Sebastian Vettel’s rivals will be looking to claw back some ground on the reigning world champion in the title battle in this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, after the German put himself firmly on course to win his fourth straight championship crown with a dominant display at the last race in Belgium.
Following his win at Spa, Vettel heads to Monza – round 12 of the 19-race season – with a 46 point lead over Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso who in turn has Lewis Hamilton in a resurgent Mercedes breathing down his neck in third.
With 25 points handed out for a race win, Vettel is just under two race wins ahead of Alonso. If Vettel manages to extend that lead to 50 points he would have a two race margin in his pocket which means he could retire from two races and still be level with Alonso provided the Ferrari driver wins those two races.
Alonso – from his own bitter experience last year when his championship challenge came undone in the second half of the year – knows that a 46 point lead with eight races to go is not insurmountable
The double world champion led Vettel by 42 points heading into the Belgian Grand Prix last year but two retirements combined with Vettel stringing together an impressive streak of four straight race wins robbed Alonso’s championship charge of momentum at a crucial time.
“Our hopes are to keep developing, to keep improving performance and try to repeat what happened last year the other way around,” Alonso, who won in Italy on his Ferrari debut, said following the Belgian Grand Prix.
“If you have a competitive car and you win four or five consecutive races like Sebastian did last year in India, Japan, Singapore etc, you recover very quickly. If we are in the position to do that, we will find out very soon,” he added.
But Alonso will have to go on a similar charge to Vettel and there can be no better place for the Spaniard to land the first blow in his fightback than at Monza on Ferrari’s home turf and in front of their legions of madly passionate fans, the Tifosi.
“They say it makes no difference to race in front of your own fans but I don’t believe that’s the case: it’s the same for the team and the drivers – anyone working for us, including foreigners, becomes an adopted Italian when you wear red – and it’s the same for the cars,” Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo has been quoted as telling the official Ferrari website.
“It sounds irrational, I admit, but I’m convinced that when they race at Monza even the suspension, the wings and the engine in a Ferrari give something extra, that little bit that can make the difference.”
Alonso, however, is not the only one who will be looking to reignite his championship challenge this weekend.
A squabble has broken out behind Red Bull and Vettel with Mercedes, Ferrari and Lotus all showing varying form throughout the season and like Alonso, both Hamilton and Raikkonen will be hoping to hit a purple patch of form starting this weekend.
Kimi Raikkonen, who won the season opening Australian Grand Prix, will in particular want to bounce back from a costly retirement at the last race in Belgium with a win. The former Ferrari driver has never won at Monza but is optimistic of breaking his duck there this year, even if his Lotus isn’t the best suited to a high-speed, low-downforce circuit like Monza.
“Just because I have not won at a circuit in the past it doesn’t mean that I won’t win or get a good result there in the future,” the 2007 world champion, who is 63 points off the championship lead following his Spa retirement, said in a team preview.
“Low downforce has not always been the best for our car, but the factory has been working hard to get more speed and stability for us with some changes to the car. Let’s wait and see how the car goes on Friday morning and then we’ll have a better idea of what can be achieved.”
All said and done, Vettel will not be easy to beat.
Christian Horner has identified Monza as his team’s achilles’ heel but judging by Vettel’s form in Canada and Spa – both of which feature long straights even if they require the car to be set up with more downforce than Monza – fast circuits are no longer the weakness they used to be for Red Bull.
“It’s very difficult to predict. We had painful years in a way, where we just get hammered down the straights and we’ve had years where the loss down the straight was limited, so we could come back in the corners and for sure, if you look back the 2011 experience was great in that regard,” Vettel, who won his first ever grand prix at Monza in 2008, said following the Belgian race.
“How it turns out to be this year it’s difficult to say. I think we can be quite confident. We had a good race in Canada, we had a very good race here (Belgium) which are both medium downforce type of tracks, so I hope that our low downforce package goes in the same direction.”
Images courtesy Octane Photographic