• Italian Grand Prix - Preview

War resumes at the temple of speed

Nate Saunders
September 4, 2014
Lewis Hamilton previews the Italian Grand Prix

F1 returns to its hallowed temple of speed at Monza with the reverberations still being felt from Belgium. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg's lap two crash was as inevitable as it was dramatic, while the fallout was more staggering than any seasoned pundit could have confidently predicted. Mercedes has spent the time since Spa putting out the fires started by its drivers and the statements Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda made in the aftermath of the race. They will hope - as we do - the focus returns to the track this weekend, where Lewis Hamilton starts the daunting task of overhauling Nico Rosberg's 29-point lead at the top of the standings. But if there is any place to start a comeback, what better place than Monza - the fastest track on the calendar, the circuit loved by fans and drivers in equal measure.

In form

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Daniel Ricciardo is a man on fire currently. Granted, his victories this year have come when Mercedes has faltered but this should take nothing away from the Australian's form. If the championship was based on the last six races, Ricciardo would be leading Rosberg by four points. It is surely impossible Mercedes would implode enough between now and the end of the season to let Ricciardo steal the title but the fact he is even being mentioned in world championship contention now shows how much he has achieved in his first year at Red Bull.

Valtteri Bottas continued his own good form in Belgium, taking third on a weekend Williams was left wondering what might have been had it qualified better on Saturday. Kimi Raikkonen can finally be moved into this column. Calling him "in form' after finishing sixth and fourth would be a little over the top in any other season of his career but, considering how 2014 has gone for the Finn, it's fair to say he's in his best form since returning to Ferrari.

Out of form

Sebastian Vettel's form was always going to be under the microscope in the first season Red Bull did not deliver him a championship-calibre car. But for him to have just two podiums to his name compared to Ricciardo's three wins is staggering - especially as he has not even been on the podium in five races. An early mistake in Belgium cost him dearly and let Ricciardo take the position which ultimately helped him to victory, another bitter blow in what is turning out to be a season to forget for the world champion. Marcus Ericsson suffered the ignominy of being out-qualified by his debutant team-mate Andre Lotterer by nearly a second in Belgium. Lotterer's credentials are well known and it is not a surprise he adapted to F1 quickly in Spa, but with a whole season's worth of experience of V6 turbo power under his belt Ericsson should have been able to hold his own.

Ones to watch

Ordinarily, we would talk about Williams or even Force India having an opportunity for victory at a circuit like Monza but Belgium showed Red Bull has a joker in the pack. Its low-downforce set-up not only made it competitive but the fastest car through the speed trap and meant Ricciardo was perfectly placed to pick up the pieces when everything fell apart for Mercedes out in front. Williams should not be written off either - and even targeted Monza as a potential victory during the summer break - but will need to avoid a repeat performance of its disappointing qualifying display in Belgium if it wants to maximise its potential in Italy.

Talking points

What is it good for? Absolutely nothing

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Yes, that's right, all the focus going into Monza will be around the war at Mercedes and the fallout from the collision between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg on lap two of the Belgium Grand Prix. Maybe you read about it? Mercedes has moved swiftly to pour water on the situation - as it had to after the team orders controversy in Belgium - but press release apologies and driver statements will mean nothing to the media descending on Monza. Both Hamilton and Rosberg are down to attend the FIA's Thursday press conference, a usually somewhat tedious affair which has suddenly become a can't-miss event. Though both will be on PR overdrive the fact both are there and will have to field a number of uncomfortable questions from the outset sets the weekend up in superb fashion.

Mercedes may well believe it has done enough to calm the storm after Belgium but it cannot control everything about how its drivers behave in front of the media and race on track, however much they want to. We do not know the mindset of Hamilton or Rosberg coming into the weekend but undoubtedly both will be carrying scars from what has happened between them this season. Rosberg was booed on the podium and (rightly or wrongly) will have lost face in the eyes of many F1 fans, a worse punishment than anything Mercedes could hand out. How he responds this weekend will be fascinating.

