Driving standards will be under the spotlight at Italian Grand Prix weekend

Following the famine comes the feast. After waiting five weeks for a Grand Prix the summer break is over and the races are coming thick fast. The Italian Grand Prix comes just a week following a dramatic race at Spa that could have had a huge impact on the championship.

Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton were both taken out at the first corner by a huge crash and while both drivers, and Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez, were able to walk away from the smash the attention was shifted to the championship rapidly with Alonso’s lead cut to 24 points to Sebastian Vettel.

Racing in Italy is always a difficult task for a Ferrari driver and a repeat of his 2010 victory is crucial for Alonso if he is to reassert his authority on the championship.

The Monza Circuit

Monza is one of the most historic race tracks on the Formula 1 calendar with the Italian track echoing Monaco as one that has changed precious little since the early seasons of Formula 1.

Monza has hosted a Formula 1 Grand Prix every year since 1950, with the sole exception of 1980 when Imola played host to the Italian Grand Prix. The circuit has changed very little since its initial races in 1922. The challenges remain the same today as they were when Formula 1 engines first roared into life through the woods of the Villa Reale Park with the current generation of drivers experiencing the highest speeds of the season as they drive from one chicane to the next touching 200 mph four points each lap.

The lap starts with drivers braking from 200 mph down to 50 mph for the Reffililo chicane before the flat out Curva Granda that leads into another slow chicane where drivers slow from top speeds. It was at the start of the ’78 race that Ronnie Peterson died following a mass crash as the field headed to the first corner. The Lotus of Peterson was pitched into the barriers with his car then catching fire before Hunt managed to extract the Swede from his car and placed him on the track.

Peterson was still conscious at this point but amazingly Italian police formed a cordon around the title contender and would not allow him to receive medical attention until 15 minutes after the accident. When medics were given access to Peterson he was treated for his burns and a fractured leg and had surgery to set his leg but later that night died due to an embolism. This can be quite a common complaint after a fracture of longer bones, and sees fat build up in blood vessels which in this case occured in the lungs and caused brain failure due to a lack of oxegen.

This tragedy has played a role in the transformation of Formula 1 safety with it being decided that medical facilities at race tracks needed to be brought up to a more acceptable standard, a process that has undoubtedly saved countless of lives in the mean time.

Once through the second chicane the middle sector begins and this is where the top drivers will show their speed. The Lesmo corners are two of the greatest challenges facing drivers in the entire season, with low downforce, as a result a slightly skittish car, drivers have to challenge themselves to take these corners as fast as possible because speed is of the essence on the way to the Ascari chicane, named after the spot where double world champion Alberto died in 1955 while testing a Ferrari sports car.

From here the drivers are homeward bound with only the parabolic remaining. This corner can catch out even the very best; Ayrton Senna misjudged his braking in 1987 and slid into the gravel costing him the chance of a superb win for Lotus. In 1970 Jochen Rindt died at Parabolica following a brake failure. The German went on to become the sports only posthumous champion.

Can McLaren win three in a row?

Jenson Button’s fantastic Belgian victory was the first time this season where one driver managed to lead the race from start to finish and with McLaren chasing their third consecutive it is clear that the team has found their mojo once again.

Until the Spanish Grand Prix the team had the fastest car on the grid but a mid-season slump saw both drivers struggle and fall adrift in the championship. The lowpoint of the season came at the British Grand Prix but in the last three races the team has brought a series of new parts and improved their performance considerably.

At Hockenheim Jenson Button finished second before the team scored back to back wins in Hungary and Belgium. Maintaining this momentum is key if McLaren are to offer any challenge to Red Bull in the Constructors’ Championship; the team is 54 points adrift at present.

Following his dominant Belgium victory Button is looking forward to returning to Monza where he has finished second for the last two years.

“I head to Monza absolutely full of motivation after a fantastic result in Spa,” said the 2009 world champion. “It was the perfect weekend for me – it’s not only put me back in contention for the drivers’ championship, but it’s shown that we have a car that can definitely fight for the constructors’ title.

“It’ll be great to be back in the car so soon after the victory. Monza is one of the greatest circuits in the world and our car seems to be particularly well suited to high-speed circuits, so I’m optimistic that we’ll be competitive again this weekend. For some reason, the car we’ve brought to Monza in the last two seasons has been really well suited to me. I’ve really been able to work with the balance and enjoyed pushing the car. The success we had with a low-downforce configuration at Spa also gives us cause for optimism.”

