A leafy park on a hot morning in September can only mean one thing: Formula 1 is at the Parco di Monza for the Italian Grand Prix. The sport bids farewell to Europe until 2014 and Saturday’s 60 minute practice session provided teams with their final chance at perfecting a strong set-up for qualifying.
The fans are already packed into the grandstands at the Ascari chicane as temperatures reach into the high twenties – and even hotter in the sun. Ferrari drivers Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso burst into shot from beneath the tunnel of trees surrounding the old banking and they are greeted with rapturous cheers from the Tifosi. Both drivers send a hand of appreciation to their fans, while a minute later there is a hint of booing when reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel rounds the chicane. The initial laps are simply exploratory ones, although Red Bull is still keen to make progress as the right hand side of Mark Webber’s front wing is covered in lime green flo-viz paint.
Adrian Sutil is the first driver to attempt a flying lap and he takes a lot of kerb in the Force India. Giedo van der Garde has to make a mid-corner correction in his Caterham, while Sergio Perez wiggles over the bumps under braking for the chicane. Perez took a lot of kerb on the left hand side of the circuit under braking in order to shorten the corner, but he ended up compromising his line. As ever Jenson Button, his McLaren team-mate, is much smoother. Kimi Raikkonen’s commitment is not in doubt on his first flying lap and Nico Rosberg is similarly aggressive. But the Mercedes driver carries too much speed into the first part of the corner and ruins his lap by running slightly wide. Romain Grosjean has to make a mid-corner correction whereas team-mate Raikkonen oozes smoothness on his next flying lap, although he does take a lot of kerb on the exit of the corner.
A committed Nico Hulkenberg locks up and takes to the kerbing while Vettel appears and goes in a flash; visibly faster than his rivals. Ferrari is playing the slipstream game, with Alonso and Massa taking it in turns to set times. Alonso is mega under braking for Ascari as he throws the car into the corner, seemingly oblivious to its desire to pitch him towards the gravel. Massa is steadier, but still sets a fairly rapid lap time.
Esteban Gutierrez takes too much kerb while Paul di Resta’s session ends down in the barriers at the Parabolica. The yellow flags and lights warn approaching drivers of the stricken Force India. Television does not do justice to the sight of Formula 1 cars at Monza; such is their speed that the cars have disappeared halfway around the Parabolica before the sound of the downshifts reach you at Ascari.
But first, you have to get to Parabolica.
Sutil had already taken too much kerb on several of his flying laps and his car finally screamed no more. He again walloped the kerb, lost the back end and spun through the gravel. Fortunately he spun back onto the circuit – and even more fortunately, no-one was directly behind him – and lived to fight another day. Jean-Eric Vergne too loses control and skates across the gravel, although a mis-timed walk between standing areas means all that is seen is the dust kicked up into the air.
A silence then descends over the circuit as teams prepare for their final qualifying simulations. Valtteri Bottas and Jules Bianchi both have to grapple with their cars through the final kink, while Gutierrez kicks up some dust as he takes too much liberty with the exit kerb. The Toro Rosso drivers appear nervous about how the car will react, while Alonso takes a much tighter line through the corner than team-mate Massa, enabling the Spaniard a better exit and a stronger run down to the Parabolica.
But better than all of them is championship leader Vettel. The Red Bull RB9 is phenomenal through the entire sequence of corners and Vettel is at one with his machine. The direction change is phenomenal for each team, but Vettel is inch perfect throughout the complex. A quick glance at the timesheets proves that the German is the man to beat.