The Italian Grand Prix at Monza is arguably one of the most highly anticipated and exciting races of each season, and thanks to certain driver changes and other recent events, this year is set to be no exception. On and off the track.
Of course, most of the media attention will be on Giancarlo Fisichella taking his Ferrari bow in front of his home fans, however the unique challenges of the track may lead to some more shuffling of the pack. The same shuffling that made the Belgian Grand Prix so memorable.
With the cars in the lowest downforce trim of the year the teams will be searching for the best set up, just as they were in Belgium. Force India expect to be strong again, with Tonio Liuzzi – returning to the grid in place of Fisichella – hoping to be immediately on the pace after a successful straight line test in the UK, where they ran the car in Monza spec, and allowed Liuzzi time to get used to the car's systems.
The other team that may surprise are Renault, racing under a cloud as the FIA investigate Alonso's Singapore victory, who have brought back KERS, which they last used in Barcelona. Pat Symonds, the team's technical director has described just how much of an advantage they expect it to be, with the additional horsepower from the electric unit giving 15m advantage off the start and quarter of a second per lap.
If these figures are true then it may be the quickly improving McLaren or Ferrari, the only teams who have retained the use of KERS all season, who dominate the weekend. Team boss Ross Brawn expects the KERS teams to be very strong, but also hopes the strong Mercedes powerplant will allow his title chasing drivers to have a strong weekend on a track he describes as “power-sensitive”.
However, the very nature of Monza that makes it so suited to KERS, with long fast straights leading to tight chicanes present a very different challenge. The track is very on engine use, almost 70% of the lap is under full throttle, also straining at the tyres, which can rotate at 50 times a second.
Then the tyres face a dual assault from the corners. First the heavy braking into the Rettifilo and Roggia chicanes, then the lateral loads from the long, fast right handers of Curva Grande and Parabolica. All of this has tyre manufacturer Bridgestone predicting tyre management to be a crucial part of the race, as it was in Spa where the same combination of the soft and medium tyres were available, and with tyre use being on area where championship rivals Red Bull and Brawn have differed this year Monza could easily be another important chapter.
Then there are the unknown variables. Chief amongst these are the chicanes themselves, contact, especially in the congested opening laps on a race, is almost a certainty at Monza. The chances of a first corner accident are perhaps even higher with the inclusion of KERS increasing potential speed differential, and the additional of higher kerbs on the corners aimed at discouraging drivers from cutting the chicane.
And if an accident does occur the safety car may be called, and Giancarlo Fisichella learnt to his detriment exactly what a KERS-equipped car can do on a re-start.
The other unknown factor is rain. Last year saw Sebastian Vettel, then with Toro Rosso, take a surprise win after a weekend run in mixed conditions. This year's weather forecast suggest a high chance of rain at some point over the weekend, most notably for qualifying, introducing another factor that may shuffle the order for Sunday.
Rain on Sunday would make the strategists, and perhaps the lucky, king, with a 25 second journey down the Monza pit lane taking the longest of any track, an additional pitstop after a poor tyre choice could cost a race win, or even points. Elsewhere the strategists will know that Monza is the lowest track of the year in terms of fuel consumption, meaning heavy fuel loads and long runs are less penalising that at other tracks. Of course thought the length of runs will depend on the performance of the two tyre compounds.
The Italian Grand Prix, the 13th round of the Formula One World Championship, starts at 2pm local time (GMT +2) on Sunday, with qualifying 2pm local time on Saturday.