Five things to look out for at the Italian Grand Prix

Formula 1 visits a second historic circuit in as many weeks as the world’s best drivers do battle around the Autodromo Nazionale Monza. 

The Temple of Speed, as the iconic circuit is known, retains a special place on the Formula 1 calendar. Few other venues are able to boast such a unique combination of mind-boggling speed, a sense of history and legions of scarlet-clad Tifosi.

Given this stunning background, and the prospect of a thrilling race on Sunday, it comes as no surprise that there will be several things to keep an eye on when Formula 1 visits the Temple of Speed…

2016 Title Battle: Round 1 of 8

Nico Rosberg’s victory in Spa last weekend allowed the German to cut his points deficit to Mercedes team-mate and title rival Lewis Hamilton down to the small margin of nine points. However, the Briton was unable to fight Rosberg on an equal footing in Belgium as a result of a hefty grid penalty for exceeding the number of legally-allowed power units for the season.

With that penalty now out of the way, Hamilton has a solid supply of engines for the remainder of the year, which means that he and Rosberg will be involved in a straight fight this weekend. There are still 200 points left to race for over the remaining eight rounds of the season, and given the small margin that currently separates them, the 2016 Formula 1 Driver’s World Champion will be the Mercedes driver that can score the most points over those final eight races.

Rosberg has already stated that he will be treating each race as “a cup final”, i.e. a winner-takes-it-all contest.  This is the correct approach for both drivers to take, as their successes and failures over the first half of the season are all in the past now. All that matters over the next three or so months is who can out-score the other.

A hostile reception for Verstappen?

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As popular as he was with fans in Belgium last weekend, so unpopular is Max Verstappen likely to be at Monza.  The Dutch youngster was involved in a first corner incident with the Ferrari pair of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen in Spa that did enormous damage to the prospects of all three drivers’ bid for glory last Sunday.

In addition, he has been widely lambasted for his defensive techniques while fighting Räikkönen for position later in the race, with many in the paddock feeling that the Red Bull man would cause a nasty accident soon if he didn’t change his ways. Given the Italian crowd’s obvious preference for drivers in scarlet cars, Verstappen’s actions last weekend are unlikely to have won him any fans in Italy.

With so many senior figures in the paddock calling for him to change his approach, it will be interesting to see how he goes about his race weekend in Monza. On the other hand, Verstappen oozes composure and confidence in his own abilities, so he is likely to feel that other’s opinions on his driving are just that: opinions. Regardless of whether he does or does not change his approach in Monza, one thing is certain: there will be little support for him from the partisan Italian crowd.

A critical weekend for Ferrari

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Monza represents a mountain of pressure for Ferrari for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the team have fallen off the pace of late, with a lack of a podium finish for either of its two drivers in the last four races. The pressure to perform will be all the more palpable in Monza; the Scuderia are racing on home turf in front of an army of adoring scarlet-clad fans who are eager to see one of their drivers on the podium come Sunday.

Furthermore, having shown encouraging pace in Belgium only to undo their own efforts at the first corner, Maurizio Arrivabene and his squad will be under no illusions that a repeat of such antics will not sit well with the top brass in Maranello. On the plus side, Ferrari still retain a small engine advantage over Renault in terms of pure power, which could give them the edge over the Renault-powered Red Bull cars. There is little doubt that Red Bull’s RB12 challenger boasts superior aerodynamics compared to Ferrari’s SF16-H, but Monza’s unique configuration may allow the Italian marquee to be best-of-the-rest behind Mercedes this weekend.

A strong performance that ends in a podium finish in front of their home fans will likely raise morale at the Scuderia. However, any first-corner shenanigans or a lonely race that involves both drivers trundling home half a lap behind the race winner (as has been the case at some of the more recent races) would be, in all honesty, an embarrassing outcome for the sport’s oldest team.

More first-lap bumper cars?

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The opening lap of the Belgian Grand Prix was a poor example of how the best drivers in the world go about their business on race day. In addition to the Vettel-Räikkönen-Verstappen collision at turn one, there were several other incidents that took place on the first lap, such as when Manor’s Pascal Wehrlein drove straight into the back of Jenson Button’s McLaren while heading through Les Combes. Monza may bring more of the same.

The start of the race will see the drivers charge along Monza’s lengthy main straight at break-neck speeds before slamming on the brakes and squeezing together into the tight and twisty Rettifilio Tribune chicane. From there, there is likely to be side-by-side action through the long right-hander called Curva Grande before another tight and twisty chicane, the Variante della Roggia.

It is possible that after last weekend’s opening lap bumper cars, the drivers will be a little more cautious during the opening exchanges of this weekend’s race. However, the opening lap at Monza is always a hold-your-breathe experience at best; there are long straights followed by slow, tight corners.

Many drivers’ hopes have come undone on the opening lap at the Temple of Speed over the years, and given how delicately the 2016 title race is poised at the moment, a collision on the opening lap of Sunday’s race for either of the two main protagonists could prove costly indeed.

Another test for McLaren

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McLaren-Honda surpassed expectations in Spa as Fernando Alonso steered his MP4-31 challenger to a well-deserved P7 finish. The two-time World Champion held off the challenge of both Williams drivers on a circuit that was not expected to suit the Woking-based squad’s car due to its relative lack of power.

In fairness, the McLaren-Honda partnership has certainly made admirable progress during the current season, going from backmarkers to frequent top ten finishers. Monza, however, will provide the sternest test yet of McLaren’s progress. The sheer amount of time that the cars spend at full throttle around the Italian circuit means that another strong points finish may be difficult to come by for Alonso and team-mate Jenson Button. However, should McLaren perform well on what is expected to a challenging circuit for them, they can look forward sustained success over the rest of the season.

Adriaan Slabbert

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