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What to Watch for - Italy

06 Sep 2015

From a poised Prancing Horse to an exposed Nico Rosberg; and from dismal expectations at McLaren to Renault's near-record run under threat, we outline the key themes to look out for in Sunday’s Grand Prix at Monza…

The Scuderia looking to steal a march

On Friday, it appeared that no one would be able to hold a candle to Mercedes. On Saturday, even Ferrari themselves were surprised at just how close they got.

For Raikkonen, qualifying provided his first front-row grid slot in more than two years - and his first at Monza for nearly a decade. Vettel missed out by just 0.054s, but that wasn't the gap he was most interested in. "We were very close to Lewis," he said immediately after Q3, "and that makes us confident for tomorrow."

Can Ferrari pounce? Don't rule it out - especially if you consider that Hamilton has lost places on the first lap in three of the last four Grands Prix. Ferrari have two chances to get it spot on when the lights go out on Sunday afternoon - take one of those, and they might just be able to provide the tifosi with a perfect weekend present.

Rosberg could be vulnerable

Rosberg was already on the back foot, having trailed Hamilton in all three practice sessions. But that disadvantage was turned into a serious handicap shortly before qualifying - Mercedes discovered an engine issue which forced him to revert to his old-spec power unit. Qualifying fourth - his lowest grid spot in 27 races - left a clear message: Rosberg is suddenly vulnerable.

The German attested to it himself, saying that switching back to an old engine had left him short of horsepower - crucial on a high-speed circuit like Monza. "That's really a big compromise," he concluded. "It's the reason I'm fourth."

Unfortunately for Rosberg, those issues will only get worse over Sunday's 53 laps. Any kind of error at the start could see him swamped by the traditionally fast-starting Williams of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas, and even Sergio Perez's Force India and Romain Grosjean's Lotus. And even if he does get away cleanly, his engine will need to be nursed, having already completed five race distances. Having looked so ominously fast on Friday, Rosberg is suddenly exposed.

McLaren braced for more misery

It's a story Alonso, Button and everyone both within and supporting McLaren have rapidly tired of - and yet Monza offers no respite. Expect Sunday to be another painful exercise for the team and the world champions behind the wheel.

A look at the speed traps during qualifying tells its own story. Button, marginally the faster of the two drivers, clocks 317.9 km/h in the first sector - significantly down on the 335.7 km/h that Massa manages for Williams. That story doesn't improve: his deficit in sector two is almost 20 km/h; his deficit in the final sector, 12. Only the Marussias, and Daniel Ricciardo's stricken Red Bull, fare worse. Put simply, McLaren are effectively sitting ducks on the straights.

Don't therefore expect some Monza magic from the MP4-30s. As a very blunt press conference on Saturday night conveyed, McLaren are braced for further misery here in Italy. The bends and twists of Singapore can't come soon enough.

First corner could be problematic

The hardest braking zone on the F1 calendar, the first chicane at Monza is a massive challenge for drivers - even before trying to take it two abreast and amid the general carnage of the start. As 2011 (pictured above) proved, it can all go wrong very quickly.

In contrast to other opening corners, it's also near impossible to forecast the best line. Stick to the outside at the right-hander, and you have the inside for the left - but your momentum may have been squandered, allowing others to simply drive past on the run down to Curva Grande. Do the opposite, however, and you can be hung out to dry even before exiting the chicane.

And to make matters even more complicated, the second chicane - Variante della Roggia - is next up. Another kink, another chance for the field to come together, and for one or two unlucky drivers to lose out. Monza, as ever, promises to throw up plenty of problems as the lights go out. 

Lotus and Force India locked in battle

A fight for fifth in the constructors' championship might sometimes be overlooked, but it could well throw up the best racing of the day at Monza.

For Lotus and Force India, the importance cannot be underestimated. This isn't simply about bragging rights: the position will also have a material and marked impact upon the team's future fortunes. And to spice things up still further, there is almost nothing to choose between the two.

Sergio Perez has given Force India the early advantage by securing seventh on the grid, but he'll share the fourth row with Lotus's Romain Grosjean. Nico Hulkenberg lurks immediately behind in ninth, while Pastor Maldonado - the wildcard of the pack in more ways than one - is directly behind in 11th. Four cars, five grid spots, and little more than 0.2s between them when they shared the track in Q2. It all points to a frantic battle at the 'temple of speed'.

Tyres are once more front and centre

Tyres have been under the microscope all weekend in Monza following the high-profile incidents in Spa, with Pirelli altering their prescribed Monza pressure and camber limits relative to last year in order to cope with increasing speeds. 

For performance reasons the teams would prefer to run lower pressures than those that have been mandated, so both Pirelli and the FIA will no doubt be keeping a close eye on telemetry to make sure that no one looks to bend the rules and take an unfair advantage.

Pressures, of course, have a major impact on tyre wear, and on that front Pirelli are expecting most of the top teams to adopt a one-stop strategy, with the optimum race plan in theory being to start on the softs and switch to mediums on lap 21 of 53.

Those lower down the grid may well take a more flexible approach, depending on individual tyre degradation and race circumstances. Pirelli say a two-stop strategy is theoretically just 1.63 seconds slower, starting on softs, with softs again on lap 19, and then mediums from lap 36. There is also a different one-stop possible: start on mediums and pit for softs on lap 24.

Points a tough ask for the Renault-powered teams

There’s been at least one Renault-powered car in the points in each of the last 130 races, dating all the way back to the 2008 Belgian Grand Prix. To put that in perspective, it's the second longest point-scoring run in history for an engine manufacturer, trailing only the 228-race streak compiled by the might of Ford-Cosworth.

But amid a truly dismal weekend for Red Bull and Toro Rosso there’s a very real possibility that the French manufacturer’s fabulous run could come to a disappointing end in Monza.

Renault’s lack of power compared to Mercedes and Ferrari has been well documented, but what has really hurt Daniel Ricciardo, Daniil Kvyat, Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen this weekend is unreliability, with the foursome racking up a combined grid drop of well over 100 places for changing a litany of power unit components.

The end result is that the four form the back two rows of the provisional grid in Italy, and while the Marussias and McLarens may prove relatively easy meat in the race, they’ll find it extremely hard to make up further ground against the more powerful Mercedes- and Ferrari-powered teams.

There’s no doubt Ricciardo, Kvyat, Sainz and Verstappen will give it their all, but the majority of their afternoons may be spent fighting each other.