The speed is high, the downforce is low and the special aero packages are out in force so it can only mean one thing: the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the fastest circuit on the F1 calendar. With Spa-Francorchamps just a week later these two races...
The speed is high, the downforce is low and the special aero packages are out in force so it can only mean one thing: the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the fastest circuit on the F1 calendar. With Spa-Francorchamps just a week later these two races could be crucial for the championship as McLaren and Ferrari battle it out to gain the upper hand before everyone packs up and heads out to the final three long-distance events.
With an average lap speed of 250 kmph and a top speed last year of 350 kmph, Monza requires power and aero efficiency as well as braking stability and low drag. Each team has their own way of tackling the challenges and they were all hard at work at the circuit during testing last week. Whether they will be successful at meeting the challenges will only be known as the weekend unfolds.
"Monza is now totally atypical and we basically have to make a special car," said Toyota's senior chassis manager Pascal Vasselon. "It needs us to develop a special low drag package because the average speed is so high. If you don't go to Monza with a special package the other cars will pass you as if you are standing still."
Around 80% of a lap at Monza is spent at full throttle so, obviously, engines are critical and with Spa on the heels of the Italian GP it's a demanding time for the power plants. "The combination of these two circuits is the highest expected strain for an engine so far since the new V8 engine generation has been introduced last year," said Mercedes chief Norbert Haug.
Tyres will be from the medium and soft compound ranges. "In terms of track surface you could use a soft tyre," explained Bridgestone's Kees van de Grint. "However, because of the high speeds a lot of heat is generated and therefore to cope with that you select a harder compound. This combines with the low downforce to make a compromise in terms of grip."
McLaren topped the time sheet every day during Monza testing but Ferrari wasn't far behind and the reds will be eager for a good result at home. "Looking at the (test) times, I think you can say that we have a fierce fight ahead of us; but you never know how much fuel the others use during the tests, so we'll only see during the qualifying what the situation is really like," said Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen.
McLaren's Fernando Alonso outlined a couple of the challenges of Monza from a driver's point of view. "The cars always feel so different, very light and not always under control to be honest! That is because of the low downforce we use to get the high speeds. To get a quick lap time here you have to be strong through Parabolica as it takes you back onto the longest straight of them all over the start/finish line."
While the focus may be on the battle between the top two teams, BMW Sauber is looking forward to this weekend after a strong showing in Italy last year. It was only Robert Kubica's third race of the season but he scored his first podium finish with third. BMW's chance for a visit to the podium this time may only come if McLaren or Ferrari falter but optimism remains high.
"I think we'll put in a good performance at Monza," said Nick Heidfeld, who qualified third in 2006 but got a drive-through penalty in the race. "It's a circuit where a good low-downforce package is important, and we're normally pretty strong in that area. The other thing you need is bags of engine power, and I think we'll be okay in that department as well."
In the drivers' standings the pecking order has balanced out in a team-by-team formation. After the McLaren, Ferrari and BMW teammates are the Renault, Williams, Red Bull and Toyota duos respectively, with not a great deal between the latter four pairings in the way of points. Renault's Heikki Kovalainen is the closest to BMW, 10 points behind Kubica.
"Monza is a high-speed circuit, and it goes without saying that good top speed is essential," said Kovalainen. "But I think it will be even more important to concentrate on the corner exit, so we can put the power down as soon as possible without sliding and losing time… We want to show once again that we are making progress, just like we did in Istanbul."
At the bottom end of the standings there is little change; Super Aguri initially showed strong but the performance, at least as far as points scoring, tapered off in the mid season, and Honda's dismal year shows little sign of improvement. Toro Rosso has yet to score and looks unlikely to do so -- although it can never be counted out -- but although Spyker has been a perpetual backmarker, is that about to change?
Technical director Mike Gascoyne is hopeful that Spyker's B spec chassis could propel it into the midfield. Delayed from its scheduled Turkish debut due to failing the rear impact crash test, the B spec was on the test track at Monza last week and is now ready for competition. Revised rear suspension, a near gearbox design and a major aero update, amongst other things, means the Spyker is now substantially different.
"We could see an increase in our race and qualifying race pace and be up there in the mix of the midfield if everything works out," said Gascoyne. "We would like to think the update could see us competing with people around us and when you're in that position anything can happen. This is just the start and there are many areas of the car we will revisit -- there is a lot more to come from this team."
At this time of year the focus is already straying from developing cars in current competition and looking towards next year's challenger instead, but for some it's not that easy. McLaren and Ferrari cannot afford to give an inch on track at the moment and the upcoming races promise to be very closely fought. Both have good track records at Monza but who will have that all important edge this weekend?