The Italian Grand Prix Preview (4-6 September 2015)

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Monza will host an unparalleled 65th Italian Grand Prix this weekend, having been on the F1 race calendar every year since the inaugural 1950 season, bar once in 1980. The Autodromo Nazionale Monza is renowned for its high speed layout, placing huge demand on a car’s engine, brakes and suspension; so who will find the speed over the kerbs this weekend without taking too much out of the car? Lewis Hamilton will be hoping to win his seventh race of the season and his third Italian Grand Prix, whereas his team-mate will be looking to close the gap and get a maiden victory round this historic track. And surely Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen will be buoyed by the raucous support from the Tifosi (Scuderia Ferrari fans) at Ferrari’s home Grand Prix.

Headlines from Spa

Lewis Hamilton restores parity by clinching another pole to flag victory. The Brit took his sixth victory of the season, whilst team-mate Nico Rosberg followed him home for Mercedes’ seventh one-two of 2015. The win was Mercedes first at Spa since Fangio won here back in 1955 and extended Hamilton’s lead at the top of the Championship to 28 points. Those points will make him feel a lot more secure at the top of the championship after a dominant first half of the year hadn’t previously led to the points lead he deserved. This was Lewis’ third pole position at Spa, but the first he managed to convert and he was clearly elated with his performance at a track where he’s not had the best of luck before. Hamilton’s dominance was highlighted by the fact he was over half a second faster than Rosberg in qualifying and was never pushed throughout the race.

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Lewis Hamilton gives a thumbs up to the crowd as snapped by earthlingrick and shared via the Creative Commons License.

Vettel’s attempted one-stop strategy backfires in dramatic fashion with a tyre blowout. Ferrari’s risky tactics of not pitting under the virtual safety car had looked like they had paid off as Vettel jumped Romain Grosjean into third place. With two laps to go, he still held the position, despite the Frenchman being much quicker on newer tyres, but a catastrophic tyre failure that would drop Vettel down the order and out of the race scuppered any faint hope their premier driver had of claiming a fifth world championship in 2015. The German now languishes 39 points behind his compatriot Nico Rosberg and a massive 67 behind Lewis Hamilton – surely now, an insurmountable deficit.

A teary-eyed Romain Grosjean crosses the line in third, amid speculation that Lotus’s assets are being seized. This was Romain Grosjean’s first podium since the United States Grand Prix in 2013 and aptly came at Spa, the very track where he received a one race ban for causing a mass pile-up on Lap 1, Turn 1 in 2012. The Frenchman started ninth on the grid this year after a five place grid-penalty for a gearbox change, but the pace he had shown in coming an impressive fourth in qualifying was soon on show, overtaking the likes of Bottas, Ricciardo and Perez. This podium came at the perfect time for Lotus with their future hanging in the balance due to financial woes- bailiffs arrived at the paddock shortly after the race finished to impound the team’s equipment due to a legal dispute with their former reserve driver, Charles Pic.

Williams’ mechanics ruin Valtteri Bottas’s day by fitting him with odd tyre sets. The Finnish driver had qualified third in Spa and would have had aspirations for a second podium of the season, but his slow getaway immediately put him under pressure, and he was overtaken by Daniel Ricciardo and Sergio Perez going into Turn 1. Nico Rosberg got an even worse start, dropping down to fifth, but the lack of race pace on the soft tyre  for Williams in the early laps meant Bottas could not make up for lost ground. To add insult to injury, his mechanics fitted his car with a mismatch of tyres- three soft and one medium on the right rear when he came in to make his first pit-stop. This highly unusual error resulted in a drive-through penalty that Bottas served on Lap 16 and he finally trudged home ninth after another disappointing weekend from the Williams team.

Drivers getting Tired of Pirelli

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Both Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel suffered considerable tyre failures during the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, luckily with no further repercussions other than in the Drivers’ Championship. However, on a fast circuit like Spa, either driver could have suffered much more disastrous consequences considering the near 200mph speeds they were travelling at when (coincidentally) both their right-rear tyres exploded.

Nico Rosberg suffered his blow-out in second practice in the section heading towards the Blanchimont corner (amongst the toughest corners on the whole calendar) and said at the time, “Definitely not fun… It was at maximum speed, so not good.” The German driver went on to say, “A 360 degree spin at 200mph is not something you expect at all. Luckily I did not hit the wall. I didn’t feel anything before, there was no warning.”

Four time world champion, Sebastian Vettel was just as lucky as his German counterpart in regards to safety, but his tyre failure dropped him down from third place with two laps to go, to out of the point’s altogether. The incident effectively ended any faint hopes Vettel might have had of picking up a fifth world title in 2015 and he was understandably vocal after the race. Vettel, whose crash happened just after the challenging and high speed Eau Rouge swerves, said, “These things are not allowed to happen. If it happens 200m earlier, I’m not standing here now.”

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Pirelli had initially blamed Vettel’s failure on the tyre simply coming to the end of its wear life, saying that if you run any type of tyre for too long it will eventually wear out, which is a fair point. On the other hand, Pirelli had told the teams that the tyre would last for 40 laps and yet the Ferrari had only worn those tyres for 28 laps when the incident occurred. Since the race, Pirelli have conducted their own internal investigation, concluding that it had, “confirmed the absence of any structural problems”. They still claim that Nico Rosberg’s tyre had a cut in it and that Sebastian Vettel’s accident occurred because of debris on the track and natural tyre degredation.

