It's that time of year again when the Formula One teams bring out their customised aero packages and head to the fastest track on the calendar, the temple of speed that is Monza. The Italian Grand Prix is always an important event and this season it could play an even more crucial part than ever with the fights for both titles still so close.
Monza, the last European race of the season, is a unique challenge with its low downforce requirements and bumpy kerbs and as far as power is concerned, the more the better. Engines spend three quarters of the 5.79 km lap at full throttle, hit the highest top speed of the year, approximately 340 kmph, and the average lap speed is over 250 kmph.
"The circuit in the Royal Park is the high-speed track par excellence and demands a great deal of respect from drivers and machinery alike," said BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen. "With the V10 engines the full-throttle percentage was 67, with the less powerful V8 we recorded 77 percent during testing."
All that power demands good braking. "Monza is one of the circuits where the brakes endure the highest loads," said BMW Sauber technical director Willy Rampf. "Braking into the first chicane demands the most extreme deceleration, with forces exceeding 5g. As this section of the track also has a few bumps, the set-up has to focus on braking stability."
All the teams were at Monza last week for testing; the circuit requires a specific set up that is not used anywhere else. "The conditions obviously place an emphasis on low drag and low downforce but the efficiency of the packages remains the key and you still want as much downforce as possible without increasing the drag," explained Toyota's chassis manager Pascal Vasselon.
Monza will be Michelin's last European race in F1, as the French manufacturer will quit the sport at the end of this season. "Almost half the track has been resurfaced this year including the two Lesmo bends," said director Nick Shorrock. "This change impacted the test session last week when we needed to change our reference tyres because the track was significantly less severe on the tyres."
With only two points between Renault and Ferrari in the constructors' standings and 12 between leader Fernando Alonso and challenger Michael Schumacher in the drivers' Monza could be definitive. After Italy there's only three races left, so if Alonso can maintain his advantage it will be a difficult job for Schumacher to catch up.
"This year I have won in Silverstone, in Monaco, in Spain -- and for sure, I want to win Monza too," said the Spaniard, who got the better of Schumacher in Turkey. "It is one of the legendary circuits, so it would be special to win there, and even more so to beat Ferrari at their home race. We know how important the championship is, but this is a big race as well."
Schumacher was not quite his unshakeable self at Istanbul; a couple of errors crept in and although it was a Ferrari driver on the top step of the podium the honour went to Felipe Massa, who drove very well to claim his first win. The Ferrari is surely the fastest car out there at the moment and will take some beating on Monza's straights.
"As in previous years, we arrive at Monza with the title hanging in the balance but we are determined to change things," Schumacher remarked. "In the constructors classification we are not too far off the lead and anything is still possible in the drivers'. We have to attack and the fans can be sure that we will do our all."
Juan Pablo Montoya hoisted the winners' trophy at Monza last year but regrettably the Colombian is no longer with McLaren to have another crack at it. This year McLaren has not really made its presence felt in the championship battle and while Pedro de la Rosa picked up a few points in Turkey, Kimi Raikkonen has crashed out of the last two races.
Raikkonen missed last week's test session at Monza as he was resting after his crash at Istanbul, which resulted in a sore back. He's now fit to be back in the cockpit. "I am looking forward to getting back in the car," said the Finn. "It has been feeling really strong recently, so I hope we can have more of a race in Monza than in Istanbul."
It was a bit too much to expect that Honda could take the fight to the top after Jenson Button claimed his and the team's maiden win in Hungary but at least both Button and Rubens Barrichello were in the points at Istanbul. The pair has their sights set on the Monza podium where they have both been previously, Barrichello on the top step with Ferrari.
"I have actually won twice at Monza in 2004 and 2002 which are some of my favourite memories in Formula One," he said. "It's a unique circuit and easily the fastest in the F1 calendar in terms of speed. You have to get the braking right and obviously the traction and the power of the engine are important too."
Ralf Schumacher put in a good drive in Turkey to pick up two points in seventh after starting 15th but Toyota teammate Jarno Trulli didn't have a great time. Monza is Trulli's home race and he's hoping for a better result. "Our package has been strong in recent races so we will try to make it through the weekend and score a good result in front of my home fans," he commented.
Despite its unique challenge, Monza isn't to everyone's liking. MF1's Tiago Monteiro likes the culture of the venue but "the track itself is a different story: it's very, very fast, but also kind of boring, actually," is his opinion. "The low-downforce configuration means we have less grip and longer braking distances than at other circuits, and the chicanes are very slow."
Of course, Monza is the home race of Ferrari and for this particular Italian GP the anticipation is sky high -- but not necessarily for the on track action. Ferrari is scheduled to make an announcement about its 2007 drivers after the race and the big question is whether Michael is going to retire at the end of this season.
Raikkonen is widely thought to be joining the Scuderia and with Renault just announcing that Heikki Kovalainen will race alongside Giancarlo Fisichella next year, it seems Raikkonen moving to Maranello is more than likely. If that is the case, rather than staying at McLaren, will the Finn be partner to Michael or Massa? Time will tell.