Eyes on McLaren

McLaren still holds the keys to the silly season this year. The team is holding off on making announcements about its 2015 and, according to various reports, has sounded out both Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel about moves to Woking for its imminent partnership with Honda. Ron Dennis will certainly have paid close attention to Mercedes' recent announcement it is putting Hamilton's contract talks on hold so he can focus on the title fight. It is clear McLaren wants to start its relationship with Honda by making a marquee signing - and doing so would trigger movement around it in the market.

Silly season is called silly season for a reason, though. Alonso is locked into his deal at Ferrari and has professed his desire to turn it into a winning outfit again. The rumoured opt-out clause he has appears to be just that; rumoured. As for Vettel, he has a contract at Red Bull until the end of next season. He is experiencing a difficult year, no doubt, and may well have looked longingly at other cars this year, but leaving a team which has been pretty much built around him is a risky one. The recent form of Stoffel Vandoorne will have given McLaren further food for thought if one of its big-name targets is unavailable but Jenson Button will know the team will not enter the Honda era with Kevin Magnussen and a rookie unproven at F1 level. McLaren has delayed making any announcement about a title sponsor this year (adopting the "ignore it and maybe the questions will stop" approach) so hoping for an announcement about 2015 this weekend may be wishful thinking.

Time to say goodbye?

The new tarmac run-off area at Parabolica is a source of controversy © Twitter
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Earlier this year, Bernie Ecclestone caused a storm by saying it could be "bye bye after 2016" for Monza as its current contract was a "disaster" for F1 commercially. Monza is the jewel in F1's jewels in the crown, the circuit which seems to evoke passion like no other - down in no small part to the support of the Ferrari-mad tifosi.

It is highly unlikely F1 would ever turn its back on Monza for good, the backlash from the fans would be too severe. Ecclestone knows this and his comments were more than likely a power play, a subtle hint Monza needs to bring its facilities in line with other F1 circuits. We saw Ecclestone do similar with Montreal earlier this year, and the circuit obliged and earned itself a new deal. Even the controversial tarmac run-off area at the Parabolica corner is part of this process, a way of bringing Monza into the safety-first way of thinking of today's F1. Though it does take the challenge out of a corner like Parabolica, and smacks of a Tilkedrome rather than the most historic circuit on the calendar, the grim reality facing F1 fans now is this is the new world order - circuits simply must become safer and more modern to stay on the calendar.

Betting

Lewis Hamilton is still favourite in Monza at 5/6 despite his recent bad luck with technical gremlins and the front wing of his team-mate. Daniel Ricciardo is 10/1 to claim his fourth win of the season, and 33/1 to win the world championship outright. Fernando Alonso is just 3/1 for a podium in front of Ferrari's home fans, though Kimi Raikkonen is not favoured as heavily by the bookies with odds of 11/1.

Facts and figures

Sebastian Vettel leads the field into Turn 1 last season © Associated Press
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  • Monza has hosted the Italian Grand Prix 64 times in the world championship era. The only year it didn't was 1980, when Imola hosted the event instead.
  • Ferrari leads the way with 19 victories at Monza, the last of which came in 2010 when Fernando Alonso took the chequered flag on home soil. The team nearest that mark is McLaren with 10 wins.
  • Michael Schumacher holds the record for Italian Grand Prix wins at Monza with five. Of the current grid, Sebastian Vettel has been the most successful, following up his maiden victory in 2008 with wins in 2011 and 2013.
  • Pirelli is bringing the medium and hard compound tyres to Monza this weekend.

Weather forecast

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It goes without saying it is still pretty hot in Italy at this time of year, and that will be the case again this weekend.

However this summer in Europe has been a stormy one and there is a chance of rain on Friday and Saturday, especially so on the latter where morning showers are forecast. How much impact that would have by the afternoon remains to be seen but the lingering threat of rain once again adds another dimension to proceedings, as we saw in qualifying in Spa.

ESPNF1 prediction

Last time out we predicted a non-Mercedes winner and we were right too, albeit wrong in our decision to pick Valtteri Bottas over Daniel Ricciardo. This is a must-win race for Mercedes after letting a certain one-two slip in Belgium and we think Nico Rosberg will finally turn in a champion's drive under pressure to win.

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