By Tom Keeble, USA
Although the Tifosi will be hoping for a Ferrari revival at home, the Italian Grand Prix is likely to be another battle between Renault and McLaren as the season heads for a its climax. Tom Keeble previews the race and rates the teams' chances of success ahead of the fifteenth round of the 2005 season
With low downforce circuits scarce on the calendar, the Italian Grand Prix at Autodromo di Monza represents one of the most original races of the year, seeing the teams optimise their cars for speeds up to 225mph. The specialist nature of the circuit, considered a home race by Ferrari, ought to see the tyre manufacturers showing a closer level of performance than in Turkey, offering the tifosi a hope of something to cheer this weekend. The weather prediction is for hot temperatures, with a 60% chance of showers on race day.
Despite being slowed down over the years, the circuit retains the essential character of speed, with long, fast straights rewarding outright power and efficient braking. A good lap here requires a powerful engine to deliver on the straights accompanied by low drag to maximise acceleration, good mechanical balance to counter the lack of downforce and effective brake cooling handle the frequent big stops.
Being able to ride the kerbs is vital to maintaining speed, with good traction control of benefit for the long accelerations. Tyres are a factor, with the high speeds generating a lot of heat, but with relatively low abrasion from the circuit, the teams will be tempted to risk softer compounds for the mechanical grip advantage.
Track: Heading down the start-finish straight, cars will travel over 225mph before braking heavily for the first gear chicane that marks the first corner - a very good place for passing. Riding the kerbs, good traction is required to accelerate up to seventh round the Curva Biassono, taken flat, into the second chicane, the Variante della Roggia, which is taken in second gear - higher kerbs means more mistakes as drivers often ride them too roughly.
From there, cars get up to fourth gear before braking for the Lesmo corners. The first, long corner is taken in third gear at over 110mph: maintaining speed is vital before a the squirt on the power ahead of the second Lesmo; this has a short apex before heading on to the back straight, and working up to top gear.
A left hand kink leads to another heavy braking zone for the fast, third gear Ascari chicane: using a bit of the inside kerb on the entry, drivers will be on full throttle through the right-hand kink and then the left back onto the back straight, getting back into top gear on the run up to the Parabolica, a very fast third or fourth gear corner with a protracted exit, taken at close to 125mph. At the exit, drivers will be getting on to the power as early as possible, drifting the cars to come out on the very outside of the corner and in to another lap.
Tyres: The unusual aspect of Monza requires the tyre companies to bring something fairly special to the circuit. Whilst the surface has relatively low abrasion and the teams need maximum grip to counter their low drag aerodynamics, the fast straights and corners, combined with some heavy braking zones means that consistency at differing temperatures and over the whole distance is more important still. This ought to bring Bridgestone back into the game: their record for producing consistent rubber is exemplary, so the gap between the manufacturers ought to be closer at this event.
Low downforce and huge braking zones do open up one big issue for both manufactures, of course; expect to see some of the drivers flat spot tyres in the race. Depending on the severity, a tremendous pounding will be caused by the vibrations along the fast straights, so stops for replacements are likely rob careless drivers of their positions.
Weather: With predictions for temperatures in the mid 80s, it is set to be hot on Friday and Saturday. There is a strong chance of showers on Sunday, which could interfere with the race - and the clouds are expected to lower the track temperature, which will have some impact on teams looking to control the temperature of their tyres.
Strategy: Although Rubens Barrichello won with a three-stop strategy last year, the threat of rain combined with a fairly long pitstop window and a low wear circuit makes two stops the most attractive. Teams that are marginal on brake or tyre wear could opt for three stops, in order to reduce the loads, but will have to avoid getting stuck behind two-stop cars in the race to make it stick. Interestingly, a one-stop race is also a very good option for making up places, but it carries a penalty in qualifying that is expected to prevent it being effective enough for a podium finish.
Surprises: If there is any circuit where BAR are going to score their first win this year, Monza is it: both Jenson Button and Takuma Sato have a strong affinity for the place, and it emphasises their strong engine. Toyota driver Jarno Trulli will be looking to upset front runners, not just in qualifying, whilst Giancarlo Fisichella will be particularly keen to outperform Fernando Alonso here.
Conclusions: McLaren continue to be the hot favourites to win, though their reliability Achilles heel might well rob them of points. Although Ferrari should be stronger than in Turkey, hope for a win is forlorn so they will probably struggle against Renault, BAR and Toyota for a place on the podium.
Team by Team
After the strong showing Ferrari made at the San Marino GP - where Michael Schumacher raced Fernando Alonso for victory - the tifosi will be hoping for more of the same in Monza this weekend, but the odds do not favour them, at least, not for being conventionally quicker.
