Italian Grand Prix Preview

Wednesday 04-September-2013 09:09

There are very few wet Italian Grands Prix - the mid-September date at Monza normally gives us some late summer sun glinting across the royal park and the tifosi basking in shirtsleeves. Ferrari shirtsleeves of course.

In the dry, Monza is a blast, the fastest circuit on the calendar, an old-school series of long straight blasts interrupted by chicanes where the skill is to balance the maximum momentum of the car with the amount of pounding the suspension can take from impact with the chicane kerbs.

It's a low downforce circuit, the lowest of the low, and so cars are not tricky to set up. Although how individual cars react to a low-drag package will vary - Spa had a lot of low downforce sections, but not the thumping great curves. What teams have to get right is the tyre wear and how much pounding the chassis can take on the kerbing. Given the recent performances at Spa, it's likely that Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes will dominate again.

However there are two wild cards to be inserted into this predicted pack. At Spa Lotus were not using their passive DRS system that automatically stalls wings above a certain speed - will they risk it at Monza? It could bring Raikkonen and Grosjean right back into the equation (Grosjean missed the race last year after his post-Spa ban).

Alan Permaine, Lotus trackside operations director, thinks that the kerbs are not the threat they used to be: The kerbs are not as aggressive as they once were. You still need to have the suspension sufficiently compliant to enable kerb usage, but it's not as much of a consideration as before. (A longer chassis) is certainly something we have looked at with the lessons learnt this season and we could see a longer wheelbase configuration make an appearance in Monza." You notice no mention of passive DRS.

The other element is the weather. Although Friday and Saturday are predicted dry, we have the prospect of mixed conditions for the race on Sunday and the last time that happened on race day a Torro Rosso won. Could we have the irony that the perennially damp Spa turns out dry and the perennialy dry Monza turns out wet? On Wednesday the BBC weather site was predicting sunshine and thundery showers for much of the day on Sunday.

The Italian Grand Prix marks the traditional end of Formula One's European season and so from here on, changing the car radically is going to be impossible/expensive. Teams can bring revisions and new additions to the fly-away races but the timetable for the rest of the year starts to crank up heavily the moment the engines are switched off in Monza.

Some genius has divined that we should have seven races in the last ten weeks of the season - and from Korea, six races in eight weekends.

This is Mark Webber's final grand prix in front of the tifosi, fans who could have been cheering him on had he decided to respond to Ferrari's overtures last year: "The tifosi really make the atmosphere of the weekend, they go ballistic and they're very passionate about a certain red team. They will climb anything to get a good view: they sit in trees, on billboards and after the second Lesmo they sit on the old banking with their feet hanging over the barrier. Overall, Monza is one of the races that I recommend people go to."

Of course the tifosi (and Luca Montezemolo) are there to see one thing only, a Ferrari home win. And it may well be possible given Fernando Alonso's surge in form at Spa. Forget about the qualifying in slippery conditions that set him back to 9th, the race was dry and the Ferrari in low downforce set-up looked strong. The only drawback was that the Red Bull looked even stronger and Alonso didn't have to contend with Mark Webber in the mix.

Monza is important for Alonso's championship ambitions and it is just as crucial for Felipe Massa's continued employment ambitions. Such is the need for finance to fund the massive engineering changes for 2014, the mid-grid teams are more likely to go for drivers with cash and there are going to be few likely vacancies despite Felipe's speed and experience. But he's done it before and he can do it again, though he is vulnerable to a first or second corner clash. He had one with Lewis Hamilton a couple of years ago but it was Lewis who came off worst.

What the neutral fan will be hoping for is a Sebastian Vettel DNF, because another win will start to put him into '2011 territory'. Singapore may check Red Bull's ambitions briefly because it's a Mercedes' track, but the writing is on the wall. Ferrari will challenge in Monza and Mercedes will be stronger than they were at Spa, so it won't be a walk in the royal park for Seb.

McLaren have admitted they probably won't get a podium this year. Sporting director Sam Michael was heartened to see the positive steps forward at Spa but realises that it's not enough to get them onto the top three steps without incidents or accidents befalling the cars in front. He was also pleased to see a fellow Western Australian get into a top team.

Daniel Ricciardo will be facing the press for the first time as a confirmed Red Bull driver at Monza and the weight of expectation will start to bear down on his shoulders. This is not such a bad thing to happen now, as it will give him time to get used to it and - as Helmut Marko predicts - step up. He'll now be expected to beat Jean-Eric Vergne every time they qualify and race and you can bet that "Jev" has got all the motivation he needs to push him all the way. So the intrigue started off by Mark Webber after Silverstone is finally resolved. One great result for Felipe at Monza and the driver market might be heading for the off-season.


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