It’s the eve of the Italian Grand Prix and the championship is wide open. You’re looking down the Monza straight and contemplating the fact that Ferrari and McLaren will be able to use that magic KERS button not once but twice as qualifying kicks off.
How do you feel now if you’re one of the team principals that decided to suspend development of the energy-recovery technology, or rejected the offer to include it with your engine deal? How do you feel if you are a team fighting for the title who has unwittingly surrendered what could have been a winning advantage?
Well, Renault may not be in this year’s title race, but it has seen which way the wind is blowing. The team has stated that it will revisit its KERS system after abandoning it several races ago, and its engineering guru Pat Symonds reckons it could be worth up to a quarter of a second per sector, and more in qualifying.
What does that mean? Well, Brawn GP’s Jenson Button’s been leading a charmed life for the last few races. His winning streak has abruptly dried up but all kinds of unlikely factors mean that few of his title rivals have been able to make much of an impression on him.
The low-downforce Monza’s a tricky setup challenge for any team, and this year the customary in-season testing at the circuit has been knocked on the head, so there’s been no chance to get the car sorted out beforehand as usually happens.
It seems to us that Brawn GP, with its long-standing problems getting heat into the car’s tyres, has a mountain to climb. But with KERS plus a hyped-up Fisichella behind the steering wheel of a proven car, and Raikkonen fresh from his first victory of the season, Ferrari are sure to be confident of making a splash in front of the Tifosi.
Monza has never been McLaren’s favourite circuit but the team has momentum just now, as well as the most effective KERS system on the grid. Add in Renault’s use of the device and the odds of Red Bull capitalising on any weakness of Brawn’s do not seem as short as they might elsewhere.
We predict that the Italian Grand Prix, one of the most traditional on the circuit, will provide us with a traditional kind of race – and that, despite Sebastian Vettel’s unusual victory for Toro Rosso last year, it will be the sort where familiar names and former world champions prosper rather than upstart new boys.
And what of that historic circuit? According to the Brawn GP team preview, the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza is situated in the royal park at the heart of the town of Monza, near Milan in the north of the country.
The original circuit was built in 1922 and included a banked oval course. Although this has not been used by F1 cars since 1961, it remains as a monument to the iconic races hosted over the years. The 5.793km modern circuit is the fastest of the year with four long straights enabling the cars to reach top speeds of 340kph and average lap speeds of 250kph.
The emphasis is on engine power and aerodynamic efficiency which require the cars to be set up with a special low downforce aerodynamic package to minimise drag.
Norbert Haug, Mercedes’ vice-president of motorsport, explained its unique characteristics: “Together with Monaco, Monza is the most untypical Formula 1 track.
“But, whilst Monaco is a street course with the lowest average speeds, Monza is a high-speed circuit at more than 250 kph average whilst the top speed in the dry will probably exceed 350 kph this year.
“During the forthcoming race, we will possibly see the closest field in Formula 1 history. Spa has shown that the current Formula 1 is good for big surprises, and Monza will possibly underline this again.”
Brawn GP: Team must consolidate title bid
Brawn GP has been in the news in the run-up to the Italian Grand Prix with reports that McLaren backer Mercedes is set to buy into the team.
Nonetheless, the team will be focused this weekend on maintaining a title challenge. Seeing whether it is yet in a position where it will have to choose between Button and Barrichello, who top the driver standings with 72 and 56 points apiece, will be an interesting feature of the weekend.
While Button undoubtedly has the points advantage, Barrichello has the momentum, which means such a decision might not go in the Englishman’s favour.
Pre-race, team principal and former Ferrari lynchpin Ross Brawn was concentrating on Monza’s technical considerations.
He said: “Visiting Monza during the Italian Grand Prix is a very special experience and one not to be missed for motorsport fans. It’s one of those classic venues where the grandstands are always packed and the atmosphere is electric throughout the weekend.
“From a technical point of view, Monza should be a track where our car will work well although we do expect the KERS cars to have a significant advantage. The BGP 001 is good on both brakes and traction which are important at Monza and we have the benefit of the Mercedes-Benz engine on this power-sensitive circuit.
“With no in-season testing this year, we have not had the opportunity to test at the circuit prior to the race weekend so it will be interesting to see how quickly everyone can adapt to the unusually low-downforce configuration with limited running.”
He said that the aerodynamic efficiency of the car would be crucial, and that the team was bringing a specific package designed to minimise drag levels and achieve high top speeds.
“Good engineering can make a significant difference at Monza so we’ll be working hard to get the car set up well to allow our drivers to be aggressive over the kerbs.”
Button was this week accused of choking in his world championship challenge by the injured former title contender Felipe Massa. So, what are his thoughts ahead of the race?
“Monza is a fantastic track and I love the passion that the Italian fans bring to the race weekend. The circuit is very different to most of the circuits that we race on as the car will be set up with the lowest levels of drag and downforce possible to take advantage of the long straights.
“It always takes a few laps to get used to and as we haven’t tested at Monza this season, the practice sessions will be very important.
“Ascari is probably my favourite part of the track but also Parabolica where the challenge is to brake as late as possible, particularly in qualifying when you’re on a quick lap.
“It’s a circuit that should be reasonably good for our car if we get the handling right over the kerbs so we’re feeling positive and excited about the challenge.”
McLaren: More points is the aim
Monza has not always been a track that has necessarily suited McLaren and the team goes to Italy with the modest ambition of increasing its points haul.
Looking forward to the race, Hamilton said: “Since we no longer test at Monza it will take the drivers a bit of acclimatisation to get used to running in low downforce at this high-speed circuit. It’s a real challenge to get the set-up right because there’s never an ideal compromise between speed along the straight and through the corners.
“It’s never easy to keep the car on the track because it slides all the time: at most tracks, you feel like the downforce is sticking you to the track at high speeds – but not at Monza, it’s like you are skating across the surface.
“But it’s a fantastic circuit. Our car has traditionally gone well there so I am looking forward to another competitive weekend.”
Team principal Martin Whitmarsh added: “Monza is a venue where the team has traditionally gone well and we love racing on a racetrack that’s so steeped in Formula 1 history.
“The unique high-speed nature of the track places unique demands on the cars and, like every team, we’ll arrive at the circuit with a bespoke high-speed aerodynamic package. It will be another interesting test for MP4-24 as we continue to develop the car.
“It will be useful to understand how it works in a low-downforce set-up. Of course, Monza is notable for being a power circuit, and, with KERS, we should see some incredible speeds – particularly during qualifying when the drivers will double-deploy KERS along the start/finish straight.”