At the earlier event, Ferrari benefited from Michelin bringing overly conservative tyres to the event, effectively offering the marque a route back from the dead for that race. An overly aggressive tyre at Indianapolis resulted in the Michelin runners withdrawing from the race, so the manufacturer is not going to err on the wrong side of caution again - which means they could be overly conservative again, opening a door at a 'home' track for the Bridgestone runners to get back in to the race again.
That is not to say that a dominant Ferrari is likely, just that there may be no advantage in running specifically Michelin tyres this weekend. Recent testing has revealed that Ferrari are not able to get both effective race distance longevity and an ideal qualifying time, so there will probably be a compromise tyre optimising each direction available to the teams this weekend; based on how the competition shows through the speed traps, they may be forced to run a strong qualifying session and try to hold on for the race, but with overtaking relatively easy at this circuit, going for the race distance approach should pay off better.
Drivers: Michael Schumacher has always looked good here, and will be looking for a strong performance from the weekend to show his fans that his return is imminent, even if the car is not the best in the field this year. Rubens Barrichello, meanwhile, is defending his title, having won impressively in 2004 with a three-stop strategy.
Objectives: solid qualifying and work forwards for the race - aiming to beat BAR. A podium might be attainable.
After a very strong showing in Turkey - marred only by errors in qualifying that pushed the drivers down the grid - BAR are heading to Italy in buoyant mood: their pace appears to challenge at least Renault, and even McLaren could be vulnerable if they have got their preparations wrong at this specialist low-downforce track.
Looking back at Canada, the team were clearly strong over the weekend, with a light-fuel pole helping keep a positive light on matters before a driver error ended Button's race.
Should the team fail to come away with at least a podium, it will have to be considered something of a lost opportunity: if McLaren had been slightly weaker this season, this would have been a prime event to target for a race win, and the car they take to Italy should reflect this.
Drivers: Both drivers had a solid race in 2004 - with Takuma Sato outqualifying Button before they placed third and fourth on Sunday. There is little reason to believe either driver should have a bad weekend this year. Although the car seems to struggle for more for grip with the downforce coming off that McLaren, the engine is powerful enough to let them add wing to what is becoming a very solid package. Button should be able to challenge for a podium here, though Sato should not be far behind.
Objectives: qualify strongly and finish with both cars in the points; aiming to beat Ferrari and Renault - and looking for a podium finish.
Last season, Renault had a reputation for running an underpowered engine, yet they managed to surprise onlookers with their performance. This season, despite McLaren having an apparently quicker car, on more than several occasions, the outfit have won races. All told, they have demonstrated time and again the risk of writing them off, so it would be unwise to do that in Monza this weekend.
Nevertheless, the outfit are a definite underdog. McLaren really are looking formidable, with two excellent drivers in a hugely competitive chassis; but they are fragile. Accordingly, beating them is likely to be a result of forcing them to push the package to its limit, exposing the reliability weakness - in the driver or the car. Accordingly, Renault are likely to set up a strategy that lets their drivers qualify well and compel McLaren to compete for the win.
After all, it is no accident that Fernando Alonso was pushing Montoya so hard at the Turkish Grand Prix: it paid off, as the Columbian made a mistake that ultimately allowed the Renault though.
Drivers: Alonso has been showing a very mature side as he works to maintain his control of the Drivers' Championship. Seizing every opportunity that presents itself - apart from the Canadian Grand Prix - he has demonstrated an aptitude for maximising his position this year that belies his years. Consistently quick and rarely making mistakes, his mission in this race has to be to look for a podium finish - and the more pressure he can bring to bear on McLaren in the meanwhile, the better.
Giancarlo Fisichella often seems to go fast in Italy, but to date has not finished on the podium; this season, he has the right car to do so, and will be looking for the chance. However, even without team orders, if Fisichella and Alonso are fighting for third place, it would be no surprise to see the Spaniard take the honours - he's bound to be faster at that stage, one way or another.
Objectives: aiming for the race win, with both cars on the podium.
There is some optimism in the Williams camp: they are hoping for a strong weekend, and not entirely without justification. Although they have struggled to improve the car since the start of the year, it has certainly made positive ground over the months, and continues to look like it will close the gap to the front as the season progresses. The team showed a decent low downforce package in Canada, and it has been enhanced since then: furthermore, high temperatures should lend the team an advantage as they are believed to have one of the better cooling packages on the grid.
Then again, Williams seem to have been struggling with a traction control system that lacks the finesse of their rivals leaving them make a tougher compromises when setting a balance between tyre wear, cornering stability and fuel consumption.
