Rencken on F1's temple of speed
Round 13 (of 19) to be run this Sunday, meaning just seven rounds remaining in the 2011 FIA Formula 1 World championship as this is written. And, what a venue for this week’s Italian Grand Prix: Monza, aka F1’s High Temple of Speed.
Nowhere else do the cars reach greater velocities than on this 5,793 kilometre boomerang-shaped circuit, with lap averages of 255 km/h (versus a season average of 210 km/h) being the norm; nowhere else are brakes and suspension more taxed by steep kerbs and squiggly chicanes than at this track situated deep within the forests of an ancient royal park found 30 kilometres north of Milan.
Top speeds of over 350 km/h are expected when F1’s DRS overtaking aid kicks in, and there will be two DRS zones at the circuit. The device, which works by enabling challengers to “flatten” rear wings when within a second of their quarry prior to a zone, has contributed to the many overtaking fests the sports has enjoyed in 2011.
During qualifying, when use of DRS is free rather than being restricted to zones, the device can be used for 74% of each lap – by far the highest incidence of all circuits.
Another contributor to the 2011 season’s unpredictability has been the planned degradation of sole tyre supplier Pirelli’s compounds. The company, facing its first home Grand Prix since entering F1 in 2011, will supply the same selection as at Spa in August, namely medium (white sidewall markings) and soft tyres (yellow).
Less discussed, but just as conducive to overtaking, is F1’s hybrid drive device - known as kers (Kinetic Energy Recovery System). To be known as “ERS” once the sport embraces all types of energy recovery (not only kinetic) in its quest for a greener future, the device provides a boost of 60kW for just over six seconds per lap.
Monza is the perfect circuit for kers, for its layout features relatively slow corners followed by ultra-long straights. Four times per lap (exiting Turns 2, 7, 10 and 11) the cars accelerates from relatively low speeds to terminal velocity, resulting not only in 0.40 second lap-time benefit, but increased tactical options while providing a defensive driving element - which DRS by its nature fails to do.
So, to recap: two DRS zones, no less four potential kers spots and the same tyres as at Spa...
That said, in its 61-year history the Italian Grand Prix has been won 18 times from pole, of which no less than seven pole-flag wins occurred in the last decade, so we hope DRS, kers and Pirelli’s tyres manage to at least halt that that trend during the race.
The circuit is the oldest on the calender, having been opened in 1909, and is distinguished by having hosted the highest number of world championship Grands Prix (60). The circuit missed just one year in the eighties when it was treated to a total revamp. Still, its essential character remains, due in no small part to the eerie banking – over which many a car flew during the Autodromo di Monza’s early years, mostly with fatal results – which still partly surrounds the modern circuit.
VETTEL TO DOMINATE?
It was in Monza, in 2008, that Sebastian Vettel, driving for Toro Rosso before promoted to “big sister” Red Bull Racing, scored his maiden victory in treacherous conditions to become the youngest-ever Grand Prix winner in the sports history.
Vettel’s points margin of 92 over team mate Mark Webber is such that all he need do to secure back-to-back title crowns is finish fourth in every remaining round through to the finale in Sao Paulo.
However, given seven wins from 12 starts that is unlikely...
Third in the title hunt is Fernando Alonso, and with the race being in Ferrari’s backyard, the tifosi will be out in full force, particularly after Alonso kept his 2010 title hopes alive with a sublime win in Monza 2010. The rabid fans will be praying for more and on current form the 2005/6 champion could deliver, particularly if Ferrari’s programme of regular upgrades bears fruit on home turf.
However, the title now seems a distant dream, as Fernando told Wheels24 in Belgium, “Red Bull need to make big mistakes between now and the end.”
Fourth and fifth on the log are McLaren’s pairing of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. The former has his head totally together, particularly when the going gets tough, while the latter is arguably the most mercurial driver in the sport: hero one race; zero the next.
What will Monza deliver for either McLaren driver?
Finally, Mercedes: Michael Schumacher has an enviable record here, having won for Ferrari five times, but as proven all season, team mate Nico Rosberg simply refuses to give the seven-time champion an easy time.
As for the rest - apart from Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, who has never won in Monza but would dearly love to do so having driven with Maranello horsepower throughout his Formula 1 career – well, they are effectively bit players as the European season winds down ahead of six flyaways in a row.
The 53-lap Italian Grand Prix starts at 14:00 (SA local), with qualifying at the equivalent time. The latest forecasts have it that clear 26-27°C skies will prevail throughout both days.