Thursday race preview - let battle resume 11 Sep 2003
Welcome to the beginning of our weekend's coverage of the Italian Grand Prix here in the Royal Park at Monza, spiritual home of Italian motorsport and the venue for the 14th round of a gripping 2003 FIA Formula One World Championship.
Since the end of the summer test ban every team has been flogging round Monza conducting intensive tests in readiness for this crucial encounter. Ferrari has also been at work at Mugello and Fiorano in the search to close the gap to rivals Williams and McLaren.
In keeping with all of its rivals, the F2003-GA will feature a revised aerodynamic package for this low downforce track, but the Italian team has been putting in a huge workload in the quest for better performance. "We will be running a substantially different car here," Michael Schumacher said during the test last week, when he set the fastest time ahead of team-mate Rubens Barrichello.
A lot of controversy has surrounded the team after it drew attention to Michelin's front tyre widths in the immediate aftermath of the Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest. Ferrari alleged that Michelin was breaching the measurement rule which says that the front tread width must not exceed 270mm. Michelin has said that it was informed earlier in the season that this measurement was when the tyres were new; subsequently the FIA has confirmed that it also covers when the tyres are worn. Ferrari has alleged that Michelin runners' tyres when worn had a slightly wider tread measurement.
The argument has stirred up some bad feeling but Michelin brought some new tyres to Monza for the test. According to whom you speak these either destabilised the braking performance of the cars - Martin Whitmarsh at McLaren - or made little difference or were possibly even better - Sam Michael at Williams. It remains to be seen precisely what effect they have, and whether the performance gap between the Michelin and Bridgestone runners will be reduced as the championship fight reaches fever pitch. Certainly, a win for Ferrari on home ground would help to boost Michael Schumacher's dwindling title hopes as he carries the lead, with 72 points, into the race with Juan Pablo Montoya only one adrift and Kimi Raikkonen another point further behind.
The battle in the Constructors' Championship is no less fraught. Williams took the lead in Hungary and has 129 points to Ferrari's 121 and McLaren's 115, while further back BAR and Jaguar are neck-and-neck on 15 points in the fight for the crucially important fifth place. This is the respectability threshold that marks the best-of-the-rest team behind the Top Four. Toyota is only one point behind them, with Jordan on 11 and Sauber 9. Any of them could grab fifth before the season is over.
As McLaren struggled to balance its cars on the new tyres, Williams suffered a crash in testing when Ralf Schumacher rolled his FW25 in one of the Lesmo corners. It is thought that a brief pit lane fire may have damaged a carbon fibre rear suspension component and caused the accident. Ralf will have to undergo a final medical examination by Professor Sid Watkins before being cleared to race, after complaining of headaches in the days since the accident.
Meanwhile, Hungaroring crash victim Ralph Firman was examined earlier this week by Peter Hamlyn, director of Sports and Exercise Medicine at London's St Bartholomew's Hospital, and was pronounced fit. As a matter of format, however, he too will have to undergo a final check by Hamlyn's former colleague Watkins, before he gets the green light.
Monza is a throwback to the old school of race circuits where high-speed is the name of the game. The drivers reach the highest maximum velocity that they see all season here, and with low downforce set-ups will hit 350 kph in several places. Apart from Indianapolis, Monza also demands more full-throttle motoring than any other circuit on the calendar. They are flat on the throttle all the way from the Ascari chicane down the back straight to the entry to the Parabolica, and then from the exit of that corner they are flat again all the way past the pits and down to the first chicane. This naturally places huge demands on the engine and rather less on chassis performance, but stability under braking and resistance to fade is also crucially important with so much heavy braking for the three chicanes.