It was midnight, and Luca Ghiotto was still sat in his team awning at the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza awaiting a penalty decision from the Stewards. Earlier that day, the Italian had crossed the finish line in first and won his home F2 race on a Formula 1 weekend for the very first time, but the result was being questioned. A day of elation was quickly turning into one of frustration and anger.
The wait was agonizing, as the Stewards were deliberating a potential penalty for the Russian Time driver, examining whether he cut the first chicane on the very final lap of the race. Eventually, the win was taken away from him.
The Italian got his moment the following day with an emphatic Sprint Race win, in front of a roaring home crowd. Any lingering frustrations were quickly brushed aside. But, more than two years down the line, and the same driver tasting victory twice in one weekend is a feat that remains unachieved.
“For me, I didn't agree 100% with it the penalty, so I was really angry,” Ghiotto recalls vividly.
The Italian is perfectly happy to open up on the subject now. Like a scar that has healed over, but not disappeared. The anger has cooled, although the memory of the events remains firmly intact.
To this day, the 2017 campaign remains the one Ghiotto considers his best in single-seater racing.
“I was at Russian Time, who were a good team at that time, so of course hopes were high,” he explained. “We knew already that it was going to be a tough fight that year, all of the top teams had really good drivers, and CharlesLeclerc was there as well. We had positive winter tests, so we were quite confident at the start of the season, both me and my teammate Artem Markelov were fast.
“I think that so far in my 10-year career in race cars, I can easily say that was probably the best season for me, in terms of consistency and I always use that season as a reference. I really feel like, if I would have been that consistent last year, then I would probably have been up there with Nyck De Vries. That season, on that side, was by far the best one that I have had.”
The Italian entered his home race with confidence. Though he was yet to taste victory, he already had five podiums under his belt and his home circuit felt like the ideal place to take his first win of the season.
Mobbed by home fans upon his arrival, it took Ghiotto more than half an hour to enter the circuit every day, due to the clamour from fans for selfies and autographs. It’s the kind of motivation that gives racing drivers that extra one percent.
“I think it’s amazing, even if you’re not Italian,” he said of Monza. “Together with Spa and Monaco, and a few other tracks, it is just the pinnacle of motorsport passion. The track itself is nice of course, but I think that more than anything, it’s the fans and the heat from them that you see when arriving at the track, it feels unreal.
“I always have a good feeling with Monza, I’ve always been fast there. There is always that little extra boost that you get when you are racing Infront of your home crowd, I also think that the track really suits my way of driving. It was a tough season as I said before, so we really didn't know what to expect, but I really wanted to win.”
His teammate Markelov took fastest in Free Practice, with Ghiotto nestling in behind and it was swiftly apparent that Russian Time were quick. A nightmare qualifying session left the Italian as far back as 11th on the grid though, having suffered technical issues, and his hopes of a first home win were seemingly dashed.
“Everything was going wrong that evening. It was a late night at the track, no one was there anymore, it was a weird feeling”
His chances were further hampered as a downpour of rain made for a challenging start to the Feature Race. The weather delayed the race by around two hours and also forced the field to start under safety car, which prevented overtaking for the first six laps of the race and significantly shortened Ghiotto’s chance of a climb up the grid.
“it was raining so much, and I couldn't see anything. We had an issue in qualifying, so I was P11, in the centre of the pack, which was probably the worst place to be when there’s so much water on track.”
Despite this, the Italian remained optimistic.
“On one hand, I was a bit scared, but that is something that you always have, even when you can see where you are going. On the other hand, I really wanted to go. I have always been good on rain, so I knew that I had a really good chance to do well on that.
“I remember that it was quite a clean race on our side, everything, including the pit stop went well. We had good pace, but most of it came from the fact we didn't make many mistakes. I don't think that we were faster than the other guys, we just went a little bit more consistent.
“We struggled a lot at the beginning of the race due to the amount of water on track. But then at the end we came up really fast and we were up there. There’s not really one particular overtake I remember, possibly the one at the end on Leclerc. The last overtake I did was probably the best one, after the last safety car restart.”
Ghiotto had inadvertently cut the chicane on his final lap though. The Italian celebrated across the line and on top of the podium, but unknowingly to him, a review of his actions was in process and the win was taken away from him in the early hours of the morning. A five-second time penalty saw him dropped down to fourth.
He remembers the emotions well.
“Probably the worst feeling of all,” he admitted. “I think you can imagine how I felt. I was already tired as the race had been postponed. Basically, everything was going wrong that evening. It was a late night at the track, no one was there anymore, it was a weird feeling”
The Italian is known for his open and honest demeaner, and he admits to being his own worst critic. For this reason, the disappointment of having the race win taken away from him had the potential to either ruin his entire weekend, or spur him on
It was the latter. The crushing blow only served to fuel him, giving the Russian Time driver an even greater desire to take the home win he felt he deserved. Starting from fifth, he eyed another charge through.
“The same thing I was saying before, about that extra boost you get when you are racing in front of your home crowd, that same feeling comes up when you have a bad race, at least for me. I’ve always been really hard on myself when something doesn't go as planned, I really feel like the next one, I need to be there.”
Ghiotto was imperious. An overtake of Gustav Malja at Parabolica set in motion a series of triumphant moves. He followed this up by mugging Sean Gelael, before forcing Sérgio Sette Câmara into a mistake. This left only Louis Delétraz between him and the win.
“The move I made on Delétraz on the second chicane was a really good one, because I had to prepare for it, for half a lap, it was not just a straightforward overtake. Both for the fact it was for P1 and for how the overtake happened. The pace that we had that day, was honestly really good, even for what I expected. From 5th to P1 was a proper fight, it was not luck or anything else.”
The moments that followed remain amongst the best that the Italian says he has experienced. Having gut wrenchingly had a home victory taken away from him the day previously, passing the chequered flag first felt all that sweeter. The Tifosi had packed the grandstands in their numbers and gave Ghiotto a true hero’s welcome.
“I went to the podium the day before, and of course I enjoyed it the day because at that point I didn’t think that I would lose the win. However, it was so late, and it was raining like crazy, it was like 7.30pm and no one was there in the stands, so it wasn’t a great podium.
“The day after though, after everything that had happened, it was a sunny, perfect day, 11am, and everyone was there cheering for me. I remember when I went to the podium, everyone was cheering and shouting and that is probably one of the best feelings that I’ve ever had.”
We shall never know whether the Italian would have taken both wins without the emotional boost the penalty handed him, but, he remains the closest thing to a double winner F2 has seen so far.