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Italy - What to Watch for...

07 Sep 2014

From the potential for chaos at the first corner to the threat posed by Williams to Mercedes, and from the likelihood of a tough afternoon for Ferrari to the spectacle of Daniil Kvyat charging up the order, we break down the key themes to look out for in Sunday's Formula 1 Gran Premio d'Italia 2014...

First chicane could provide a flashpoint

The start in Italy is always one of the trickiest of the season - not only does the track narrow significantly from the grid to the first chicane, but the drivers will approach the slow switchback at over 300km/h - with cold tyres and brakes and the lowest downforce settings of the year. Put simply, they will have to take great care - it only takes a man in the midfield to miss his braking point by a couple of metres to cause major problems at the first corner. It's not uncommon to see drivers taking to the escape road to avoid problems, nor to see bodywork flying as the pack, bottlenecked together, try to negotiate the tight sequence of bends. In short, don't be surprised if the order is shaken up by the time the cars reach Curva Grande for the first time.

What will be particularly interesting is how the front row-starting Mercedes drivers approach the first chicane. After their second-lap clash in Belgium there's considerable pressure on polesitter Lewis Hamilton and team mate Nico Rosberg to avoid further contact, but if they're too cautious they could come under real pressure from behind from drivers more willing to take a risk…

Mercedes have the pace, but could they beat themselves?

Having scored one-two finishes in all but one of the Monza sessions this weekend (FP3, when Rosberg suffered a gearbox problem), Mercedes have exhibited a clear pace advantage over the rest of the field. But that doesn't mean they're home and dry for victory. Both Rosberg and Hamilton have missed significant chunks of track time this weekend because of technical issues, proving that whilst the F1 W05 Hybrid is the class of the field, it's not entirely bulletproof.

Another factor to consider is that Monza places heavy demands on the brakes, and that's an area in which Mercedes have struggled at times this season - Hamilton even complained about a lack of stopping power in FP3.

And dare we mention the human element? Whilst the drivers have been warned by Mercedes’ top brass that further contact between them will not be tolerated, both remain utterly determined to win. That means that even if they avoid a coming-together on track, neither is likely to back off, and that means that components on both cars will be pushed to their limits, increasing the risk of another failure.

Williams have a real chance to spoil Mercedes' party

There have been several occasions this season, such as Austria, when Williams have shown impressive speed relative to the dominant Silver Arrows, but this weekend's race presents the Grove-based team with their best chance yet to beat Mercedes on merit.

The FW36 has looked perfectly at home on Monza's high-speed layout and although Valtteri Bottas qualified over half a second back from Hamilton, the Finn - who has claimed four podiums already this season - showed very competitive pace relative to Rosberg over long runs in FP2, as did team mate Felipe Massa, who'll start fourth. What's more, both Williams drivers have little to lose and a huge desire to give the team their first win since 2012 - and that could be a potent combination when racing against two drivers with one eye on the championship.

Bottas, in particular, has shown incredible tenacity when battling for the leading positions this year (remember his dogged defence of second position from Hamilton in Germany?) and the 25-year-old also has form at Monza, having won the feature race here during his title-winning GP3 campaign in 2011.

"I am confident we can push the Mercedes, it's just a question of how much can we push them," he said after qualifying. "If we have a great start it could open a lot of opportunities, and the pit stop lap could be critical depending on our strategy. If anything happens with the cars just in front of us, we will be there to collect those points."

Ferrari set for a tough home race

Ferrari have made a habit of strong Friday performances this season, but they looked to have genuine pace after threatening the top order through all three practice sessions on home soil at Monza. Qualifying, however, exposed the fact their underlying deficit to the frontrunners remains: Kimi Raikkonen was eliminated after two extremely scrappy laps in Q2, while Fernando Alonso could not manage better than seventh. Worryingly, the Spaniard admitted he had got almost everything out of the car on his fastest lap.

Ferrari therefore head into the Grand Prix knowing that a podium finish - and the right to celebrate in front of the tifosi - will be extremely challenging. Alonso has warned against carrying "false expectations" into the race, while Raikkonen will be hoping that his car's poor grip and tendency to lock its front brakes don't impact too heavily on his afternoon.

If there is a faint glimmer of hope, it comes from the fact that Ferrari's Friday long-run form looked promising - and that behind Mercedes and Williams, the fight for the best-of-the-rest tag is incredibly close. Even so, don't expect too much from a race the Scuderia have openly admitted will be "tough".

Kvyat to come through the pack

Daniil Kvyat had already established one F1 record this season by becoming the sport's youngest points scorer, but this weekend in Monza he's established an altogether less welcome one, becoming the first driver of the V6 turbo era to fall foul of the new power unit regulations.

Toro Rosso were forced to fit the Russian's car with a new engine for the team's home race, and as it was the sixth used by Kvyat this year he earned an automatic ten-place grid drop. So instead of lining up in 11th after another creditable performance in qualifying, the 20-year-old will start down in 21st.

That does at least raise the tantalising prospect of watching the youngster fight his way through the field, something he's proven adept at so far this season.

Kvyat has scored points on five occasions this year - if he can score again in Sunday's race they'll be his hardest earned yet.

Track limits could be a factor

A sanitised Parabolica might not catch the drivers out in the same manner as previous years, but the frequency with which drivers have transgressed track limits during the weekend - some even flirting with having four wheels on the new painted run-off area - suggest the famous corner could still be a major talking point on Sunday, particularly if drivers are judged to be gaining an unfair advantage while fighting for position.

Expect plenty of radio chatter, and even warnings from teams and the FIA, for any repeat offenders during the heat of battle on Sunday.

Monza's three chicanes, meanwhile, could prove even more testing given the number of occasions this weekend when drivers have run too deep, or tried to carry too much speed, through the kinks and taken to the escape roads.

The Lotus has looked particularly unwieldy, but the problem is by no means confined to the lower order, with Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren and Williams drivers all having moments of their own on Friday and Saturday. Given that the mistakes stem from the low downforce set-ups key to quick laps at Monza, expect such problems to continue throughout the 53-lap Grand Prix. Again, will the stewards choose to penalise repeat offenders? We'll find out…

One stop looks to be the way to go

Pirelli brought their two hardest tyre compounds to Monza - the orange-marked hards and the white-marked mediums. But despite the huge demands placed on braking and traction by the Italian circuit's combination of fast straights and slow corners, it looks like the race will be an easy one-stopper in dry conditions.

According to Pirelli, the most likely winning strategy will be to start on the medium tyre and then to switch to the hard around lap 23. Starting on the hard tyre and then switching to medium around lap 30 gives the same theoretical race time, but there is a bigger risk of getting stuck in traffic.

The one question mark is track temperature. If conditions turn out to be a little warmer than expected, those starting on the medium tyre may pit a little sooner, perhaps around the 20 lap mark.