McLaren starred in qualifying for Formula 1’s Italian Grand Prix as it proved to be Mercedes’ nearest challenger, though the team will be looking over its shoulders in Sunday’s race.

Renault was tipped to lead the F1 midfield pack after its brilliant performance at the Belgian Grand Prix last weekend, but it was unable to replicate that level of competitiveness on Saturday at Monza, and its sole customer team, McLaren, was there to profit.

Not only did McLaren emerge as the midfield frontrunners, but it also ended up being the team that would get closest to Mercedes, with the all-black W11s dominating qualifying despite a ban on F1 engine ‘party modes’.

A sublime lap from Carlos Sainz left the Spaniard “shaking” as he put his McLaren third on the grid, eight tenths behind Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes.

Sainz admitted he could not put his finger on the reasons behind McLaren's impressive pace. 

"I would like to be able to answer that specifically, but at the moment I can’t," Sainz replied when asked why his McLaren was so fast at Monza. 

"We’ve just been very quick today. Honestly since Q1, I felt like we had the upper hand on the rest of the midfield and I just need to put some clean laps together.

"We’re running very low downforce which in our car last year didn’t work and our downforce was just falling off whenever we ran very little rear wing and this year, somehow, our car is a bit more robust running lower downforce levels and in Spa it started to pay off.

"Here in Monza we have a strong car under braking, we feel we can brake late and we have a strong car in the Parabolica and Ascari which obviously helps, you know, but exact reasons, honestly I don’t know."

Despite its strong qualifying display, McLaren is not expecting to be able to put up much of a fight with the much-quicker Mercedes, even if it is to jump one with a good start on the long drag to Turn 1.

"We usually have good starts, and always go into lap one trying to overtake the cars in front of us,” McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl explained.

"I am sure we will try to do the same tomorrow, but even if that would happen and we could jump one of the Mercedes at the start, then you need to find the right balance on whether it actually makes sense to fight these guys, or try to keep them behind.

"In the end you may lose more performance by trying to do something that is simply not possible."

McLaren’s fight is ultimately not with Mercedes and it knows it cannot afford to compromise its battle for third place in the constructors’ championship.

The Woking squad currently holds a two-point advantage over Racing Point and is nine clear of Renault. Ferrari are seven points adrift of McLaren in fifth spot but both its drivers will start outside of the top 10 at Monza for the first time since 1984.

The highest-placed Racing Point and Renault drivers start today’s race from fourth (Sergio Perez) and seventh (Daniel Ricciardo) respectively.

Max Verstappen’s faster Red Bull is also out of position following a difficult qualifying and will line-up from fifth, directly behind the lead McLaren of Sainz.

And Sainz is wary of the threat coming from behind in the shape of his main rivals during the race. 

“Looking at Friday pace, we are looking to a Red Bull and a Renault that should be quicker on race pace but we are starting ahead,” Sainz said.

“It’s going to be tricky because they are normally a bit better on race pace but hopefully here we can make their life complicated, either around the pitstops or on track.

“The Racing Points are always a threat with the car they have but apart them I think Ricciardo was very quick on race pace, and Verstappen like always. They should just follow the Merc’s like they always have.

“We have no place following the Merc’s, for us it’s impossible, and Verstappen can sometimes do it with a Red Bull that always looks stronger in race trim, so let’s see.

“We’ve got the track position so let’s try to make a good start and see.”

Seidl agreed that Verstappen is the driver most likley to stand in McLaren's way of claiming its second podium of the 2020 season. 

"If everything goes as normal, I think it will be difficult to keep Max behind," he added.

"But I think we can put up a good fight with the starting positions we have against the Racing Points and the Renaults. This is what we will try. But as I said we will try to keep whoever is behind us, behind us as long as we can.

"I think we have everything in our hands to score some good points again, and that is what we are aiming for."

 

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