The end of the 2004 Formula One season is looming on the horizon and after this weekend's Italian Grand Prix at Monza, only three flyaway races remain. Where did this year go? We know where the titles went, and deservedly so, but the return of ...
The end of the 2004 Formula One season is looming on the horizon and after this weekend's Italian Grand Prix at Monza, only three flyaway races remain. Where did this year go? We know where the titles went, and deservedly so, but the return of Spa-Francorchamps was notable for another return: that of McLaren to the top step of the podium.
It may be a little premature to say that McLaren is back on form after one victory. However, Kimi Raikkonen's win at Spa was superb and he out raced Michael Schumacher for the honours. It's the only time that has happened this year. Yes, Jarno Trulli won at Monaco but Schumacher had crashed out. That's not to detract from Trulli and Renault's achievement but Schumacher is the man to beat.
Raikkonen did so in fine style at Spa and McLaren, naturally, was ecstatic. Even steely Ron Dennis got emotional, which is a rare sight to behold. The question is, can McLaren maintain that winning form? Given the amount of reliability problems the team has previously suffered, Monza will be a big challenge.
Monza is all about power. Just over 70% of the lap is spent at full throttle, which produces a highest average speed of approximately 260 kmph. "This is the circuit where pure engine power has the biggest influence," said Renault's Denis Chevrier. "The engine's maximum power is required for the longest period of any track we visit."
The circuit layout is not particularly challenging, with three long straights and medium speed corners, and the cars will run with the lowest downforce settings of the year. Set up requires a compromise between the straights and curves and it is hard on the brakes. Monza has a reputation as a car-breaker so reliability will be tested.
Monza's big straight, over 1,200 metres, is the longest on the calendar after Indianapolis. "The straight provides 14 full seconds of flat-out racing, with half that time driven in seventh gear," said BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen. BMW will provide Williams with the latest development of the P84 engine this weekend.
Due to the high-speed nature of the track, tyre compounds will be from the mid to hard end of the range. "Speed is a major factor at the Monza track where the cars can reach up to 360km/h," said Bridgestone technical manager Hisao Suganuma. "This exerts a lot of force on the tyres and heat durability is an issue. Wear, however, tends to be quite low."
Monza, of course, is home to Ferrari and Schumacher will arrive as a seven-time champion. He won the Italian GP last year from Juan Pablo Montoya, who took his first F1 victory at Monza in 2001. Schumacher is hoping for a home win, as he's not tired of this celebrating business yet.
"Obviously, it can't get any better for us than the weekend we have coming up: the Italian Grand Prix," he said. "It is our home race and we have already won both world titles. What we would like is a huge Ferrari party. We want to celebrate with our fans; the ideal thing would be to do it with a good race and a good result."
Raikkonen no doubt did a little celebrating of his own after Spa and is keen to be back on track. "I am really looking forward to racing again at Monza this weekend following the result at Spa," said the Finn. "The car was running really well, as the win and fastest race lap demonstrated, and hopefully we will be up there at the front again."
Ralf Schumacher had hoped to return to racing in Italy but for the second year in a row he will have to sit out Monza. In 2003 a crash during testing at the circuit prior to the race put him out of action. This year his insurance company has thwarted Ralf's chances because the stipulated 12 week recovery period from his back injury was not over in time to test last week.
Antonio Pizzonia, who was cruelly denied his first podium finish at Spa by a gearbox failure, will be in the Williams race seat once again. "I have raced in Monza twice in F3000, but never in an F1 car, and I just can't wait," said Pizzonia. "Having tested on this track for three days, I should be in the best possible position to race here."
Renault and BAR maintained their uneasy status quo after Spa, with both teams failing to score points. Fernando Alonso was the victim of an oil leak, while Trulli managed the mysterious feat of starting from pole and finishing ninth. At a loss to explain the reversal of performance, Renault has given the Italian a new car for Monza.
"Jarno clearly struggled during the race in Belgium," said technical director Bob Bell. "In giving him a different chassis, built with completely different parts, we want to eliminate the possibility that some hidden problem in the car is affecting his performance."
Takuma Sato got tangled up with Mark Webber's wayward Jaguar at Spa and spun out, while Jenson Button suffered a high-speed puncture. But BAR still has every chance of overtaking Renault for second in the constructors' standings. "I'm hopeful that the Italian Grand Prix, our last race in Europe, will mark a return to the podium for BAR before we head off for the fly-aways once again," said boss David Richards.
Sauber scored a double points haul in Belgium and Felipe Massa, who finished fourth, his best F1 result to date, is ready to tackle Monza. "It's an interesting track, one of the oldest in F1, so Monza is part of the sport's history," he commented. "It's a great race, with a lot of possibilities for overtaking. It's a simple circuit, but still a challenge. I like driving there."
There was plenty of entertainment at Spa and it will be a hard act to follow, but hopefully Monza will provide some more excitement. Ferrari has proved its point and trounced the competition but for the remainder of the season there's another question to be answered. Can anyone beat Schumacher again?