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Hamilton or Verstappen: Who holds the advantage at Monza?

It's advantage Mercedes after the first day of action at the Italian Grand Prix, with the Silver Arrows set to line up on the front row for Sprint Qualifying. RacingNews365.com looks at the key factors that could decide who earns points in Saturday's 18-lap Sprint race.

Although Valtteri Bottas will be saying goodbye to Mercedes at the end of the season, the Finn reminded everyone that he still has what it takes to compete at the front of the grid after clocking the fastest time in qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix. Just when it looked as though Lewis Hamilton would take top spot, Bottas swooped in with a time of 1:19.555 that even left the Briton with no response . With every point crucial in the fight for the 2021 World Championship, Bottas' efforts will play a big part in who takes home the prizes on offer in Saturday's Sprint Qualifying. As we prepare for another exciting day of action at Monza, here are the key factors to look out for.

First blood to Mercedes

Considering Mercedes haven't won a race on pure pace since the Spanish Grand Prix back in May, they should be pleased with how Friday qualifying went. Although Team Principal Toto Wolff stated he was looking at their advantage over Red Bull with the glass half empty , Mercedes head into Saturday's action as the favourites to take maximum points thanks to their pace advantage over Red Bull. Bottas was the fastest driver through the speed trap during FP1, clocking in at 347km/h, and while Hamilton came in at 340km/h, they were both ahead of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez. You only have to look at the comments coming out of Red Bull to know that Mercedes are the favourite this weekend, with Verstappen noting things were always going to be difficult for the team at Monza, and that he was happy with third. Helmut Marko even stated Red Bull are happy with the "damage control" they've accomplished so far, as the gap in qualifying stands at four-tenths compared to the second by which they trailed Mercedes at the same track last season. Although pit-stops aren't required during Sprint Qualifying, their efforts on Friday mean Mercedes will have the strategical advantage of both cars being at the front of the grid. On the flip side, Perez has some work to do if he is to get involved in the fight at the front as he'll start ninth, meaning Mercedes hold the edge heading into Saturday.

Verstappen on the clean side of the grid

One thing Red Bull can look forward to heading into Saturday's action is that with Bottas starting first, it means Hamilton will line up on the dirty side of the grid. The run down to Turn 1 at Monza is always a tricky one, meaning we should be in for another close first-lap battle between Hamilton and Verstappen. The thought may be too much to bear for Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, who admits having a competitive run down to the first corner on Saturday and then Sunday's Grand Prix poses its own set of challenges. "You've got to survive that first corner here. You're usually just happy to see your car come through [the first chicane]," Horner stated. "But to have to do it twice is even more stressful. It's going to be fascinating to see how it works out here." Just don't expect a repeat of Silverstone, given what's at stake, as while points are on the line, tomorrow's Sprint Qualifying will determine the grid for Sunday's race, meaning there is more to lose than there is to gain for both drivers.

Can McLaren cause problems?

Another talking point to consider is the pace shown by McLaren, as Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo will start in P4 and P5. It's the first time both cars have finished Q3 in the top five in 2021. While it isn't much of a surprise for the Briton, given his form all season, it's certainly a welcome development for the Australian, who is slowly but surely coming to grips with his new car. Thanks to their Mercedes engines, both drivers finished in the top six when it came to the speed trap in FP1, with only Bottas faster than Ricciardo. Having finished just 0.006s behind Norris, perhaps Ricciardo will have even more motivation to impress on Saturday. "[McLaren team boss] Andreas [Seidl] is happy, [but] I'm angry," Ricciardo told Dutch broadcaster Ziggo Sport. "He gave me a fist bump, but I wanted to put my fist through something." While Verstappen and Hamilton will have their eyes focused on one another heading into Turn 1, they had better make sure their mirrors are clean as both McLaren drivers could cause problems.

Bottas' penalty can wait

While Bottas' engine change will force him to start Sunday's race from the back of the grid, the move means he will be a deciding factor on Saturday. Hamilton noted after qualifying that every point matters, something he knows all too well, having lost the 2007 World Championship by one point. Mercedes' decision shows that they are willing to sacrifice Bottas' Grand Prix if it means taking points away from Verstappen tomorrow. Mercedes were always confident of having the advantage over Red Bull at Monza, and while the gap isn't as large as last season, it is enough to make Hamilton the favourite for Sunday's race. As a result, Bottas' strategic help won't be needed as much as it will on Saturday, when his new Mercedes engine can be used more aggressively in order to get the better of Verstappen. If this were a traditional race weekend, that wouldn't be the case, but following last weekend's Grand Prix in Zandvoort, which saw Mercedes fail to get the better of Red Bull in terms of strategy, their tactical move in Italy could go a long way in deciding the championship.

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