Situated within picturesque wooded parkland 15km north of Milan, the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza remains Formula 1’s perennial temple of speed - and this weekend’s Santander Italian Grand Prix is almost certain to be the fastest race on the 2008 calendar with cars reaching top speeds of 340km/h and running at full-throttle for 80 per cent of each lap.
The gradual loss of the original high-speed Silverstone, Österreichring and Hockenheim tracks has made Monza something of a welcome anachronism, an uncompromising flat-out racetrack that simply cannot forget its past and whose passionate spectators continue to revel to the noise and spectacle of the racing car.
Monza’s roots are buried deep: the original combined road and loop circuit were built in a breakneck 110 days and it hosted the second-ever Italian Grand Prix in September 1922. Monza has held the race continuously with but one interruption - in 1980, when the race was run at Imola.
Monza was the venue for McLaren’s second Formula 1 victory - Denny Hulme won the race in an M7A in September 1968. The team has won the Italian Grand Prix nine times, most recently in 2007 when Vodafone McLaren Mercedes scored a memorable one-two.
What sort of compromises do you face in setting the car up for such a high-speed circuit?
"People say Monza is just about power and top speed - but it’s also a driver’s track, which is why I like it. It’s not as straightforward as it seems because you run with very low downforce, which means you rely heavily on the tyres and the car’s mechanical grip -but you’re also attacking the kerbs, which requires a softer set-up. You also need plenty of stability under braking and as much grip as possible for the corners. The key is to run the car as low to the track as possible without having it bottom out."
Can you overtake at Monza?
"If you’re trying to pass somebody, you have to stay as close as possible through the last corner. If you can get a good tow out of Parabolica, then you can slipstream down the straight and have a look up the inside at Turn One. That’s your best chance of making a move on someone. You can also try if you get a good exit from the first chicane and have look up the inside into the second chicane - but that’s not so easy."
What’s the key to a good lap around Monza?
"You really need a car that’s stable under braking. When we run such low downforce, the car becomes very light under braking, so you can’t push too hard; the car moves around a little bit more than normal. So the whole approach to driving the car becomes slightly different - you tend to be a touch more cautious and build up your speed as the weekend progresses. You also need to get the second chicane just right - it’s got big, high kerbs; if you can get the car to ride them just right, then you can make big gains in lap time."
You particularly enjoy high-speed circuits, what are you feelings about the Italian Grand Prix?
"I enjoy this place, but although Monza is the fastest track on the calendar, not all of its corners are super-fast. Of course, the Ascari chicane and Parabolica are both high-speed, but the first corner is very tight and the Lesmos are both medium-speed corners. But yes, I like the circuit; balancing a Formula 1 car through the faster stuff is something I really enjoy; I was very competitive at Silverstone and Spa and I’m confident I’ll be strong this weekend."
Martin Whitmarsh, CEO Formula 1, Vodafone McLaren MercedesVodafone McLaren Mercedes comes to Italy after showing well in the Monza test, how do you rate the team’s chances?
"The truth is, both Lewis and Heikki have previously gone well at Monza; they both like the track and are looking forward to the race - and that certainly helps. On the engineering side, we came away from the recent Monza test very encouraged by the pace we showed. Of course, we’re under no illusions that Ferrari will be strong - and we expect them to be stronger there than they were relative to us last year - but we go to the event with high expectations."
What modifications do you make to the car to cope with a high-speed circuit like Monza?
"As the fastest circuit on the calendar, we uniquely prepare a car for Monza that is best-equipped to run in low-drag configuration. This essentially means the reduction or removal of a number of aerodynamic components that would ordinarily create downforce, and drag. This weekend, for example, you’ll see we’ve removed the nosebox winglets and are running a single-deck rear-wing. At Monza, you also need a car that can ride the kerbs well and remain stable under heavy braking - so it’s a case of balancing the car for that combination, rather than simply stripping everything off in the quest for maximum straightline speed. It’s a unique challenge."
Norbert Haug, Vice President, Mercedes-Benz Motorsport
How big is your disappointment after the stewards’ decision in Spa?"In the most difficult conditions we experienced in Spa, particularly in the final stages, Lewis was clearly the best driver; everybody could see this. He showed great racing with courageous overtaking, and this is what the spectators want to see. In our opinion, Lewis did not put a foot wrong, and foremost he did not think he gained an illegitimate advantage. So our disappointment was big, when the stewards took away victory from him and the team. However, we are fighters. If we would have needed a better motivation for the last five races of the season we have it now. When we went to the airport last Sunday evening, Lewis said to me - preferably we now want to win all remaining races, don’t we? I have no objection."
Why is Monza so special?
"With average lap speeds of around 250 km/h and a top speed of approximately 340 km/h at the end of the start-and-finish straight, Monza is the Formula 1 circuit on the calendar on which the highest speeds are attained. In all, the cars reach speeds of over 320 km/h four times per lap. The start-finish straight requires more than 16 seconds of consecutive full throttle. We will start in Monza with the same engines we used in Spa last weekend. The combination of these two circuits is by far the highest strain for a Formula 1 engine."
For the Grand Prix on Ferrari home ground - what do you expect?
"Of course it would be nice, if we could achieve a similar result like last year when we took a 1-2 victory. On the track in Monza we will have many strong competitors - even more than usual. That will not be a walk in the park, but the ultimate highspeed race in the park."