By DANIELLA MATAR
AP Sports Writer
MONZA, Italy (AP) — Formula One championship leader Max Verstappen again made light work of starting down the grid as he won the Italian Grand Prix on Sunday to leave him within touching distance of a second successive title.
Verstappen now has a 116-point lead over Charles Leclerc, who finished second after another questionable strategy decision from Ferrari on its home track. With just six races remaining, the Dutch driver could clinch the title in Singapore next month.
It was the first time Verstappen has set foot on the iconic Monza podium, with his highest previous finish being fifth in 2018.
“It took a bit of time to be on a great podium like this, but finally we’re on it,” Verstappen said.
Verstappen started seventh after he was among a number of drivers hit by grid penalties but made his way up to third by the first corner of the second lap. The Red Bull driver then picked off George Russell in a Mercedes at the start of Lap 5 setting up the hunt for polesitter Leclerc in his Ferrari.
“The start was very good, directly, and then I could quickly get back into my rhythm and get back into second,” Verstappen said. “It was enjoyable to drive today even though it was quite hot out there. Great day for us.”
The Virtual Safety Car gave Verstappen an opportunity as it came out on Lap 12 after Sebastian Vettel’s final race at Monza came to an ignominious end, with the four-time world champion pulling up at the side of the track after complaining about a power issue.
Ferrari decided to bring Leclerc in to change to medium tires, allowing Verstappen to take the lead. Leclerc rejoined the race in third.
“To be honest we didn’t know what they were going to be doing behind, so we took that choice,” a downbeat Leclerc said.
“Obviously we finished P2 so I’m not extremely happy with the race but, yeah, we’ll work on that. I think we were quite strong today but it just wasn’t enough.”
Leclerc moved past Russell and then briefly regained the lead when Verstappen pitted on the 26th lap but the pair swapped places again seven laps later when the Ferrari driver pitted for new tires for a second time.
The safety car came out again shortly after last year’s winner, Daniel Ricciardo, pulled up on Lap 47 prompting most drivers to pit for soft tires.
However, a final battle never materialised when the race finished behind the safety car with Verstappen securing his fifth straight victory and his 11th of the season — one more than last year.
Russell was third, ahead of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Lewis Hamilton, who had both fought through the field after starting at the back of the grid following penalties.
Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez had also been hit by grid penalties and had started 13th but, despite an eventful race that also featured a brake fire, he managed to finish sixth and also pick up the extra point for fastest lap.
Lando Norris was seventh, after a poor start from third, with Pierre Gasly just behind him.
Williams reserve driver Nyck de Vries finished his first ever F1 race in ninth. The 27-year-old was a late replacement for Alex Albon after the Thai driver was diagnosed with appendicitis.
“Wow, wow. Thank you, thank you very much. This has been incredible, points on debut, thank you,” De Vries said on team radio after crossing the line, before then uttering an expletive and adding “my shoulders are dead, dead.”
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.