Italian Grand Prix Preview

Ahead of the Italian Grand Prix, Sudha Sundararaj takes a look at the venue for the 13th race of the 2017 Formula 1 Season.

Ferrari's German driver Sebastian Vettel poses for pictures with supporters at the Autodromo Nazionale circuit in Monza on August 31, 2017 ahead of the Italian Formula One Grand Prix. / August 31, 2017.

The 13th round of the Formula 1 season will take place at the historic Autodromo Nazionale Monza race track in Italy this Sunday. The Italian Grand Prix (Gran Premio d’Italia) is the last race in Europe before the Asian-leg of the season starts with the Singapore Grand Prix. The Italian Grand Prix along with the British Grand Prix has the distinction of being one of the longest continuously staged Grand Prix races. This is the 68th running of the Italian GP, with all but one race hosted at Monza (the race in 1980 was held at Imola). This is the fastest track on the F1 calendar and hence the name “Temple of Speed”.

Italian Grand Prix Preview

The History

The original track built in the 1920s was 10-kilometers long and comprised of a road circuit and an oval track built in a densely wooded area in the city of Monza, near Milan in Italy. In 1950, the seventh and final race of the first Formula 1 World Championship was held at Monza. The redesigned 6.3-kilometer circuit was a high-speed track with long straights and fast corners.

The original oval track which formed part of the circuit had steep bankings and was the scene of many accidents and fatalities in the early years. The F1 Grand Prix used different configurations of the road and oval tracks over the years. In 1961, a collision between Wolfgang von Trips and Jim Clark resulted in the death of Von Trips and 15 spectators. After this tragedy, the oval track was abandoned for safety reasons. The old track with steep embankments still exists, albeit in a decayed state now.

The modern Monza circuit is 5.793-kilometers long and comprises mainly of the road track, with chicanes and barriers added over the years to improve safety. After the death of the great Ayrton Senna in 1994 at the San Marino GP, held at the other Italian track at Imola, the run-off areas were increased with new gravel traps at Monza. Since 2014, the gravel trap in the run-off area at Parabolica has been replaced by tarmac.

The Italian GP holds special significance for not only its history, but also as the home Grand Prix of the most storied team in F1, the Scuderia Ferrari team. It is the 70th anniversary celebrations of the team and adds to the colour and festivities this weekend. The passionate and vocal fans of Ferrari commonly referred to as ‘the Tifosi’ create a great atmosphere at the Italian GP. The noisy fans do not hesitate to make rival teams and drivers aware of their home support for Ferrari.

The Teams and Drivers

The home team Ferrari sits atop the leader board with 18 wins at the Italian GP. Arch-rivals McLaren is the second-most successful team with 10 wins at Monza. Williams is the third-most successful team there with six wins. The current world championship leaders Mercedes has five wins and has swept all the three races in the hybrid era.

The inaugural race was fittingly won by the Italian Giuseppe “Nino” Farina, the first F1 World Drivers’ Champion (driving for Alfa Romeo at that time). Michael Schumacher has the most wins at the Italian GP with five victories, all in Ferrari colors (1996, 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2006).  Nelson Piquet has four wins, with two wins each for the Brabham and Williams team. Rubens Barrichello has three wins, with the last win recorded for the now defunct Brawn GP team in 2009. Juan-Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Ronnie Peterson and Alain Prost also have three wins each at Monza. In 1978, the ‘Super Swede’ Ronnie Peterson unfortunately died after suffering severe leg injuries after a collision with James Hunt at Monza.

Among the current drivers, it is fitting that the two rivals in the current title race Sebastian Vettel (2008, 2011, 2013) and Lewis Hamilton (2012, 2014, 2015) with 3 wins each have dominated the Italian GP in recent years. Fernando Alonso (2007, 2010) is the only other winner on the current grid.