As there is no getting away from the fact that Monza is an engine circuit, even with new engines from BMW, unless they have stolen a march on their rivals - instead of working on the V8 for next year's Sauber project - then the best Williams can look for is to score points, as the podium is going to be too well contested by the competition.
One question that should be asked, though, is whether or not the team have been able to fix the problem that caused tyre punctures in Turkey. Whilst there is plenty of rhetoric about how they have confirmed the bodywork is not making contact, the specific cause has never been admitted: so has it really been identified and resolved? If not, then there is a very real chance that neither driver will make it to the finish line.
Drivers: Mark Webber had a strong run in Canada, and considers this circuit something like a second home event, after spending considerable time in Italy whilst driving for Minardi: his aggressive, attacking style should work well here, unless he makes a mistake. Nick Heidfeld will have to work hard to beat his Australian teammate here in qualifying, and come race day, could well struggle to keep up. However, the penalty paid by aggressive, attacking drivers who make mistakes here is high, so race distance prospects are pretty good. Both drivers have early qualifying spots after being forced to retire in Turkey following punctures.
Objectives: qualify in the top ten and finish in the points.
Although they are clear favourites to win again in Monza, there is nothing certain about this team's car except that it is as fragile as it is fast: not only that, but Monza has not been kind to the outfit, whose most recent win here was back in 1997.
Appearing with their lowest drag aerodynamic package, the team are expected to be very strong from the outset, with both drivers capable of taking pole or the race win. However, with 70% of the circuit taken flat out, and most of the remainder hard on the brakes, it is a place that will expose engine weakness in terms of both power and reliability issues very quickly.
Rivals are all too aware of the potential for a McLaren to break down, particularly after Kimi Raikkonen's last lap suspension failure at the European Grand Prix, so they will not stop chasing until the race is over; BAR in particular are expected to pose problems early on, whilst Renault's pace over the whole race distance is clearly respectable. With the team needing both drivers on top of the podium to keep hopes for the Drivers' Championship alive, this is going to be a tough and challenging weekend.
Drivers: Although Raikkonen has outpaced Juan Pablo Montoya in the races they have both finished, there is little doubt that the Colombian was sensationally quick in Canada, or that he is hoping to be in a position to win the race this weekend. However, that would kybosh his teammate's chances of winning the Drivers' Championship, so it would be no surprise to discover some form of team-work reversing their positions if there are no other cars separating the two.
Of course Raikkonen is a man on a mission this season, recently delivering up strings of almost perfect laps in metronomic fashion whenever the car has let him: provided reliability issues don't intervene he remains favourite to win.
Objectives: aiming for the race win - with both cars on the podium.
The Sauber team have recently been putting together some very efficient low downforce packages: married to a Ferrari engine, they are hoping to be somewhat more of a threat here than in higher downforce races.
Realistically, the team will struggle to get ahead of the likes of Renault, BAR and Toyota, let alone McLaren, so scoring big points is a distant dream, but they have a realistic opportunity to land in the top eight. Williams are clearly vulnerable at the moment, whilst Ferrari are reliant on a decent showing by Bridgestone; similarly, Toyota and BAR often seem to have only one driver effective, whilst McLaren's chronic reliability issues speak for themselves.
Accordingly, it should come as no surprise to see the team appear with a number of enhancements on the low-downforce package they used at Canada, and setting some decent times through the weekend: this is an event they have to target.
Drivers: Felipe Massa, riding high after the announcement of his Ferrari contract, will be looking for a strong weekend here, and certainly has hopes of finishing in the points. His performance in Canada was a good example of staying out of trouble and keeping the pressure on to finish in the points, beating Williams and Red Bull whilst he was at it: a repeat performance would be very welcome now.
Jacques Villeneuve knows this circuit better than most, but his season has simply failed to impress so far. Long braking zones mean that his biggest issue with the Sauber chassis (how it responds under braking) will be exposed again - but things have improved considerably there since the start of the season, and the low downforce will bring his 'seat of the pants' feel for the car to the fore too: on balance, he should be very quick, but watch out for errors.
Objectives: qualify in the top ten; score a point - beat Red Bull.
With both cars again getting in the points in Turkey, Red Bull have illustrated the potential for a smaller, underfunded outfit to outperform expectations - they finished ahead of Takuma Sato's BAR and Rubens Barrichello's Ferrari on merit, and on the lead lap.
