When Sebastian Vettel proudly told Ferrari over the radio they would “take the English flag and hang it in Maranello” following his British Grand Prix victory in July, few would have seen it coming back to bite him six weeks later.

That day at Silverstone, Ferrari had emerged for the first time as the dominant engine manufacturer in Formula 1. Following years of Mercedes’ domination, the tide had turned, with Vettel sweeping to a hard-earned victory that was capped off by a brave pass on Valtteri Bottas for the lead late on.

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But sport has a funny habit of bringing things back around. And on Sunday at Monza, it was Vettel who was on the receiving end of a galling defeat at his team’s home race - which, coincidentally, also included first lap contact and a late overtake to decide the result - allowing Lewis Hamilton to pull clear in the fight for the championship.

Mercedes may be facing the most serious threat yet to its superiority in F1, yet it proved in the Italian Grand Prix just how much quality is running through the team by winning a race that seemed out of reach for the majority of the weekend.

Ferrari had swept to a front row lock-out on Saturday, with Hamilton impressing in his charge to third, only one-tenth of a second back from pole-sitter Kimi Raikkonen. Come the race, though, Ferrari was widely expected to make its straight-line speed advantage tell and run away with it.

Alas, Hamilton had other ideas. After making the best start of the top three, Hamilton managed to hassle both Ferrari drivers into the first chicane before tucking into their slipstream on the run through Curva Grande. Vettel didn’t appear to see the Mercedes driver, leaving acres of room on the right-hand side before drifting across late, by which point Hamilton had already shaped up for a bold move around the outside. Vettel went deep, touched Hamilton, and spun around.

“I think it was a racing move,” Hamilton said. "It was pretty much the same manoeuvre that Kimi did to me.” Vettel may have felt aggrieved, but the stewards saw nothing in the incident, which only acts as the latest needle in the title fight heading into the final third of the season.

Ferrari clearly had the pace to win at Monza. Despite briefly losing the lead on the restart following the early Safety Car, Raikkonen was able to repass Hamilton and keep the Mercedes driver at an arm’s length through the first stint, the gap hovering at around a second prior to his first stop.

Mercedes informed Hamilton to do the opposite to whatever Raikkonen did in terms of strategy, prompting the Briton to stay out long. Raikkonen dived in at the end of Lap 20, emerged in clear air, and piled pressure on Mercedes with a series of quick laps. Hamilton did not respond immediately, meaning that Raikkonen soon had reduced the gap to 19 seconds, with a pit stop taking around 24 seconds. It looked like game over for Hamilton’s hopes of victory.

But he was rescued by a man who is arguably shaping up to be his best teammate yet in F1. Bottas, who had been struggling all weekend, was running net fourth behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, causing him to lose time. When Raikkonen pitted, Bottas was 12 seconds ahead, only for the combination of his so-so pace and the Ferrari driver’s fresh rubber to cause the gap to shrink dramatically in the laps that followed.

Engineer Tony Ross’ instruction to Bottas was clear: “Keep Kimi behind you.” Mercedes sensed an opportunity. Nearing the end of his stint, Hamilton’s pace at the front wasn’t enough to get the jump on both Bottas and Raikkonen to retain the lead - but he would be much closer than anticipated.

When Hamilton emerged from the pits, the gap to Raikkonen ahead stood at 5.2 seconds. The Mercedes driver wasted little time in getting his tyres up to temperature, carving 1.5 seconds out of Raikkonen on the first lap alone. Within five laps, he was right on the tail of the Ferrari, well within DRS range and holding a real shot at victory. Raikkonen had not overhauled Bottas as he would have hoped, instead cooking his tyres, which were beginning to visibly blister.

Bottas had done his job, but the helping hand he offered to Hamilton was not to the detriment of his own race. “There’s a minimal difference on this race where you stop in terms of the race, because the tyres, they can last so long,” he explained. “So it wasn’t like I was really sacrificing my race as long as I was keeping Kimi behind. If he overtook me then for sure I could lose time.

“I was happy to do it because for me I knew I would still get the chance to attack Verstappen. It didn’t really compromise my result, so it’s all good.” Bottas pitted before gearing up to try and catch Verstappen in the final stint, releasing the lead pair at the front.

The damage had been done for Raikkonen’s race, and Mercedes knew it. Hamilton was told the race would be “won and lost on tyres,” and it proved to be true. A couple of laps backing off cooled his own tyres as Raikkonen toiled behind Bottas helped Hamilton, allowing him to close up before a gutsy pass for the lead with nine laps to go. After getting alongside down the main straight, Hamilton hung to the outside before swinging into the chicane, getting the inside for the exit and pulling clear. Raikkonen was powerless to respond.

This race was one Mercedes really seemed to have no right to win. But for the third time in the last four races, the team proved its champion credentials, beating Ferrari in a race the Italian marque was expected to run away with.

Hamilton now sits 30 points clear in the drivers’ championship, making it a crucial victory in the title race. But mathematics aside, it’s significant: it has broken any momentum Ferrari may have built at Spa; it denied the Tifosi an expected home victory; and it proved again that Hamilton is operating at the peak of his powers.

So how does it compare to his greatest wins? “I think it’s always very difficult to compare past performances,” Hamilton said. “I always tell you that I don’t really have the greatest of memory, but under the sheer pressure that we are under, I definitely will consider it to be quite far up there.

“To do it on Ferrari’s home turf as well, with such a difficult crowd and so much pressure on the team with the performance that they have, to really be able to pull a little bit more out of the bag, and really make it stick…

“Days like this, it’s going to be amazing when I go back and see my guys in the garage. We’ll have a team photo to celebrate it probably. And that is a very, very proud moment, to be a part of that.”

The upset came about due to a combination of many factors. Hamilton’s impressive pace - a cut above Bottas all weekend - had a lot to do with it, yet the work of his Finnish colleague, who would ultimately finish third after Verstappen got a penalty, cannot be understated.

The “wingman” comment made by team boss Toto Wolff in Hungary may have been badly received initially by Bottas, but he now sees the title in a different way - and it is something he is embracing, as seen so clearly on Sunday.

“You’ve seen in Top Gun what wingman actually means. We’re both each other’s wingman, so that’s all good,” Bottas said.

“I think [Hungary] was a bit different. That really compromised my race big time, and now it really didn’t. My result was still the same as it would have been stopping a bit earlier.”

Bottas is aware of the big picture, though: “The points difference between me and Lewis is now very big, so I’m willing to co-operate when it makes sense. For sure, we win as a team, and we need to be realistic. The team wants to win both titles.”

It was a true team display from Mercedes at Monza. Bottas played his part in that. And while there may be a long way to go in the title race, for tonight at least, the flag will be going back to Brackley after one of the team's sweetest victories to date.

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