"Monza was new to me when I joined Ferrari as in my younger days I was always trying to jump over the fence to get into Imola which was my home track." So says, Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro's Head of Race Track Engineering, Luca Baldisserri. "I have...
"Monza was new to me when I joined Ferrari as in my younger days I was always trying to jump over the fence to get into Imola which was my home track." So says, Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro's Head of Race Track Engineering, Luca Baldisserri. "I have been with Ferrari since 1989 and I think I started attending the Italian Grand Prix every year apart from that first one. Until last year, Monza was one of two home races for us in Italy, whereas this year, without the appointment at Imola, it is the only one. That means we can expect more pressure than usual, as there is only one chance to get a good result at home."
Facing a tough challenge at Monza is nothing new for Baldisserri, who has experienced it all in the royal park in over a decade of races during which time he worked as a race engineer to several of the Scuderia's drivers. "Good memories came in 2000, when we turned the championship around with Michael (Schumacher) when we had four races to go and we had to win them all," he recalls. "And that's what we did. Monza was a key point, as this was the race where we started to change our approach to setting up the car and it paid off for the championship."
"Then we had a bad weekend the following year in 2001, when it was the weekend immediately after the events of 9/11 and emotions were running high in the paddock. Going further back to the days when Jean (Alesi) and Gerhard (Berger) were our drivers, we were always struggling a bit and never had a good car for Monza. We could never get a decent pace on our own home track. Last year in Monza was also a very emotional race day. Michael won the race and it was then that he announced he was retiring. He told the whole team over the radio after he had taken the flag that he would be retiring at the end of the year. To be honest, the rumours had already been circulating for a while, but for some of the guys it was a big surprise and I remember tears in the eyes of some of the mechanics."
"Michael had been with us for ten years and there were people in the team who had never experienced working without him. Having him as a driver was a normal thing, he was part of the furniture. It was a sad moment but we were happy for him that he had found the right equilibrium. It was also emotional for him. He took a long time to speak afterwards and his speech was very slow and full of emotion. Looking to the future and this weekend, Kimi is usually quite quick at Monza and he had pole last year, but he was a bit lighter than us and we managed to jump him at the pit stop."
Whatever the memories, it is this weekend and the unique challenge of the circuit that Baldisserri is focussed on now. "I think Monza is a great track, completely different to all other venues on the calendar and it requires a special aerodynamic setting that we use nowhere else," says the Ferrari man. "It has its characteristic very long straight and is a low downforce circuit. We were able to tune our set-up for this special configuration at last week's Monza test. To be able to do that is quite important, not only for the cars but also for the drivers, who are not used to seeing such high speeds before braking for such low speed corners such as the chicane. This means they have to tune themselves in as well as the cars."
"For example, I remember that Eddie Irvine was unable to drive at a Monza test and over the next race weekend it was difficult for him to get a decent pace immediately at the start of practice. Indeed the braking is another aspect of the package that requires a special focus at Monza. We need a specific cooling arrangement and special brake material because of the high energy we need to dissipate."
The high speed nature of the circuit is not the only special challenge provided by this track. "Until four or five years ago, we had the chicane with very high kerbs which meant it was important to have a car that could cut the kerbs as this was a way of reducing lap times," says Baldisserri. "We needed to tune the set-up in order to compromise ride height and stiffness to allow drivers to cut the kerbs and gain time. With the new chicanes, the first chicane is no longer so important, but the kerbs are still difficult at Roggia, the second chicane, so we still need to give some thought about a special set-up for this."
While the F1 drivers love the opportunity this track provides to drive at very high speeds, the circuit layout can lead to a somewhat processional Sunday afternoon. "Unfortunately, if cars are very evenly matched in terms of performance, overtaking will be very difficult," agrees Baldisserri. "Unless someone runs into problems with tyres so that he cannot approach the exit of the second Lesmo or the Parabolica in a decent way, the car in front of you is hard to pass. This means you often see a "train" at Monza. However, unlike tracks like Hungary for example where even if you have an advantage from your car, you cannot pass, here at Monza, a car advantage can help. If you have a good car but run into problems in qualifying and have to start near the back, Monza is a place where you can still gain position."
In the past, a variety of pit stop strategies were viable at this race, but that is no longer the case. "With the reduction of the speed limit in pit lane, the penalty of making an additional pit stop is now higher," reckons Baldisserri. "So, depending on tyre consistency, we could see less pit stops. Three stops will no longer be an option. The other way one can gamble is on the probability of having a Safety Car period, which is heightened by the fact the cars have very low downforce and there are some big kerbs, which can raise the chances of accidents."
"Normally, the most likely time to have a Safety Car on track is after the start of the race, when drivers are fighting for position or around the pit stop window, when the tyres are older or someone on new tyres is fighting with someone on old ones. With this year's SC rules, get it wrong and it can be a disaster, because you cannot just pit when you want, refuel and change strategy. So I think this will see people play around with the idea of just one stop."
In the past, working as a race engineer, Baldisserri's loyalties were biased towards one driver, but his current responsibilities take in both sides of the pit garage. "These days I am just happy if Ferrari wins rather than having a strong emotion for one driver," he says. "But I see the face of the "losing" race engineer if the other car has won and I remember that feeling! Now for me it is different especially at the moment, as we try to regain championship points and get first and second in every race."