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Six key questions ahead of the race in Italy

04 Sep 2016

What can Ferrari deliver for their home fans? Will Max Verstappen change his approach after Spa? And can Williams get the better of Red Bull at Monza? We consider these and the other big topics ahead of the Formula 1 Gran Premio Heineken d'Italia 2016…

Will Hamilton’s flat-spot hurt him?

Such has been Lewis Hamilton’s domination this weekend that FP1 was the only session in which he was not fastest; Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg beat him then by 0.203s. Thereafter, Hamilton was 0.193s quicker in FP2, 0.393s in FP3, 0.643s in Q1, 0.311s in Q2, 0.288s on the first run in Q3, and finally 0.478s on the second.

That gave him his 56th career pole position, his third in succession here and his fifth overall at Monza, a feat which matches Fangio and Senna.

Rosberg readily admitted that he himself was not fast enough.

“I think the best explanation is that he did some good laps and that’s it,” he said, “because I’ve had a decent weekend until now and got some good laps in today but just not quick enough.”

But… Did a hefty-looking lock-up going into the first chicane create a flat spot on Hamilton’s right front tyre in Q2? Could that affect him in his first stint when he must use that same set of Pirellis?

Not according to the man himself.

“I didn’t really damage the tyres, I just had a small lock-up into Turn 1, and ultimately for the race tomorrow you want everything to be perfect. I had the pace so I went back out and I was actually up [on his fastest lap in that session] but I just lost it in the last corner. The flat spot is minimal; you can’t really feel it, so I don’t think it will be a problem.”

Which strategy will prove better?

Both Mercedes drivers qualified on the soft Pirellis, giving themselves the chance to run single-stop races despite the Italian company bringing the potentially fragile but faster supersofts here for the first time. Ferrari, Williams and Red Bull were obliged to use the latter to go quickly enough in qualifying’s Q2 session.

Dropping the minimum pressures for Saturday helped teams to combat swift degradation, so the supersoft wear situation isn’t anywhere near as critical as it was at Spa last weekend, but starting on softs could be beneficial to the team this afternoon. And it’s quite possible, even with Vettel’s eventual 1m 21.972s Q3 best on supersofts, that even on the slower rubber the Mercedes will have faster race pace while being able to run longer.

Pirelli have recommended drivers do no more than 39 laps on the mediums, 34 on the softs and 20 on the supersofts. On that basis they suggest that the possible pit-stop strategies break down thus:

The quickest is a two-stopper, with two 17-lap stints on supersofts and one 19-lapper on softs.

The one-stopper is second quickest, with one 28-lap stint on softs and a 25-lapper on mediums.

The third-quickest option is another one-stopper, with a 16-lap stint on supersofts followed by a 34-lapper on mediums.

But there is a third potentially very fast one-stop strategy: one 20-lap stint on supersofts and a second 33-lap stint on softs, but since it’s very marginal on wear you’d need brand new tyres in both of them.

It’s going to be fascinating to see how Mercedes’s soft-tyred starting strategy plays out as 28 degrees Celsius air temperature is expected for the race.

Can ‘failed’ Ferrari salvage something at home from the second row?

It’s fair to say that Ferrari’s not a happy ship right now, no matter how brave a face Sebastian Vettel might try to put on things.

This weekend on their home ground, team president Sergio Marchionne announced that the team have failed to meet their expectations in 2016, even if on performance they were seen to have moved back ahead of Red Bull on this superfast track.

"We failed the targets. I don't think there's a doubt in my mind," Marchionne told reporters here. "It's no use putting sweeteners on the stuff. The car isn't there and I don't think we developed it.

"I feel quite comfortable that this team are capable of turning the fate of the Scuderia around. Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of season left. Let them finish the season. I think we'll do the best we can for the rest of '16, and the fight starts in 2017 with the first race."

Addressing the tifosi’s inevitable wish for a win here for the red cars, Vettel was realistic.