Repeating the performance in Italy is going to take some doing, however: unless their rivals come off the road, the manufacturer-led teams are simply expected to have too much resource available to put in to developing the one-off aero packages used here for the team to maintain the performance gap. Their best hope for points comes from either a wet race - which brings forward driver skills and foresight in setting up the car for wet conditions - or from the leaders dropping out.
Drivers: David Coulthard's tremendous experience includes a win in '97, but this circuit has not otherwise been too kind to the Scot: coming away with a point here will be a tricky exercise, and the team know it. Nevertheless, Coulthard's calm headed, never-say-die attitude has netted him a bundle of points - and respect - this year, so there is still the ever present hope that he'll pull another minor miracle out of the bag. So don't be surprised to see the car looking a little slow in qualifying if the team are convinced it will rain in the race - they'll be compromising towards a wet set-up.
Objectives: finish as well as possible, targeting a point. Beat Sauber, if possible.
Although they have improved in leaps and bounds, there is still a question mark over Toyota's kerb handling: if their chassis is unsettled over the kerbs, then any advantage from the relative strength of their engine will be lost to slowing down enough to go round the chicanes. Otherwise, on the evidence of their Canadian outing, there is no question that the team have a solid low downforce package, and should be hunting points again this weekend.
Quite where they are in the pecking order is harder to determine. At the season outset, Jarno Trulli's stunning qualifying performances were mitigated by a slower showing in race day, leading to some extraordinary results as faster cars were effectively bottlenecked. The team have worked to improve their race distance performance, but it seems to have come at a cost to qualifying - effectively negating the Trulli advantage, and the early points it brought.
However, in Monza, there is no reason why the team cannot aim for a double points finish: although McLaren are favoured, and the competition between Renault, BAR and Ferrari for the remaining points is hot, this package should be able to mix it up effectively on race day.
Drivers: Both drivers are capable of having a good weekend, but Trulli in particular will be looking for something special from this race. He has had a particular affinity for the circuit in the past that would stand him in good stead this weekend: a solid qualifying result and race might even see him threaten for a podium finish.
Ralf Schumacher, whilst rarely on the same qualifying form as his teammate, seems to be able to maintain a more consistent pace on race day. Provided he can qualify in the top ten - and there's no reason why he shouldn't - then a good points finish is possible.
Objectives: target points finishes; aiming to collect another podium finish - and beat BAR.
Finally, with the prospect of getting the new EJ15B out on the race, the team have a 2005 specification car available, and ought to be able to put aside the spectre of being beaten by Minardi - at least for one driver: the new car has been a long time coming, mostly due to problems getting the cooling effective enough to ensure the longevity of the engine for two races. There is only one available for the Monza weekend, and it will be driven by Tiago Monteiro after a decision based on a coin toss.
Although this car ought to offer the team close to a second a lap advantage over the old chassis, partly due to more efficiency from the power train, but more from a massive update to the aerodynamics, it is still relatively unknown. This means that the team could have trouble getting it set up effectively (though it ought still to be an improvement in its predecessor) so there is the ever present danger that it will be stuffed headfirst in to a wall during practice - not to mention the risk of encountering new, unknown issues from running the whole race distance.
Drivers: With Monteiro in the newer car, he ought to have the better weekend of the two drivers, so beating his teammate and Minardi are both of paramount concern; there can be no excuse short of mechanical failure for doing otherwise. The mid-field remains out of reach, at least for now.
Narain Karthikeyan, on the other hand, has little to lose in what is basically the last remaining 2004-spec car on the grid. With the pressure off, it will be interesting to see if he can finally sustain a solid race pace for the whole event, regardless of final position.
Objectives: make a good showing of the new car, beat Minardi.
Having beaten Jordan again in Turkey, Minardi have demonstrated their improved performance is not entirely a fluke, but they are expected to struggle to repeat the performance in Monza. Even without Jordan running their new car, the Toyota engine is supposed to have some advantage over the Ford lump in the Minardi car.
Nevertheless, this is a home outing for the marque, so they are going to make a very solid attempt at repeating the feat. The low drag circuit gives an opportunity to roll out some potential enhancements to the low-downforce package, so there should be some revised components being tested on Friday. Similarly, a back of the grid expectation combined with the possibility of rain should mean at least one of the drivers is offered the chance to run an adventurous strategy, so one, two or three stops strategies are all options for the race.
Should it rain during the race, Minardi will have no tyre advantage on Jordan, but they are expecting their better knowledge of their chassis - the new Jordan is just that, new, whilst the old is notoriously difficult find a neutral set-up - to mean they have an overall advantage in the wet.
Objectives: complete race distance - beat Jordan again.
