Can champions spoil the McLaren-Renault party?
There is only one question concerning the Italian superfans, the tifosi, right now, and that is whether their beloved Ferrari can salvage some pride on their home ground at Monza during this weekends Italian Grand Prix.
Last time out in Italy Michael Schumacher was all over the back of Fernando Alonsos Renault by the end of the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, but, Indianapolis apart, there have been relatively slim pickings for the Scuderia ever since. Last week Schumacher raised some hopes by setting the sixth-best time during testing at the famous autodrome just outside Milan, but his best lap of 1m 21.067s did not compare favourably with Juan Pablo Montoyas overall fastest time of 1m 19.814s and was a second slower than second fastest Kimi Raikkonen who lapped his McLaren in 1m 20.074s.
In all likelihood the race will be another shootout between McLaren and Renault, and last week the blue cars were third and fourth fastest. Fernando Alonso lapped his R25 in 1m 20.426s, while Giancarlo Fisichella went round his home track in 1m 20.772s. The indications are that McLaren will continue to be the fastest, but Renault are doubtless hoping that the very high-speed nature of Monza highlights any remaining unreliability in the Mercedes-powered cars.
McLaren are very quick, there's no doubt, Alonso admits, but Monza is a completely different circuit to any other, so we approach it feeling confident. We have had good straightline speed all year, and that is one of the things you need there. So it could be a good race for us.
BAR will also be strong contenders here. Jenson Button and Takuma Sato showed good speed in Turkey, where Button was as fast as the Renaults and might even have beaten them but for his error in qualifying which obliged him to start from 13th place. The Honda engine is one of the most powerful and this will stand them in good stead on a circuit where horsepower is more important than pure handling. Drivers use more full throttle at Monza than anywhere else, and after Indianapolis the track features the second-longest continual full-throttle section out of the Ascari chicane and down to Parabolica.
Toyota also have a very powerful engine, which is arguably one of the most reliable, too, so the TF105s will be strong this weekend. So too may be Williams, after Mark Webber set the fifth-best time last week in 1m 20.972s. The team spent a great deal of time at home in Grove and during the test last week simulating the conditions which may have led to parts of the FW27s bodywork fouling the right-rear Michelin tyres under load, and are now confident that after working with Michelin on tyre pressure and camber settings they have alleviated the puncture problem that afflicted both cars in Turkey.
Sauber, too, have a strong motor in Ferraris V10, and in low downforce trim the C24 went very well in Montreal. At Red Bull Christian Klien is scheduled to have his last race outing of the season alongside David Coulthard, while Jordan will at last debut the heavily-revised EJ15B after the car finally got the seal of approval at last weeks test. There is, however, only one chassis available and the honour will go to Tiago Monteiro - the Portuguese driver called correctly when team owner Alex Shnaider tossed a coin in Turkey to see whether he or team mate Narain Karthikeyan would get it.
Besides its very high-speed sections, which require the cars to be configured with low downforce, Monza makes heavy demands on the brakes too as drivers have to shed speed from over 360 km/h to around 80 for the first chicane, and again have to brake hard for the second on the way to the two Lesmo corners. The relative lack of downforce also places a high premium on inherent mechanical grip and tyre performance.
Its too soon for Renault to think of clinching the drivers championship, and their lead in the constructors is down to only nine points over McLaren, so there is going to be a great deal of pressure on the team this weekend. Pat Symonds, their executive director of engineering, has already admitted that attack is Renaults best form of defence. However, a major aerodynamic update wont be ready until Brazil which suggests that they are expecting to have to yield to McLaren here and at Spa next weekend before being able to fight back strongly over the final three races.
As long as we finish the races, we are okay, Alonso says. If we are competitive and can get on the podium, then it will be hard to lose my advantage. The advantage we have is that I can still afford some bad races and not lose the lead. McLaren have pressure to be perfect until China, and if they are not, we will be there to punish them.