Webber needs a strong race

The intra team battle at Red Bull is heating up again and while a repeat of the fireworks of 2010 are unlikely the strains of a title fight for both drivers might start to reappear.

Vettel has now moved into second in the championship ahead of Mark Webber and it must be disheartening for the Australian who has been one of the more consistent drivers this season. Webber finds himself just eight points behind his teammate and even though the reigning champion had a stunning drive at Spa the pressure on both drivers is growing. Time is running out in the 2012 season and while Alonso’s non-score at Spa has tightened up the proceedings it is now of utmost importance to capitalise on this and ensure a very competitive end to the season.

Monza has never really been one of Webber’s better tracks. He has yet to finish in the top five in Italy and ending this trend will be crucial for him. With seven races remaining and trailing Alonso by 32 points it is imperative that Webber can finish on the rostrum this weekend otherwise it the championship will become a very difficult proposition.

Surely to be a weekend of contrasts for Lotus

With Kimi Raikkonen still searching for his first win of the year the frustration was starting to become evident at Spa. The Finnish star spent most of the race complaining on the team radio about the handling of his car. It seemed that for the majority of the weekend Raikkonen complained about having no grip or no power.

Raikkonen has been in great form throughout 2012 and has finished on the rostrum six times, the same number as Alonso, but has not been able to claim his long overdue race win yet. Spa seemed to be a great opportunity for Lotus to win a race and Monza could be much more difficult weekend. With the championship gap to Alonso now down to 33 points it is clear just how successful the 2007 world champion’s season has been.

On the other side of the garage at Lotus this weekend Romain Grosjean will be replaced by Jerome D’Ambrosio following the Frenchman’s suspension for causing the opening lap crash in Belgium. Speaking during the week Raikkonen defended his teammate by saying, “Accidents happen, that is part of the sport,” Raikkonen told reporters at Monza ahead of the Italian Grand Prix.

“Sometimes they could be avoided, but it is nothing you can change. Things can go wrong even if you don’t go aggressively or [if you] try to avoid it.”

The harshness of the penalty has been debated my many but the opportunity that it presents D’Ambrosio is undoubted.

Last year the Belgian drove for Marussia so while he has not driven the 2012 Lotus in the dry he has tested the car for one day at the mid-season Mugello test. D’Ambrosio is keenly aware of the difficulty that he will face this weekend. Speaking at Monza the replacement driver said:

I need to work with the engineers on the car, stay focused on that, and once that work is done we can hope for something good,” said D’Ambrosio. “I don’t feel I have had plenty of time in the car, one time in Mugello on a fairly wet track, so it will be good to get more time. But I was really involved with the team so far so I will try to capitalise on that. As third driver is it part of the job to be prepared as best as I can, keep fit and keep up to date as much as I could in case something like this happens.”

Last year Bruno Senna was faced with a similarly difficult situation when he replaced Nick Heidfeld for the last seven races of the year. Senna made his debut for the team in Belgium and surprised everyone by qualifying seventh. Senna managed to parley his end of season form into a Williams drive for this season and D’Ambrosio must have similar ambitions.

Perez looks to capitalise on Grosjean absence

Another driver looking to take advantage of Grosjean’s absence will be Sergio Perez. The Mexican is 30 points behind the Lotus driver in the drivers’ championship but a strong race could see him move into genuine contention, alongside Nico Rosberg, for seventh in the standings.

The Swiss squad has had a number of very strong races this year but the front row start by Kamui Kobayashi was the first time that they showed ultimate single lap pace to match the rest of the field. With another high speed lap, although with much lower downforce settings, Monza could be another chance for the team to score a handful of points. For Perez the chance to race at the historic venue is one that he is looking forward to:

“The track in Monza is another favourite of mine, and I have had some very good races there,” said the Mexican. “In Formula 3 I qualified 14th and then went on to win both races. I always enjoy the atmosphere in Italy, and the Tifosi are just great. The circuit is obviously a true high-speed track and I have a lot of faith in our low downforce package which we have in place. Also when I look at our performance in Spa, which is also a fast track, the C31 should be strong at the Italian Grand Prix.”

Sauber’s race pace will be crucial if Perez is to close the championship gap to Grosjean and Rosberg but with single stop races likely for most of the field it is unlikely that the tyre-friendly Sauber will be able to take advantage of its greatest strength relative to the rest of the field.

Starting at the front will be the only chance for Perez and Kobayashi to score more than just a couple of points.

