Monza Preview: can Ferrari fight back?

GP ITALIA F1/2016 – MONZA (ITALIA) 04/09/2016
© FOTO STUDIO COLOMBO PER PIRELLI MEDIA (© COPYRIGHT FREE)

Formula One returns off the back of a thrilling Belgian Grand Prix in which Lewis Hamilton clinched a well-deserved win. This week, the drivers will return to the Autodromo Nazionale Monza for the thirteenth round of the 2017 F1 season. With just seven points – the difference between first and second place separating Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – things could soon change at the ‘Temple of Speed’ this weekend.

Ferrari: Is the comeback on?

Ferrari impressed at Spa last weekend, despite the track seeming to not suit the set up of their car. Vettel pushed Hamilton all the way to the end, coming close at the end of the safety car restart. He dived up the inside, only to fall foul of the Mercedes’s top line speed. The upgrades to the SF70-H certainly worked wonders at the Belgian circuit. Ferrari will be looking for another win at their home race in front of the passionate Tifosi this weekend and with their showing in Spa, they can certainly be a safe bet on taking the chequered flag for the first time since 2010.

They will need to nail their qualifying position at the circuit and the support of the passionate Italians will certainly provide the team with some much needed confidence. Vettel will want to win his first Italian Grand Prix in Ferrari red, chasing the record five wins that the legendary Michael Schumacher achieved in his time as a Ferrari driver. Expect the Italian team to be riding high with the support of the home crowd behind them.

GP ITALIA F1/2016 – MONZA (ITALIA) 04/09/2016
© FOTO STUDIO COLOMBO PER PIRELLI MEDIA (© COPYRIGHT FREE)


Mercedes: one eye on the competition

Mercedes left Spa as a team of mixed fortunes. Hamilton claimed a dominant pole and a win that he had to fight until the bitter end for, whilst Valtteri Bottas had a race to forget. On the safety car restart, he was left vulnerable on his soft tyres to the attack of Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Räikkönen, forced off the track and recovering to fifth. Mercedes brought the fourth and final reincarnation of their engine to Spa in order to get around the lower oil burn regulations that come into play for engines introduced after this weekend. It was a decision that flared tempers within Ferrari as the Maranello outfit have yet to introduce the latest incarnation of their engine.

Mercedes surely will be tentative as they enter the Ferrari hunting ground. The circuit itself seems to favour the Silver Arrows with its long straights and low drag, however, Ferrari’s showing at the previous race where the circuit wasn’t one of their strongest will have put Mercedes on the alert. Hamilton will be aiming for Mercedes’s fourth consecutive Monza win and the chance to finally become the championship leader after trailing Vettel all season. Expect Mercedes to keep one eye on the competition, but focus on the job ahead.

Trouble brewing at Red Bull

Red Bull seemed to put themselves in a strong position in Spa. Despite the misfortune of Max Verstappen’s sixth DNF this season, Daniel Ricciardo managed to fight his way onto the podium and claim a third place after a couple of disappointing races. The Austrian team also ran some aero trails which proved critical towards their success in Spa and could potentially earn them success in Monza. Red Bull tested a new spec low-drag rear wing on Ricciardo’s car. This set up will suit the low-downforce track and long straights that Monza is famous for.

However, despite this positivity, Verstappen is set for grid penalties at the circuit after his fourth and final combustion engine failed on the ninth lap of the Belgian Grand Prix. This will no doubt make the young Dutchman hungry to carve his way through the field, hungry for success. However, the doubts over Renault and over their ability to provide a competitive engine will continue to rage, casting Verstappen’s future potentially into doubt.

GP ITALIA F1/2016 – MONZA (ITALIA) 04/09/2016
© FOTO STUDIO COLOMBO PER PIRELLI MEDIA (© COPYRIGHT FREE)


Force India: Round Two?

The boxing gloves came out once more at Spa as Force India teammates Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon came to blows not once, but twice. They clashed in the opening lap with Perez bumping his teammate into the wall as they came towards Eau Rouge. However, things did not end there. On lap 30, Perez squeezed Ocon into the wall in a similar place as they came up towards Eau Rouge, however, on this occasion the outcome was not so favourable. It ended Perez’s race with a puncture as he spilled debris onto the track, bringing out the safety car. However, Ocon’s race was also compromised by a broken front wing and he limped home in ninth position. Such loss of points have forced the team to take a similar approach to Mercedes last season and introduce new rules of engagement.

Monza will be the first race that these will come into play and although, it seems that the racing will become diluted, it is easy to consider things from Force India’s viewpoint. They do not want to lose any more points and surrender the fourth place they hold in the constructor’s championship as it would affect funding for next year.

McLaren: The curious case of Fernando Alonso

McLaren had a race to forget in Spa. Stoffel Vandoorne had a 65 grid penalty to take as a result of exceeding his quota of power unit elements and for changing his gearbox. Fernando Alonso had similar mixed luck. He failed to get into Q2 due to a failure within the software running in his car as taking Puhon flat confused the system and left the Spaniard with no power. This continued into the race as despite a good start, Alonso retired on lap 26, reporting that once again there was no power. It’s a phrase that has sadly become the norm over the McLaren team radios.  However, shortly after the race, Honda reported that they could not find fault with Alonso’s power unit.