“I think it’s normal that they always want the best and I think I said it coming into this weekend, Monza’s coming at the right time. It’s the race when we get the most support and I think now is the time we need that, so it feels great and it gives extra boost.

“I’m sure the people would be happiest with a victory but equally I think the people understand if we are nine or eight-tenths behind in qualifying that there is a chance of miracles, but if you just go and be realistic, you have to also say that we are not the favourites. I’m sure we’ll try to create whatever is possible and I think in that regard they are actually clever and fair and appreciate the fact that if we do a good job tomorrow, I’m sure they give us credit for that.

“Of course our target is to win, always something you aim for, your target in your home Grand Prix. And no doubt Monza is the best podium in the whole championship and being dressed in red, it’s probably the best combination you can have tomorrow. So all eyes first of all on the start, the first corner, lap one and then we go from there.”

Can Williams beat Red Bull?

Though the difference in engine power is generally seen to be around three-tenths of a second here, Mercedes grunt is clearly worth having. So will that play in Williams’ favour after Valtteri Bottas beat the Renault-propelled Red Bulls to fifth on the grid?

Bottas was pleased to have got everything out of his FW38 in one of his personal best qualifying performances, and a maximised fifth means starting on the cleaner side of the track. Team mate Felipe Massa had to go slowly on his Q2 out lap and thus his tyres weren’t hot enough when he pressed the go pedal, but starting from 11th gives him a free choice of tyres, so Williams are hopeful that both men can fight for points. Whether they stay fast enough to keep ahead of the Red Bulls will be one of the race’s focus points.

This is a challenging track for the Milton Keynes team, and both drivers were disappointed that their pace was sufficiently marginal on the soft rubber in Q2 that they had to switch to the supersofts to be sure of getting into Q3.

“If we had qualified on the soft tyre we could have had a good fight with Ferrari but that will be a little harder now we are on the supersofts,” Daniel Ricciardo said. “We knew Williams would be quick around here but with DRS and being strong on the brakes we can still pull off some moves.”

Team mate Max Verstappen said he was pretty happy with qualifying as he’d expected to be further behind than three hundredths off P5.

Mutual tyre wear here will most likely settle the issue between the two teams.

Has Verstappen changed his tactics after Spa?

Max Verstappen has spoken with race director Charlie Whiting since Spa, but is adamant that he won’t be changing his press-on style just because it doesn’t meet with the approval of some of his rivals.

Interestingly, nobody raised the matter in Friday’s drivers’ briefing, where lively debate had been expected after all the comments following the Belgian race.

Team boss Christian Horner said: “I think he is happy with where he’s at, what he’s seen. He’s only 18, he’s in his third year of car racing, and he’s learning all the time. He hasn’t picked up a single penalty yet. We only deal with facts, not ifs and buts.”

Verstappen spoke with Whiting on Friday morning, and said: "We just wanted to have a discussion to clear everything, instead of doing it in the drivers' briefing. It is better to just go up to Charlie – Seb (Vettel), Kimi (Raikkonen) and I to have a chat with him.

“They [the FIA] didn't see it as something wrong. Maybe it was on the edge. And then maybe they would introduce a black-and-white flag if it happened again." That flag means a driver’s behaviour is under scrutiny.

If there are going to be fireworks in the first corner, keep an eye on car 33, whose driver will be looking to exploit even the smallest opportunity.

Who will surprise in the midfield battle?

Watch out for the fight in the midfield. Besides Williams versus Red Bull in the upper echelon, there’s Force India looking to get on terms with both of them. Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg always have strong race cars and interesting strategies, so they’ll be pushing as hard as they can to get on terms, as Massa tries to get up with team mate Bottas where he should have started.

In the lower midfield, the times between Esteban Gutierrez’s fleet Q3 Haas, his team mate Romain Grosjean, the McLarens of Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, Pascal Wehrlein’s Manor and the Toro Rosso’s of Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat were covered by a napkin, so anything can happen there.