Attention to be focused on Maldonado but Senna will be faster

The Grosjean suspension makes it very likely that we will see a lot of focus on driving standards this weekend and Pastor Maldonado will definitely be at the centre of attention again. The Williams driver has not scored a point since his stunning victory in Spain and with the mistakes and clashes with other drivers having mounted his behaviour on track will be under close scrutiny.

The Venezuelan however is excited ahead of racing at Monza, the track where he clinched his GP2 title.

“Monza is another historic track that drivers like visiting so I’m really looking forward to this weekend,” said Maldonado. “It’s the quickest track we visit all season and requires a very particular set-up with a completely different aero package. The car has low downforce levels at Monza so we will have to adapt to that set-up. The track itself is a challenging one for drivers and has quite a few overtaking opportunities so it should be an exciting weekend for the fans.”

After being hit with a ten place grid penalty following a jump start and collision at Spa the task facing Maldonado is quite extreme and the likelihood is that Bruno Senna will be the best placed Williams driver again this weekend.

While the Brazilian has not shown the same stunning turn of pace that has marked his teammate’s season the accidents that have punctuated Maldonado’s year have been avoided by Senna. He has been a very safe pair of hands throughout the year and is only five points behind Pastor in the championship.

Last weekend Senna was very consistent at Spa and his drive should have netted a points finish but he is confident of adding to his haul this weekend.

“While we didn’t finish in the points the car showed good pace at Spa, particularly on the long straights, so the signs are looking good heading into Monza,” said the Brazilian. “It’s a very fast circuit and is a real old fashioned test for the driver’s so I’m looking forward to the race. The team is working very hard to get the maximum out of the car and if we can get qualifying right we should be looking for a points finish.”

Setup challenges facing the teams

Monza is the only true low downforce track remaining on the Formula 1 calendar. It is the only track where we will see ultra skinny rear wings as teams look to maximise their straight line speed.

The unique challenges presented by Monza make it difficult for engineers to find the optimum setup:

“Monza is definitely a stand-alone track in the season due to its very long straights and a limited amount of corners,” commented Sauber’s Giampaolo Dall’Ara. “They are interesting corners as two of them are low speed chicanes requiring very good braking stability and then traction out of them. The rest, basically Lesmo and Parabolica, are very interesting high speed bends that become even more challenging with the low downforce levels we run there, which is also stand-alone in the season.

Then we have the Variante Ascari, a medium speed chicane which is a double corner that also gives us an engineering challenge to balance out the drag requirements, which are very low with a reasonable amount of downforce and definitely a very good mechanical grip. The track is an old fashioned one with bumps, a regular surface and high kerbs, especially in the chicanes. The tyres will be challenging and Pirelli will supply the same as in Spa – medium and hard – but Monza is not hard on the tyres so they will be consistent and getting them to perform in qualifying will possibly be challenging.”

The engine is under tremendous strain throughout the race, as outlined by Renault’s Remi Taffin:

“The driver will spend as much as 75 per cent of the lap at full throttle so we make sure that all the internals, maps, fuel and lubricants settings are triple checked,” said the Frenchman. “We could run a test engine to as much as 3,000km on a simulation of this track to check reliability and performance, ten times a race distance. Monza has two very long straights that are over a kilometre each so we work to create a powerful map that works well over the last two thousand revs, but we also need good acceleration out of the very slow chicanes as the driver will brake down from over 330kph to just 80kph before accelerating back up to over 300kph in a little over 150m.”

Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyres

Pirelli’s home race is obviously one of the the biggest races of the year for Italian manufacturer:

“Monza is probably the most important race of the year for us, as it is our chance to come home and showcase our tyres and specialised technology in front of so many of our people and the passionate Italian fans,” said the tyre manufacturer’s motorsport boss, Paul Hembery. “There is a really special atmosphere to this race that is unique to Italy.

“Not only that, but Monza is one of the most demanding circuits that we visit all year due to the high speed and significant lateral loads on the tyres. After Spa, it is the second-highest set of forces that our tyres will experience all year. Coming to Monza directly from Spa for the first time means that the teams will be fully up to speed with the hard and medium tyres, while there is a huge amount of momentum behind the championship now, which is shaping up to become the most thrilling finale since we returned to Formula One. Ambient temperatures can be very high in Italy, which places further demands on the tyres, so we would normally expect two pit stops.

“Strategy turned out to be a key ingredient to success last year, with the podium places only decided on the final lap, and we would expect the same again this year. With the cars at full throttle for so long, it’s hard for anybody to gain a big lead unless they use strategy to their advantage.”

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