Questions for the 2013 Italian GP
Will Red Bull stay out front? Might Daniel Ricciardo catch a bout of Perez-itis ahead of his big 2014 move? And...
By Pete Gill, Mike Wise, James Galloway and Sky Bet's Jamie Casey. Last Updated: 04/09/13 8:59pm
Will Red Bull stay ahead of Mercedes at Monza?
Mark Hughes' post-Spa column provides the definitive assessment of this particular poser, but, to paraphrase Mark's fascinating conclusions for those of you who prefer bite-sized answers, there's good reason to suspect Red Bull's dominant advantage in Belgium won't be repeated this weekend. Why? Because Red Bull's apparent straightline speed advantage was essentially a deception; although they were fastest at the entry of the Kemmel Straight, they were only seventh quickest at its end. Their advantage wasn't born of power but of superior cornering speed through Eau Rouge - a section which the Mercedes W04 struggled to navigate efficiently.
However, as Mark points out, Monza does not possess a comparative 'speed-sapping, tyre scrubbing corner like Eau Rouge', so the fact the Red Bulls were seventh quickest at the end of the Kemmel Straight, rather than quickest at its start, is the more instructive clue towards their form in Italy when ultimate raw power should hold sway. The RB9's Renault engine is by no means weak, but by common consent it does not have as much raw grunt as the Mercedes - or even the Ferrari.
Perhaps Lewis Hamilton ought not wave the white flag on his title hopes just yet then?
Will Red Bull's new recruit be struck down with a case of Perez-itis?
Summer is drawing to a close. The leaves will fall and the nights inevitably draw in, but does Red Bull's appointment of Daniel Ricciardo mean that F1's silly season is over as well? Not just yet - it probably depends on how silly one feels Ferrari would be to consider replacing Felipe Massa - but there's no doubt the biggest piece of the 2014 driver jigsaw is now in place. The youngster has landed the sport's plum vacancy having, by the sounds of it, done everything asked of him.
Sounds familiar? Rewind almost 12 months and silly season reached its climax one Friday morning in late September when news of Lewis Hamilton's move to Mercedes was announced. In turn, McLaren named Sergio Perez as his replacement. Perez had almost won the Italian GP a few weeks before - his second place at Monza behind Hamilton the latest in a series of stellar race performances. McLaren cited the Mexican's podium finishes in Italy, Canada and Malaysia as being crucial in their decision to hire him. Alas for Perez, the big announcement prefaced a slump: the subsequent Japanese GP ended with him beached in the gravel after an abortive move on Hamilton. Two more collisions followed in the remaining five races and no more points were scored.
Perhaps Perez's peaks made the slump that followed appear all the more alarming. Ricciardo's own successes - characterised by a string of impressive qualifying performances - have not been as high profile. Even so, if they were suddenly to dry up then, as sure as night follows day, it would prompt a slew of 'Have Red Bull made the right choice?' stories; one wonders where picture editors would find a correspondingly glum photo.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether Ricciardo develops a case of Perez-itis but in the Aussie's favour is the undeniable truth that he has flourished in the spotlight so far. Also serving as motivation must surely be the fact that, despite having vanquished team-mate Jean-Eric Vergne in the battle to become Mark Webber's replacement, he currently stands behind the Frenchman in the drivers' standings. Ricciardo passed Vergne during the last few laps of the Belgian GP on his way to tenth place and a precious World Championship point. He'll be hoping for more of the same over the coming weeks to fully justify his graduation.
And can Sergio Perez himself rekindle last year's Monza magic?
As explained above, in many ways last year was Sergio Perez's Monza given it was arguably the performance that crystallised in McLaren's mind the belief that the Mexican was the coming man to fill the Lewis Hamilton-shaped void that would be created when the Briton defected to Mercedes for 2013.
Few would have bet on it at the time given he was joining one of the sport's biggest players, but Perez's second-place finish from 12 months ago of course remains the last time he stood on the podium. Now, in the Mexican's justified defence, he has been able to do little about that himself since he arrived in a blaze of impressive optimism at Woking in January, McLaren's depressing MP4-28 having yet to show the form capable of getting there. However, after being involved in another controversial clash last time out at Spa - however harsh the drive-through penalty stewards imposed on him for 'squeezing' Romain Grosjean off the track was - Martin Whitmarsh's claim that Perez had effectively become a 'marked man' indirectly reflected how the focus on the Mexican in 2013 had become all about his incidents, rather than his results.
While the Mexican has given team-mate Jenson Button a respectable run for his money in qualifying, the elder driver holding a seven-four advantage, it's almost exclusively been the 2009 World Champion who has threatened top-five race results on Sundays. In a sport where memories are often short and unsentimental, the one-year anniversary of his last podium appearance - and on the weekend of McLaren's 50th birthday celebrations no less - would therefore be a good time for Perez to remind a few people of the qualities that marked him out as the man to succeed Hamilton.
Will Ferrari triumph on home soil?
Sky Bet make Fernando Alonso 4/1 third favourite at Monza but his team-mate Felipe Massa is a huge outsider at 33/1, giving Ferrari a 7/2 chance to produce a win in their home grand prix on Sunday. Red Bull are 6/5 favourites to take the chequered flag ahead of Mercedes (15/8), but punters have been keen on the 4/1 for Alonso.
Indeed, only race favourite Sebastian Vettel has taken more bets than the Spaniard as punters foresee a third win of the season for Alonso, but we suspect that's down to wishful thinking. Granted, the F138 showed improved pace at Spa, but qualifying is set to be key on the high-speed straights of Monza, and Alonso is an outsider at 12/1 to front the grid, while Massa is a distant 66/1.
In order to prevent a Red Bull or Mercedes opening up a sizable gap in the opening laps, Alonso really needs to be on the front row at least, but even that is against the odds at 7/2. Thus, Sky Bet are expecting the pace of Red Bull and Mercedes, in particular Vettel and Hamilton, to prove too strong for Alonso and Ferrari, who may need a large slice of luck if they're to please the home crowd.
Will Lotus's longer wheelbase get them back in the hunt?
Kimi Raikkonen's first DNF since his return to Formula 1 may have been traced to the most random of things - a loose visor tear-off blocking a brake duct - but the cost to his title challenge was clear: the Finn fell to fourth in the standings and 63 points adrift of Sebastian Vettel, a deficit the equivalent of two race wins and a third place. To put that into some context, the Raikkonen/Lotus combination has only won twice in total in the 31 races since the 2007 title winner joined the team, so given the unrelenting pace of Vettel and Red Bull alone, only a monumental shift in momentum is likely to turn that around.
However, with over a third of the season still to run, and Lotus you imagine at least eyeing up Ferrari's current third place in the Constructors' Championship, 2013 development work continues at Enstone and intriguingly that is set to result in Lotus introducing a long-wheelbase version of the E21 for Monza this weekend. While an unusual change for a team to make this late into a campaign, Lotus are confident the changes, which involve moving the front suspension points around, will improve the car's stability - something that should aid its riding of Monza's famously big kerbs.
Nonetheless, the nagging concern for Lotus this weekend remains the car's competitiveness in the lowest of downforce conditions. Both E21s were in the bottom half of the speed traps in the two sectors where outright grunt was king at Spa and Raikkonen's 2012 weekend at Monza - ninth on the grid and fifth in the race - is the kind of underwhelming one both driver and team could really do without again.