In a season dominated by the scarlet machine, there was only the expectation of more to come at the team's home circuit. In the event, whilst the tifosi were treated to a dominant Ferrari display, the final result was a surprise.
Rubens Barrichello took pole position with a stunning time that caught all onlookers with surprise, particularly considering the excellent form of his teammate naturally, lower fuel was offered as a reason, but that detracted nothing from a perfect lap.`
Juan Pablo Montoya put his Williams in second place, six tenths down on Barrichello after making a couple of mistakes on his over-committed lap, but critically, three hundredths ahead of third place Michael Schumacher: the maestro made a mistake entering Parabolica that probably cost him a place on the front row. Fernando Alonso's fourth place was a creditable result for his reputedly underpowered Renault, ahead of Takuma Sato's frustrated lap, which nevertheless was better than Jenson Button's oversteer tainted sixth.
Seventh place saw Kimi Raikkonen making more of his McLaren than expected, coming off the back of his surprise Spa win; the lap was enough to be ahead of Antonio Pizzonia, standing in at Williams for the injured Ralf Schumacher, and comfortably ahead of Jarno Trulli, who was smarting at being out-qualified at home by Alonso. David Coulthard rounded out the top ten with lap that belied what turned out to be a heavy fuel load.
The only other notable qualifying result was Giancarlo Fisichella's fifteenth place for Sauber: the package was expected to work well here, so this result was disappointing after an overly conservative middle sector.
Come race day, overnight rain left the track damp enough that teams were wondering which tyres should be on the cars for the race. The Bridgestone runners and Coulthard opted for intermediates, whilst the remainder were straight on to dry tyres a decision that saw the Scot head in to the pits at the end of the parade lap for a change of boots and strategy.
The race started well for Barrichello, who maintained his lead, whilst Alonso made the most of his Renault starting advantage to slip in to second. Montoya held third, whilst Schumacher yielded fourth to Raikkonen after straight- lining the first chicane.
At the second chicane, more trouble ensued with Schumacher contacting Button and spinning: he rejoined in fifteenth. Panis came off the worse for contact with Pizzonia, ending his race in the kitty litter, though the Williams was pushed to the end of the grid.
The end of the lap saw Barrichello seven seconds clear, though the fast drying track was clearly giving up its intermediate tyre advantage; Button moved past Raikkonen to pressure Montoya in to jumping the first chicane, leaving him in third behind Alonso.
Over the next two laps, Alonso closed down Barrichello and passed him, leading the Ferrari driver to pit on lap five: he returned in ninth, two places ahead of his teammate.
Button set about closing up to Alonso, followed closely by Montoya and Raikkonen; Sato struggled to maintain the pace and fell back. Alonso pitted on lap 10, whilst Schumacher improved his position to ninth (passing Barrichello), as the leaders started to spread apart. However, Raikkonen's day ended on lap 13 with another mechanical failure, continuing his dismal season. Lap fourteen saw Button pit, returning in the lead ahead of Alonso and Barrichello, who was yet to make his second stop.
The order remained unchanged as it worked towards the midpoint, though the chasing cars slowly gained on Button. Barrichello pitted on lap 29, leaving Sato and Schumacher to take up the chase, and Bruni exited after a refuelling scare saw his car catch fire.
Alonso pitted on lap 33, followed by Montoya and Sato, letting Schumacher move to second, comfortably ahead of Barrichello. Buttons stop the next lap put him fifteen seconds behind Barrichello who was opening up the gap at a couple of seconds per lap. Montoya was losing places fast with a gearbox that was stripping gears.
Schumacher stopped on lap 36, passing Sato just after coming out of the pits to chase down Alonso and Button, seventeen seconds behind Barrichello, who was continuing to stretch his lead rapidly. Button briefly came under pressure from Alonso before the Spaniard dropped his car in to the gravel at the second chicane.
With eleven laps remaining, Button pitted, retaining the lead as Schumacher passed Button on the straight for second place. Sato maintained fourth place to the end, whilst Montoya coaxed his car home in fifth. Coulthard made the most of his strategy change to finish sixth off only the one stop.
Point Paying Positions
Pos Driver Team Time 1. Barrichello Ferrari (B) 1h 15:18.448 2. M.Schumacher Ferrari (B) + 1.347 3. Button BAR-Honda (M) + 10.197 4. Sato BAR-Honda (M) + 15.370 5. Montoya Williams-BMW (M) + 32.352 6. Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes (M) + 33.439 7. Pizzonia Williams-BMW (M) + 33.752 8. Fisichella Sauber-Petronas (B) + 35.431 Fastest Lap: Barrichello, 1:21.046, lap 41 Classified: 15 from 20 starters