Charles Leclerc was on pole in Monza on Sunday (Sept 11), and all of Italy knew about it.
The chairman of Ferrari, John Elkann, was in attendance to see his team lead from the front row. The president of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, was a guest of honour of the de facto national motor racing team.
The grandstands were packed with the famously passionate tifosi, their support uncapped for the first time since the pandemic.
The sun was shining. The stage was set. Could Ferrari deliver its lines?
The answer came swiftly and resoundingly.
Verstappen, starting a penalised seventh, took little more than a lap to rise to third, and by the fifth lap he was second.
The pace of the Red Bull Racing machine in race trim was every bit as ferocious as Ferrari had feared before Leclerc had nailed pole a day earlier - false hope, it tuned out.
The Italian team reached for the only lever available to it and brought the Monegasque in for an early stop, switching him to an unlikely two-stop race. You can’t beat a faster car with the same strategy, so goes the racing truism. But there was no strategy sufficiently unpredictable to bridge this gap.
It’s thanks only to the late-race safety car that Verstappen didn’t win by a crushing 15 seconds; instead he took the flag in a formation ahead of Leclerc, the grand prix still under caution, to a jeering crowd denied a racing finish that would have at least been consolation on a demoralising day.
“If we look at the last three races, we were not great enough,” Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto said. “We have not been great in the pace, and we have not been great in race pace and degradation.
“I think Max simply was faster today.”
Verstappen’s fifth victory in a row is cold confirmation that Ferrari and Leclerc haven’t just lost the ascendancy but aren’t even sure where it can be found. It’s been months since the field’s fastest car has come from Maranello, and the team is still unclear as to why its car is suddenly so uncompetitive.
But the reverse is that the RB18 has had the stronger development trajectory. Over the years it’s become more reliable, lighter and less temperamental to set up.
“We’ve honed the car,” Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner said, explaining his team’s rapidly growing strength this campaign. “We’ve managed to understand it pretty well”
“It’s very efficient on the high-speed, lower drag circuits. Spa was very good for us, here the car was strong.”
That honed car has powered Verstappen to 11 victories this season, just two shy of the all-time F1 record for most wins in a season. With six rounds to go, the sport is suddenly facing a year of unprecedented dominance after starting the tour hopeful of a close title campaign.
The drivers championship can be decided as soon as the next race, the Singapore Grand Prix, but is almost certain to be claimed in Japan the following week. The constructors title will follow a race or two later.
But whereas once it was justifiable, even undeniable, to say Ferrari was handing Red Bull Racing both championships on a platter - earlier in the season, when the Italian team was squandering a clear pace advantage through tactical malfeasance and unreliability - it’s now clear that RBR and Verstappen are taking the championship into their own hands, bringing it under their own control.
They’re out to win this on their terms, and the team’s relentless development push and Verstappen’s ice-cold execution have combined to form an irresistible championship force.
This campaign belongs to their successes, not Ferrari’s failures.
All that remains is the coronation. And there’s not long to wait for that now.