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Italy preview - let battle resume at Monza

04 Sep 2014

One race ago, few would have cited Red Bull as arguably the most relaxed of the top teams heading into the Formula 1 Gran Premio d'Italia 2014 - or that Mercedes would be walking on eggshells arriving at the 'Temple of Speed'.

But after a tumultuous race at Spa-Francorchamps, it is becoming increasingly apparent that in this year's FIA Formula One World Championship, anything can happen...

That is especially true down at Red Bull, who arrive in Italy buoyed by Daniel Ricciardo's stunning victory in Belgium. The team's low-downforce configuration worked brilliantly to make them more competitive than expected, and after making hay while the sun shone at Spa, the reigning champions now go to Monza believing that miracles can happen.

"The biggest challenges at Monza nowadays are the braking zones," Ricciardo says. "The first chicane is the ultimate example: you're coming down to that first chicane at the highest speed an F1 car will reach all year and you're braking into one of the tightest corners you'll take all year.

"Added to that you're doing this with the least amount of downforce you'll have all year - which means the car tends to slide around quite a bit as well as taking longer to stop. You can't afford to lock a brake but equally you can't lose time by being too eager on the pedal. It demands that you are really focused all of the time.

"I'm not really that keen on super-long straights; I find them a little dull compared to hammering through a series of demanding corners but Monza is the exception to that. There's something about flashing through those trees in front of that massive crowd that definitely gets the pulse all the way up!

"Also the crowd in Monza is wild. Obviously it's full-on Ferrari but in the past they've always been very generous to me. I'd love to get the opportunity to stand on that brilliant podium and find out!"

But while Ricciardo arrives on a high, you can bet the feelings across at Mercedes are markedly different following the fallout from Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton's second-lap clash at the last round.

'Clear the air' talks were held at the Mercedes factory, with the team declaring afterwards that their drivers will still be free to race - although it was stressed that further collisions will not be tolerated. Rosberg admitted culpability for his part in the accident, and while Hamilton insisted both he and the German can still function as a unit, the Briton will need to close down a now-29 point gap if he is to beat Rosberg to this year's drivers' title.

As ever, then, the real proof of the pair's relationship will come in what happens on track this weekend. A front-row lockout is not altogether unlikely - and if they go steaming down into the first chicane side-by-side at 320 km/h, it's going to be a real cliffhanger...

For his part, Hamilton says his aim for the weekend is simple: "To claw back the gap in the drivers' championship. It's as big as it's been all season so I've got a lot of work ahead of me - but anything can happen in this sport. I won't give up until the flag drops in Abu Dhabi and there's still plenty of points to be won before then, so it's far from over yet."

There's an added dynamic, however: Monza is spectacularly hard on brakes, which have at times this year - notably Canada and Hockenheim - proved to be the Mercedes F1 W05 Hybrid's Achilles' heel, so it'll be fascinating to see how the team performs this weekend. Were both cars to fail to finish and Ricciardo to win yet again…

Ferrari would love to have half the problems that Mercedes have, and team principal Marco Mattiacci moved earlier this week to play down the tifosi's expectations ahead of what will be a tough race for drivers Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen.

"We have been facing heavy races with a concern about our lack of competitiveness, but at the same time, there is always an opportunity," he said. "Formula One racing is about drivers, human beings, and strategy, so let's try to be extremely disciplined and focused.

"We must keep doing what we've been doing: which is keep very calm, make the right decisions knowing that we are away from the top, and take any opportunities. That's the approach we have for Monza. It's going to be extremely difficult, that we are aware."

There has been one bright spot for the Scuderia's fans, however, as Alonso expressed a wish to extend his current contract with the team. Right now, he is surely far and away their greatest asset.

"It's not my intention at the moment to move," he said. "I want to win for Ferrari, I want to win here and finish the job that we started some years ago. We will see what future comes."

Williams hope to do better than Valtteri Bottas' gallant third at Spa, on another track that should play to the strengths of the FW36's excellent straight-line speed.

"The track should suit our car as it requires a very low downforce package," says head of performance Rob Smedley.

"We expect all the teams to adapt their cars for the nature of the circuit and have specialised Monza aerodynamics. We have worked a lot on the long straights and high drag sensitivity, and so are confident that the aero package will be effective.

"The track offers a good mix of low- and medium-speed corners. At this time of year we can expect high temperatures which can cause issues with tyre temperatures on the long straights."

McLaren, meanwhile, arrive in Italy with further updates to the improving MP4-29. "Our aim for the remainder of the season is both to consolidate our position in the constructors' championship by bringing both cars home in the points at each and every race, and also to continue to push hard to improve and refine the MP4-29," says racing director Eric Boullier.

"There will be no easing off on the gas in terms of development, as everything we learn this year will roll into next year's technical package. I'm optimistic that we'll see an improvement to our fortunes before the end of the year."

At the other end of the grid, Kamui Kobayashi will return with Caterham this weekend, having sat out the Belgian race to make way for three-time Le Mans winner Andre Lotterer.

Kobayashi will have to wait until FP2 to drive the updated CT05, however, as 23-year-old Spaniard Roberto Merhi - the 2011 European Formula Three champion and current race winner in Formula Renault 3.5 - will make his F1 debut for the team in FP1.

Adrian Sutil will likewise make way for Sauber in FP1, as the team's test and reserve driver Giedo van der Garde earns his seventh practice run of 2014.

Monza presents a unique set of challenges for the drivers: the average speed is higher than 250 km/h, despite seven heavy braking points where speeds drop from more than 320 km/h to 80 in a couple of seconds. It’s also a tough circuit for the cars with 69 percent of the lap run at full throttle. The longest uninterrupted flat-out spell is 16 seconds which places an enormous amount of stress on the internal combustion engine.

The combination of fast straights and slow corners also places huge demands on braking and traction, and therefore Pirelli are bringing their two hardest tyre compounds: the orange-marked hards and the white-marked mediums.

"Our home race also happens to be one of the most demanding of the year for the tyres, due to the rapid layout of the circuit," Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery explains.

"The faster a circuit is, generally the more stressful it is for the tyres because of the heat build-up that all these forces entail.

"The cars run a very low-downforce set-up for Monza to maximise their top speed on the straights. This has a distinct effect on the tyres, as less downforce means that the cars tend to slide more and run a greater risk of wheels locking up in the braking areas, which are a key element of Monza. These lock-ups can lead to flat spots, although the design of our tyre structure and compounds this year means that flat spots are a much less common occurrence than they used to be."

Monza itself will feature one significant change this year, with the inner half of the gravel trap at Parabolica having been replaced by an asphalt run-off in order to enhance safety.

As was the case last year, two DRS zones will be in operation. The first will be activated 210 metres after Turn 7, the second Lesmo - with the detection point 95m before the same turn - while the second will use a detection point 20m before Turn 11, Parabolica, with activation occurring 115m after the start/finish line along the main straight.

The weekend's weather is forecast to be sunny and largely settled throughout the weekend. A high of around 27 degrees Celsius is predicted across all three days, although there could be showers in the region on both Friday and Saturday evening.

The race, which starts at 1400 local time (1200 GMT), will be run over 53 laps, or 306.720 kilometres (190.589 miles).