It should be remembered that Pirelli have been asked by Bernie Ecclestone to produce tyres with performance limitations, just to make the racing more exciting, but the drivers are still asking at what cost? Former double world champion, Fernando Alonso and reigning world champion, Lewis Hamilton have both been very vocal in their criticism.

Jules Bianchi’s death earlier this year has shown the fine lines that F1 drivers still have to work within every time they get in the car. Supporters certainly don’t want to see drivers getting injured in the name of “entertainment”, so there must be a solution that the FIA and Pirelli can come up with that keeps safety in mind, whilst also allowing the drivers to race.

The Italian Grand Prix

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Track map of the Grand Prix circuit at Autodromo Nazionale Monza by Will Pittenger via Wikimedia Commons

The Italian Grand Prix was one of the inaugural Formula One championship races in 1950 and has been held at Monza race track every year since, with 1980 being the only exception when the Grand Prix was held at Imola. The stirring track has a banked oval and is encircled by grand old trees, creating a real amphitheatre that has provided so much drama over the years. The Italians call it ‘La Pista Magica’- the Magic Track, the rest of us simply draw breath and call it Monza.

Seven of the last eight Grand Prix’s at Monza have been won by either Lewis Hamilton (2012, 2014), Sebastian Vettel (2008, 2011 & 2013) or Fernando Alonso (2007, 2010). The only other man to have won in that time was Rubens Barrichello back in 2009 when he (unsuccessfully) tried chasing down the points deficit to Brawn team-mate and eventual World Champion, Jenson Button.

If Sebastian Vettel was to go on and win on Sunday, he would equal Stirling Moss’s record of winning at Monza with three different teams. Moss did it in 1956 with Maserati, in 1957 with Vanwall and again in 1959 with Rob Walker Racing. Vettel on the other hand has won it previously with Toro Rosso, Red Bull (twice) and will be vying for a fourth win with a third constructor in Ferrari. Lewis Hamilton will be trying to add a third victory in Monza to join Vettel, Moss, Peterson, Barrichello, Prost and Fangio in a select group of three times winners in the post-war era. Only Nelson Piquet on four and Michael Schumacher on five have won round this iconic track more times.

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Last year, Mercedes qualified one-two and finished one-two, but it was anything but a procession. Lewis Hamilton was relieved to have a clean qualifying for the first time in several weeks, but had a terrible getaway off the line and had dropped down to fourth place by Turn 1. Nico went into the lead, but failed to take advantage of his team-mate’s misfortunes, missing the chicane on Lap 9 to drop a second and allowed Felipe Massa to close the gap. One lap later, Lewis was breathing down his neck after overtaking Massa and Magnussen and the Brit eventually retook the lead on Lap 29 when lightning struck twice and Rosberg missed the chicane. This mistake allowed his team-mate through and was seen as a defining point in the 2014 season, setting up the platform for Lewis to go on and win his second World Championship.

Predictions

Form would suggest that Lewis is the favourite for this one, having won the last race at Spa and the race in Monza last year, however, there hasn’t been a back-to-back winner here since Damon Hill in 1993/94. Having said that, there seems to be an exaggerated importance on getting pole at Monza, as highlighted by the fact that eight of the last 10 races here have been won by the polesitter. And we know how impressive Lewis has been on Saturday’s this season…

Mercedes have also decided to throw all their eggs into one basket by using all seven of their remaining engine development tokens to bring an upgraded power unit to Monza. With Monza being one of, if not the most power dependent tracks on the calendar, you can understand why, although they are claiming its more about development for their 2016 car. Ferrari have also used up three tokens to improve their engine for the Italian Grand Prix.

What does all this mean? Well, the Silver Arrows could well stretch their advantage at the front of the field, but at the same time could run into some reliability issues. Ferrari are likely to improve on a disappointing race result in Spa and if all goes well for the two teams, it really wouldn’t be a shock to see them shutting out the top four places on both Saturday and Sunday. Don’t rule out a home victory for the Scuderia this weekend with the passionate Italian fans cheering them home. The party-poopers amongst us will realise though that Monza is a similarly fast, low-downforce track like Spa, so it’s difficult to see past another Hamilton pole to flag victory.

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Scenes in the stands from the 2012 Italian Grand Prix, captured by Francesco Crippa and shared via the Creative Commons License.

Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat will be taking on their sixth engines of the season, meaning they will drop down the grid on Sunday, even if they have an impressive qualifying and as seems to be the trend of 2015, the McLaren boys will be doing something similar. Button and Alonso racked up a record drop of 105 grid positions between them at Spa and although it looks like Alonso will have a 10 place drop and Button five in Monza, they will surely be at the back with their relative lack of pace in qualifying.

The Mercedes powered teams of Williams, Lotus and Force India are likely to be fighting it out in the upper-midfield pack and it will be interesting to see if Romain Grosjean can keep up his good form. The Williams team will have a point to prove after some pretty disastrous recent performances, so watch this space!

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