part of the world and Saturday's disappointment hadn't dampened their spirits. For the first time in five years, the Italian Grand Prix race programmes showed a Ferrari driver leading the championship in early September, and there was still the possibility that the SF70-H might come good in dry conditions.

Ferrari's seven-year victory drought on home turf has left the Tifosi battle-hardened, but the sight of scarlet bodywork exiting the Parabolica for the first time is still enough to raise the roof on Monza's aging grandstands. The atmosphere on the grid at the Italian Grand Prix is unlike any other in Formula One, and the cheer that met Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen as they were rolled through the chaos to their starting positions was only matched in volume by the boos for Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

The Ferraris. Sutton Images
By comparison, the 75 minutes of racing that followed was an anti-climax. The promise of a Ferrari win was always distant at the weekend, but the extent of the defeat was unexpected. In a season in which the margins between Hamilton and Vettel have so often been measured in tenths, the Tifosi overlooking the pit straight had to wait 36 seconds between Hamilton taking victory and Vettel securing third.

"Mercedes power is definitely better than Ferrari power!" Hamilton said on the podium after receiving boos and jeers from the crowd below. The comments were made in jest, but there was no denying their truth; the combination of Mercedes' latest power unit and the W08's trimmed-out aero package was unbeatable on Sunday and no level of support or intimidation from the crowd was going to change that.

A race Ferrari was never going to win

But if you strip away the emotion of Sunday's proceedings, it's easy to argue that Vettel left Monza with his mission accomplished. A third place finish yields 15 points whether a driver is one second off the lead or 60, and Ferrari knew ahead of the Italian Grand Prix that it was going to be Mercedes' one-two victory to lose.

Ever since the early design principles of this year's car were sketched out in early 2016, the Mercedes was always set to have an innate advantage at tracks like Monza, just as Ferrari has been the team to beat on high-downforce, slow-speed circuits, like Monaco and the Hungaroring. Throughout the season the W08 has lacked peak downforce compared to the Ferrari, but it has enjoyed a much better trade-off between downforce and drag. Monza is an outlier on Formula One's downforce spectrum - sitting at the extreme as a low-drag circuit - but non-draggy downforce is still very useful in the corners. So not only was the Mercedes fast on the straights, it was also able to generate sufficient downforce to make Hamilton and Bottas faster than anyone else in Monza's high-speed corners.

"Everyone talks about Monza and Monza wings," Mercedes boss Toto Wolff explained after the race, "and you could see that on some of our competitors, like Red Bull, they experimented with a very low downforce wing in Spa and I think the one they had here was flat.

"Yes, there was a Monza package [for Mercedes], but it wasn't down to a low downforce configuration. Our car was very strong through the corners, every type of corner and that is encouraging."

With less than a quarter of the race complete, both Mercedes drivers turned down their engines to preserve them for a future battle. Job done.

Not only had Mercedes conquered Ferrari on home turf, it had done so by a significant margin.

Turning the tables

That will, of course, be of some concern to Maranello, which had designed a much less efficient low-drag aero package than its main rival and saw its deficiencies brutally exposed in front of its home crowd. But the wings that ran in Monza will not be needed again this season -- even the long straights of Mexico City require a much higher setting in order to generate the necessary downforce from the thin air at 2,250 metres -- and are now as much a part of the team's history as the 1947 Ferrari 125 Vettel rode in on Sunday's driver parade.

There will be lessons learned for next year's Italian Grand Prix, but there is no reason to believe that Vettel will be more than 30 seconds off Mercedes at any of the remaining races this season. On the contrary, the next round in Singapore is a high-downforce track where drag becomes a secondary concern and steep wing angles return to maximise downforce through the street circuit's 23 corners.

"Plenty of positives"

Looking back at the last two races, Vettel finished second and third on two tracks where he could have reasonably expected to finish third twice. What's more, he finished ahead of the Red Bulls, which are becoming increasingly competitive and would have likely beaten Vettel had the grid not been rearranged by engine penalties on Saturday night. With those 33 points secure on Mercedes' strongest tracks, the tables are set to turn in Singapore when Hamilton and Bottas are more likely to feel the pressure from the ever-improving Red Bull.

"At the moment you can say that Mercedes has an edge," Vettel said after Sunday's race. "Saturdays they're very strong which obviously has its contribution to Sundays, but it's not a big secret. I think we are strong, we don't need to hide and there's plenty of positives.

"Things are coming, I'm sure they are developing their car but we are developing ours so I'm not so fussed about what they doing. I'm more focused on what's going on inside us, inside Ferrari and it makes me quite positive, what's coming. We just need to see and then there's always the extra element of racing that you can't predict, that you can't put down on paper and that's usually the most exciting bit so I'm very much a fan of that and a fan of the moment and see what we can do."

As painful as the 36-second gap at Monza was, Ferrari knows it was not a true reading of the balance of performance between its car and Mercedes'. Hamilton has made the most of his team's strongest tracks at the start of the second half of the season, but now it is Vettel's turn to do the same at Ferrari's. Bring on Singapore.

Author: Laurence Edmondson, ESPN UK

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