 The Circuit

The 5.793 km Monza circuit with 11 corners (7 right-hand and 4 left-hand corners) and very high-speed straights is the fastest track on the F1 calendar with an average speed of over 250 km/h. The track is essentially made of very high speed straights with chicanes to slow the drivers down. Monza demands the lowest downforce setup of all the tracks in F1. The cars are on full throttle 74% of the time and the fuel consumption is medium. The brake-wear is high, with heavy loads placed on the engines. Most teams will use a new engine at Monza to gain a small speed advantage at this ‘Temple of Speed’.

Sector 1 from Turn 1 to Turn 3 starts with the slow tight right-left chicane at the Variente Del Retiffilo (Turns 1 and 2) leading to the fast right-handed Curva Biassono (Turn 3, originally called Curva Grande) which leads to a fast and short straight.

Sector 2 from Turn 4 to Turn 7 starts with a tight chicane (Turns 4 and 5) leading to the two Lesmo curves. Curva di Lesmo (Turns 6 and 7) are two very high-speed right-hand corners which lead to the very long winding straight.

Sector 3 from Turn 8 to Turn 11 starts with the tight Variante Ascari left-right chicane (Turns 8, 9 and 10) leading to a long straight which leads to the iconic Parabolica (Turn 11). On a flat track with no elevation changes there is a slight downhill gradient leading to the Parabolica. The drivers have to negotiate this tricky and fast radial right-hander which leads them to the long start-finish straight.

There are two DRS zones this year at this circuit with many overtaking opportunities at the slow chicanes that punctuate the high-speed straights. The first DRS detection point comes before the entry to Lesmo 2 (Turn 7), with the first DRS activation point situated along the straight after Turn 7. The second DRS detection point is located just before the Parabolica (Turn 11), with the second DRS activation zone on the start-finish straight. The pole sitter has won most of the races recently at the Italian GP.

Tyre Strategies

Pirelli tyre choices are the white-striped mediums, the yellow-striped soft and red-striped supersoft tyres. The supersoft tyres is the tyre of choice with a majority of the drivers leading the way with 9 or more sets of supersoft tyres of the allocated 13 sets for each driver. The tyre wear is caused by thermal degradation on this track. Most teams could have a one pitstop race. The soft compound tyres might be the tyre of choice during the race. Rain is expected during Friday and Saturday’s sessions with a dry race on Sunday.

Current Form

Mercedes (392 pts) extended their lead by five points after the last race and has a 44-point lead over Ferrari (348 pts) now. Red Bull Racing (199 pts) is in third place and is still scoring points with just one car. Force India (103 pts) is in control of fourth place, followed by Williams (45 pts). Sauber bring up the rear of the field with five points.

Ferrari surprised Mercedes with their updates in Spa after the summer break which made them very competitive on a power track at which Mercedes was expected to dominate. A new spec engine introduced at Monza could swing the pendulum in favour of the Italian team at their home race. The Maranello-based team has not won their home Grand Prix since 2010 and winning this race in front of their passionate fans in a resurgent season for them would be very special.

Sebastian Vettel (220 pts) leads the drivers’ title race, but had his lead cut to seven points after the last race. Lewis Hamilton (213 pts) is in second place and Valtteri Bottas (179 pts) is in third place. Daniel Ricciardo (132 pts) and Kimi Raikkonen (128 pts) complete the top 5 in the drivers’ championship.

Hamilton equaled Schumacher’s record 68 poles and won the race at Belgium. It took all of the Briton’s skills and experience accumulated over 200 races to keep his championship rival Vettel in a very fast car behind him. The two top teams are very close now in terms of performance. If Mercedes went into the summer break thinking they have a distinct advantage over Ferrari at all the engine-dependent fast tracks, Spa was a rude shock. This championship is going to be a ding-dong battle in all the eight races left on all tracks. Luck, reliability, strategy, driver skills, updates to the car are all going to matter for the rest of the season in deciding who wins both the constructors’ and the drivers’ title. A very exciting race at Monza is in prospect between the top two teams and drivers.
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