Friday, 6 September 2013

2013 Italian Grand Prix Preview

The final European Grand Prix of 2013 approaches this weekend which means that all eyes will be on the Ferrari team. Fernando Alonso returned to form at the Belgian Grand Prix, rising from 9th on the grid to finish in second position. His drive was trumped only by Sebastian Vettel, who was in imperious form all weekend once again and now looks well on the way towards championship number 4. Alonso is still his closest challenger, but will need to start beating Vettel soon to reduce his 46 point lead with 8 rounds remaining. But it isn't just Alonso that needs to finish ahead of Vettel more consistently, he will need Vettel's run of consistency to run dry as well. Apart from retiring from the lead of the British Grand Prix, Vettel's worst finish has been 4th place and that has only occurred twice.

With the Tifosi watching on expectantly, it will also be a vital race for Felipe Massa and his future. He started only 1 position behind Alonso at Belgium, but could only finish a distant 7th position. At the start of this season it looked like the Massa of old had returned, and pressuring Alonso on qualifying pace. He has slipped back after his retirement in the Monaco grand prix however and has had some mediocre races recently. The Ferrari team need him to start taking points away from Vettel, and they will need to hope that the cars pace in Belgium was not just a flash in the pan also. The team have been vocal of the improvements expected from him, but that was the same last year as well. It worked then as his results did improve, but I believe that there is a more realistic threat this year. The rule changes for 2014 mean that the cars will have very different characteristics, and so the introduction of a new driver to a team will be a reduced risk. The once vacant Red Bull seat now to be taken by Daniel Ricciardo could also spark a flurry of deals. Felipe Massa will not want to be without another option if Ferrari want to take the risk.

There is no other circuit on the calendar like Monza. There is often talk throughout a Grand Prix weekend of aerodynamic compromise taken by each team / driver. Belgium is a high speed track where a low downforce setup can work due to the long straights, and for that reason it has similarities with the Italian Grand Prix. Monza however is not a circuit of compromises due to the large number of straights, connected by high speed corners and chicanes. All of the teams will have unique aerodynamic updates to optimise top speed, which on any other circuit would render the car too slow through higher downforce sections. Mercedes had parts from this low downforce package for the race in Belgium, but the team struggled all weekend to find the right balance. They have therefore made changes to the package ahead of the race to try to improve the stability of the aerodynamics. It will be interesting to see whether the updates allow Lewis Hamilton to fight for victory and keep his slim championship hopes alive.

Behind the front runners, McLaren are celebrating their 50th anniversary within F1 and will hope that the improved form at Belgium remains. Jenson Button was able to qualify in 6th, his best result of the season, and finished the race in 6th also. Without peculiar events befalling his rivals, he was able to beat both a Ferrari and a Lotus on the road and without taking a pitstop less. Sergio Perez's eventful weekend may have masked whether the car has improved or Button had a good weekend despite the slower car. McLaren have now overtaken Force India in the constructors championship, and realistically must now target staying there. On an individual race basis, getting a podium is the target for the remainder of the season and the Italian Grand Prix currently represents the most likely setting for this to occur.

Having lost 5th in the constructors championship, Force India need to get on top of the new tyres quickly. The start of their season was exceptional as they were able to fight at the sharp end of the grid and the change of tyres has clearly affected them more than any other team on the grid. They had a tough decision in replacing Nico Hulkenberg, and Adrian Sutil has done a very good job of doing so. The Italian Grand Prix sees James Calado join the team as reserve driver and will get an outing in Friday practice also.

Looking to the tail end of the grid, Williams will be hoping to add to their first 2013 point scored by Pastor Maldonado at Belgium. Despite having another dreadful season reminiscent of 2011, they are only 6 points behind Sauber and can realistical challenge them for 8th in the constructors championship. Toro Rosso however now have a comfortable 7th, and the pressure of Daniel Ricciardo's future now secured with Red Bull. Jean Eric Vergne has been verbal about his displeasure in not being considered for the Red Bull seat at all, and so will need good results to keep his seat. Helmut Marko is a known advocate for using the Toro Rosso team to give rookie drivers a chance within F1 machinery. Alguersuari and Buemi each only got 2 seasons within Toro Rosso, and Vergne himself is also in that second year. If his saving grace is not his performances however, he will look to the current Red Bull development program drivers and see only Antonio Felix Da Costa realistically at a level of reaching Formula 1 in 2014. It would also be ideal for the team to have an experienced driver in alongside Da Costa, having paired rookies during their debut seasons.

At the very tail of the field, the usual suspects have quietly been getting closer to the single lap pace of the midfield teams. Marussia started the stronger of the teams on race pace, but a lack of upgrades compared with Caterham have seen them fall behind significantly. The efforts of Jules Bianchi however have not gone unnoticed, often providing an extra half a second to bring the team closer to where they want to be. Jules has stated that he would like another year to develop within the Marussia team, but given the way that Ferrari operates he could be in line to replace Felipe Massa if they decide they need to. The Caterham team are currently last in the constructors championship and need to beat the 13th position Bianchi achieved in Malaysia. Kovalainen is back in the fold to help them achieve this, but currently they are still too far off the pace. As long as they keep beating the Marussia drivers, they will then be best placed if a race of high attrition occurs. Monza is tough on engines and we usually see a couple go during the race, but they may have to wait for Singapore instead.