The former world champion had cut a sullen figure all weekend, using his radio to voice his opinion of the car, and things are not likely to change at Monza. The long straights will not favour the Honda engine and it’s likely that the team will have another weekend to forget. Alonso is also poised to take penalties as a result of taking a new upgraded engine to the race, it is hoped that by doing so, McLaren will be in a stronger position for the Singapore GP, considered one of the lower-power circuits. However, the question for McLaren is over Alonso’s future. The former world champion has made it clear that he is unhappy with the technology in the car and that he has other offers on the table. Although it will be a race to forget for McLaren, the future of Fernando Alonso will still loom large over Monza.

The Italian Grand Prix will commence on Friday 1st September with practise at 10am local time, followed by qualifying on Saturday 2nd September at 2pm local time. The race will be held on Sunday 3rd September at 2pm local time.

Sarah Jarvis

Previewing the 2017–18 driver market

When summer comes and F1 takes to its European heartlands, that can only mean one thing—the time for silly season is here. At time of writing, only six drivers on the current grid have contracts in place for the 2018 season, and while many can be expected to renew their existing deals, there is still plenty of scope for changes over the course of the next few months.

Wolfgang Wilhelm / Mercedes-AMG Petronas

Starting at the very front of the grid, it looks unlikely that Mercedes will feature much in the contractual rumour mill this season. Lewis Hamilton is one of those half-dozen drivers with a 2018 deal already in place, and although many speculated early in the year that Valtteri Bottas’ one-year deal was just a placeholder until a superstar name became available, the Finn seems to have established himself as an asset to the team and is likely to be retained.

The same cannot be said of Ferrari, however. With the Scuderia now locked in a close title fight with Mercedes, it’s hard to imagine much desire among the bosses to retain Kimi Räikkönen for yet another season when there is much younger blood to be found elsewhere. The obvious candidate for his seat is Sergio Pérez, who carries that blend of proven talent and North American sponsorship so desired at Ferrari, although Carlos Sainz is also well-known to join him on their shopping list.

An alternative name to throw into the Ferrari pot is that of Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian has been visibly disheartened by Red Bull’s lack of a title bid this season, and although he already has a supposedly ironclad contract in place for next year, his departure may actually suit Red Bull in the long run—especially when one considers the alternative is losing Max Verstappen to Ferrari instead.

Judging by frustration alone, the Dutchman looks far more likely than Ricciardo to want out of Red Bull this year. But allowing him to become the team’s new and undisputed leader would appease Verstappen no end, and promoting one of the Toro Rosso juniors to be his teammate would prevent them from leaving the programme to strengthen the hand of a rival like Renault or Williams. With all five of its drivers (including understudy Pierre Gasly) under interest from all ends of the F1 grid, Red Bull could well be forced this year into losing a finger to save the hand.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

If Red Bull decides to stick with (or rather, refuses to let go of) its current senior lineup, then the likely price will be to lose one of its junior drivers instead. It’s obvious that Sainz, with at least some interest from all four works teams, will face the most attractive offers, but considering Daniil Kvyat’s difficult relationship with both the Red Bull and Toro Rosso management, it’s he who in all probability will find it easier to leave.

Should Kvyat be released from the Red Bull stable he will no doubt carry some considerable weight among the midfield teams. Questions of consistency aside, with a proven points and podium record the Russian will make an appealing option to replace Pérez at Force India, or the ageing Felipe Massa at Williams.

Another potential home for Kvyat would be alongside Nico Hülkenberg at Renault. The French marque is known to like its Russian drivers (not to mention their sponsors), and if Sergey Sirotkin doesn’t prove up to an F1 seat in 2018, the team could do worse than signing Kvyat in place of Jolyon Palmer—particularly as the former’s history of Renault engines at Red Bull and Toro Rosso will help him slot quickly into their development programme.

As for Palmer himself, even with his underwhelming performances so far it would be surprising not to see him somewhere on the grid in 2018. The Briton’s GP2 title and substantial personal backing was known to have put him on Force India’s radar when it sought a replacement for Hülkenberg last season, and could do so again this year; if not, he may well find a welcome home at Sauber-Honda.

Renault Sport F1 Team

If Palmer were to pitch himself to Sauber, it’s almost a given that his drive would come at Pascal Wehrlein’s expense. The German is understood to have developed a difficult relationship with both Marcus Ericsson and the team’s new owners for starters; and with Sauber taking on a new engine deal with Honda for next year, Mercedes may feel it’s best to place Wehrlein elsewhere.

Had Lance Stroll not found his F1 feet in Baku, it would not have been much of a shock to see Williams switch him with Wehrlein to allow the Canadian time to mature outside of the spotlight. And whilst Williams could still opt to take on Wehrlein to partner Stroll instead, the team would probably prefer to find a more experienced driver should it decide against resigning Felipe Massa for a fifth season—a driver like Romain Grosjean, for example, whose vexation with Haas’ continued brake issues has been made all too public this year, and who might be on the hunt for fresh inspiration now that his Ferrari hopes seem to have vanished.

Alternatively, at 31 and with no clear shot at a front-running seat, Grosjean might be tempted to chance one last throw of the dice at McLaren. It’s hard to see who else the former champions would be able to attract if Fernando Alonso walks away and leaves them with an empty seat, unless they take a substantial risk and promote F2 protege Nyck de Vries. Nevertheless, the matter of any driver replacing Alonso remains dependant on the Spaniard actually leaving McLaren—something that still seems a long way from happening with no obvious top-tier cockpit for him to assume.

Charles Coates / McLaren