Monday 27 August 2018

Monza Preview: Home run?

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, then as in previous visits we approached an Italian Grand Prix expecting a Mercedes demonstration run. The German power unit couldn't be matched on full noise and the works team was best placed to take advantage on the Monza track's many long straights. To wit - Mercedes has won the last four races here, all imperiously and three of the four have been one-twos. Last year the first non-Mercedes - Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari - finished some 36 seconds adrift of the winner.

Will Ferrari again be showing Mercedes the way?
Photo: Octane Photography
Now in advance of the latest Italian stop-off you'll struggle to find anyone who doesn't expect exactly the same of Ferrari instead. That its power unit is a clear step ahead of the rest on grunt and is particularly so in the back of the works car; that Ferrari therefore is the car to beat at Monza and likely will not be beaten. The Spa round just passed - another power circuit - underlined the point in thick red lines.

"He came sailing past me like it was nothing," said Lewis Hamilton then of his foe in red Vettel. "We made a big step coming into this weekend; they made an even bigger step..."

He added elsewhere his perception of the Ferrari engine's "trick things".

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted too after Spa that the silver car's traction and performance in slow stuff is poor - which in turn blisters the tyres - which will also be a problem at Monza.

Ferrari therefore heads into its home round in front of its adoring and fervent tifosi with more cause for optimism than at any point since its days of Michael Schumacher pomp. Indeed it's only won once at home since then - Fernando Alonso triumphing in 2010.

Ferrari heads into its home round with confidence
Photo: Octane Photography
As for the rest, taking the point on Ferrari's prodigious horsepower to its logical conclusion the Ferrari engine customers - Haas and Sauber - should go well. Spa demonstrated also that Mercedes-powered Force India often goes well at this type of track, having long since been very slippery in a straight line.

For Renault powered cars - and this includes Red Bull - Monza will likely be a weekend to be got through with its relative lack of horses. It won't help that Nico Hulkenberg, one of the more potent of the Renault number, will add 10 to his qualifying place after his Spa first corner adventures as well as that Daniel Ricciardo, an even more potent member of its number, is also set to take a grid penalty from accepting an a new spec Renault unit.

Although Monza is dominated by long straights overtaking has not been easy here in the past decade or two - the trimmed out cars get easily unsettled in another's wake through turns such as the Ascari complex, plus the required skinny rear wings mean a relatively weak DRS.

Monza races also tend to have the lowest strategic variation of the year, with one-stoppers nailed on - a consequence of low tyre degradation, a big pitstop loss time from a lengthy 80kmh limited pitlane alongside a full blast straight and the difficulties in overtaking noted. Undercuts are tricky to pull off here too as the low degradation can mean new tyres aren't much quicker than old ones.

Monza is dominated by long straights
Photo: Octane Photography
The tyre compounds selected are the same as last year, and while they generally are softer this year these compounds allowed fairly comfortable one-stoppers at Spa last time out where we had more reason to think the tyres would be strained than we do at Monza.

Yet there still is some room for variation in that those starting outside the top 10 on a contra strategy - starting on a harder tyre and attacking on a softer tyre at the end - can have a lot of joy. We had that last year with Daniel Ricciardo coming through from starting 16th after a grid penalty to finish fourth.

One concern in advance for Ferrari is the chance of rain, which has threatened to scupper it in each of the last three rounds and may be around again this time. Long range forecasts have rain and perhaps thunder on all three days. Even if Hamilton can bag a rain-assisted pole then it'll likely count for plenty in the race - with the low strategic variation and difficulty in on-track passing outlined. Hamilton indeed bossed a wet Monza qualifying session 12 months ago.

But to an extent all this isn't the point. Even with its many drawbacks almost everyone relishes the annual Monza stop-off. We can start with that Monza's heritage is unparalleled - racing cars have been in combat around this Italian royal park going all the way back to 1922, and the layout - other than the addition of chicanes and the coming and going of a fearsome banking section - has remained unaltered for almost all of the time since. Only once, in 1980, did Monza not feature on an F1 calendar. No other track, not even Monaco's, can claim this ubiquity.

Ferrari will have plenty of home support
Photo: Octane Photography
It has been the scene of the most gallant triumph and awful tragedy. All the greats have passed through Monza's gates. Many have been defined here; some have perished. The ghosts of legends past still seem tangible. You never feel alone in the royal park.

It features too a visual reminder of what the sport used to require of its drivers with the vast banking that broods over the track (though some dolt decided recently it was a good idea to resurface it...).

Monza's ambience is inimitable - all cooked intensity. The temperatures usually are high, the Italian late summer sun usually beats, accentuating the deep colours of the park. While the shadows that stretch across the track from the trees are a trademark.

Then there is the sheer passion of the Ferrari-loving tifosi that gather in vast numbers, bedecked in red and providing an intense atmosphere.

And this time there's plenty of reason to think the tifosi will have it all topped off by home victory. As things stand you suspect that only Ferrari can beat itself.

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