The Italian Grand Prix heralds the last two back-to-back races in Europe this season, with Spa-Francorchamps following a week later, before the F1 circus jets off to the final three flyaway events. It doesn't seem that long ago that people were ...
The Italian Grand Prix heralds the last two back-to-back races in Europe this season, with Spa-Francorchamps following a week later, before the F1 circus jets off to the final three flyaway events. It doesn't seem that long ago that people were saying it's a long, long season with 19 races but here we are, only five left already. And with the championships still open, they should be an interesting five races.
Despite the talk of the battle between Renault's championship leader Fernando Alonso and McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, really it's been less of a battle and more of an impasse. Alonso gained his advantage early in the season and it's an advantage that's so far held up without any drastic change. However, Monza and Spa are high-speed tracks and speed is certainly one thing McLaren is not lacking.
Monza is a challenge as it's a circuit with the lowest downforce settings of the season combined with a need for engine power. Teams build aero parts just for this race because the set up needs to be so specific to Monza's requirements. Minimizing drag is also a vital element of the overall package and a high-speed track doesn't just need power: it needs good brakes! So, efficient brake cooling is another important area.
Monza is the most stringent test of an F1 engine, with around 70% of the lap spent at full throttle and an average lap speed of 260 kph -- about 40 kph higher than average. While speed is important it's not the only requirement; a smooth power delivery is needed for the slower sections and, of course, the engine has to be reliable under pressure -- generally one of Renault's strengths but not necessarily one of McLaren's.
"As long as we finish the races, we are okay," said Alonso. "If we are competitive and can get on the podium, then it will be hard to lose my advantage. The advantage we have is that I can still afford some bad races and not lose the lead. McLaren have pressure to be perfect until China, and if they are not, we will be there to punish them."
Raikkonen, naturally, is equally bullish about his chances and has confidence in the McLaren. "The situation in both the Drivers' and Constructors' championships is still open and nobody knows what's going to happen until the last race in October," said the Finn. "The car has the pace to win, and I am not giving up the fight, so we shall see."
Michael Schumacher is still hanging on to third place in the drivers' standings but one would have to say that his title hopes are over. Mathematically it's still possible but he would have to win every remaining race and have Alonso and Raikkonen not score at all. With Ferrari's difficulties this season, the former would seem as unlikely as the latter.
Schumacher is not predicting a win at Ferrari's home race, but perhaps a podium. "I think we can get amongst the points and even make the podium," he said. "However, it will only be clear once we are on the track on Friday, as we discovered last year, and then we will see how the weekend goes. This is a very important race for us and we, by nature, enjoy a good battle."
It's not just Ferrari that will be racing at home this weekend; Monza is Minardi's home circuit as well. The Faenza squad joined last week's test at the track with Christijan Albers behind the wheel and sporting director/team manager Massimo Rivola was happy with the work carried out on aerodynamic packages and tyre options.
"In total, we covered 1000 km over the two days of the test without encountering any significant technical problems, which seems to indicate we've made a good step forward in terms of reliability," he said. "It has definitely been a useful test, and sets us up well in terms of our preparations for the Italian Grand Prix."
There are two Italian racers currently on the grid; Renault's Giancarlo Fisichella and Toyota's Jarno Trulli. "It is my second home Grand Prix, and a very important weekend because a lot of fans come to cheer me on," said Fisichella. "I won there in F3, but have never been on the podium in F1, and I want to do it this year."
Obviously, Trulli would also like to be on the podium. "It is always nice to return to Monza. I like the place, I like the atmosphere and I have usually had good results there," he commented. "I'm looking forward to the weekend and it will be great to go there with a car that can challenge for the points or even a podium."
It's been a difficult season for Williams and BAR. The former started well but has steadily fallen back, while the latter had early difficulties but is now looking on the pace. Williams believes it has solved the tyre problems in Turkey that saw both cars retiring after two rear right failures apiece.
"To address the tyre incidents that we experienced in Istanbul, we have worked through all the possible variables, such as pressure and camber, with Michelin," said technical director Sam Michael. "At the test in Monza last week, we went through various trims of the bodywork to ensure that there is no possibility for the tyre to touch anything on the car."
Jenson Button put up a good fight at Istanbul to bring his BAR home fifth after starting 13th and is hoping for similar competitiveness this weekend. "We had a very good race in Monza last year when we finished on the podium and I am looking forward to racing there this week following our strong performance in Turkey," he remarked.
Jordan also tested at Monza last week and put the new EJ15B through its paces. Tiago Monteiro won the chance to race the new chassis this weekend on the toss of a coin. "It will not be the easiest track to race the new car but we will deal with this and I hope we will have a good race," he commented.
One would expect McLaren to be strong at a track like Monza but Renault, while not quite as fast, is no slouch in the performance stakes. Raikkonen needs Alonso to have some problems to gain the upper hand over his rival in the title fight but the Spaniard's consistency this season has been his strength. However, problems -- for either team -- don't necessarily come from within…