After a dominant win in Belgium, Red Bull have kept up their momentum at the Italian track, Monza. Despite their lack of overall success at Monza, Red Bull have shown frighteningly fast and consistent performance over the two practice sessions today.
Sebastian Vettel has looked particularly impressive this weekend. After securing the fastest time in the afternoon by over 6/10 of a second to teammate Mark Webber, the German also set blistering long-run pace. He held an 8/10 of a second advantage to the next fastest driver Romain Grosjean, on medium tires, as well as holding the second fastest average lap time on a run on hard tires.
These are ominous signs for the likes of Ferrari, Lotus and Mercedes, as all three look to keep their dwindling title hopes alive.
Lotus was Red Bull’s nearest challengers today, both on high and low amounts of fuel. Attention was focused on Kimi Raikkonen in particular, who gave the team’s long wheelbase car its track debut. The team is making a final effort to improve their car before their full efforts are turned towards 2014. While the car was working consistently, it wasn’t showing the types of gains in terms of braking, handling and aerodynamics the team was expecting, so the car was shelved for the rest of the weekend, and Raikkonen will continue in the normal car. Lotus does expect, however, to bring the car back one more time later in the season when there is more time to evaluate its characteristics.
Ferrari was also hoping to make their final efforts for the 2013 season here in Italy. As the team’s home Grand Prix, the Italian race in Monza is the sight of high tensions and inspired performances. Ferrari generally does well on the ultra low down-force circuits, which explains their improved performance in Belgium compared to those of previous weeks, but the enormity of the task of beating Red Bull this weekend is looking like it may prove too much, as title challenger, Fernando Alonso, ended this afternoon’s session nearly a second off Sebastian Vettel’s pace.
At Mercedes, expectations for the rest of the season are a bit higher. Points-wise, they are Red Bull’s closest competitors, but their fluctuating competitiveness this weekend suggests damage limitation may be the best course of action. You can’t count them out on Saturday as Lewis Hamilton looks for a career-best, fifth straight pole position, but their job on Sunday will not be easy by any stretch of the imagination.
After his recent announcement as Force India third driver, James Calado finally got his first taste of Formula 1 machinery at an official race weekend in first practice. He stayed down in the lower reaches of the midfield, but the Briton showed good pace to underscore the performance he put on at the Young Driver Test earlier this summer. This consistency will be key when it comes time for Force India to think about their 2014 driver lineups.
The midfield, which includes Force India Williams, Sauber and Toro Rosso, is looking as competitive as usual. Esteban Gutierrez of Sauber has been particularly impressive so far today, as he finished well ahead of his teammate Nico Hulkenberg, and knocked on the door of the top-10 in both sessions. On the back of his charge through the field in Belgium, this type of performance will do wonders for his 2014 prospects.
When it comes to predicting who will be the ultimate winners this weekend, it is impossible to look past Red Bull. Over one lap, their pace seems insurmountable. This is especially concerning given that over the past 10 years, the Italian Grand Prix pole sitter has won on more occasions than the Monaco pole-sitter. Food for thought there.