By Steve Slater
After the Spa classic two weeks ago, everyone seems to be fully revved up for this weekend's encounter. The possible exceptions though could be Red Bull designer Adrian Newey and some of the Pirelli tyre engineers.
Newey described the Belgian Grand Prix as "one of the scariest races of my life". Quite simply, Vettel and Webbers cars started the race with front tyres so badly blistered in just their few laps of qualifying that Newey was seriously concerned that they might blow-out in the opening stages of the race.
So worried were Red Bull that they banned their drivers from using the DRS, drag reducing rear wing during the race. The side effect of the drag reduction on the straight is that it reduced the downforce and load at the back of the car. That in turn would have put extra load on the already critical front tyres.
The reason for this is that Newey had maximised the level of ‘negative camber' on the Red Bull's front suspension, with the tops of the front wheels leaning inwards. It means that when the front tyres were loaded by cornering, the outside front tyre which does most of the work was effectively leaning into the corner like a motorcyclist.
It isn't unusual to do this on performance cars. It enhances cornering grip and steering feel. However Newey as ever, was pushing the limits. He deliberately exceeded the maximum of four degrees of camber recommended by Pirelli, taking a gamble that ultimately paid off with Vettel and Webber's 1-2 finish.
Surprisingly, when a car is running such an extreme suspension configuration, it is generating tyre wear not just when it is cornering, but equally when it is running down the straights. At speeds of well over 330km/h, which will be reached at Monza, the combination of friction and aerodynamic downforce rapidly wears the inside edge of the front tyre treads when negative camber is used, generating similar tyre blistering to that experienced by Red Bull at Spa.
So worried are Pirelli, that they have advised the teams not to exceed more than three degrees of camber for the Italian Grand Prix. As Red Bull discovered in Spa, if any top ten team in qualifying now exceeds that amount and suffers tyre problems, they cannot change the damaged tyre without losing their place on the starting grid.
So will this mean that Red Bull's challenge is blunted this weekend? I suspect not.
Monza is effectively four long straights, abbreviated by a smattering of chicanes and just three ‘proper' fast corners, the two Lesmo Curves and Parabolica which put cornering load on the tyres. Newey may therefore decide to play it safe with his suspension geometry and rely on his car's aerodynamic efficiency to keep up the speed.
But let's remember last year, when Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Felipe Massa, pushed Vettel off the podium. Monza's long straights favour horsepower and Ferrari and the Mercedes engine in the McLaren last year comprehensively outgunned the Red Bull's Renault.
This year too, KERS will perhaps make the biggest difference to lap times of any circuit on the calendar, as much as half a second a lap. Mercedes and Ferrari once again are the heavy-hitters. Red Bull is a deliberate lightweight having decided as part of its design culture to use a smaller, less powerful KERS unit to save weight.
Mercedes tell us that the best-case scenario for KERS is a slow corner followed by very long straights - exactly what Monza features plenty of. There are four times in the lap (out of Turns 2, 7, 10 and 11) where KERS will likely be deployed.
My prediction is that Ferrari and the fearsome Alonso could be well placed for a repeat of their 2010 victory. McLaren too will be strong, as will Petronas Mercedes and the Mercedes-powered Force India cars. So saying, we bet against Red Bull and Vettel in Belgium - and Adrian Newey proved us all wrong!