Brad Spurgeon, September 8, 2013, NYT:
The Italian Grand Prix at the Autodromo di Monza, in a former royal park in a Milan suburb, has hosted more Grand Prix races than any other venue: Since 1950, the Italian Grand Prix has been run there every year except 1980, when it took place in Imola. But for the teams and drivers and fans, Monza’s greater distinction is probably that it is the fastest track of the season.
That speed results from the shape of the 5.8-kilometer, or 3.6-mile, track, which runs essentially as two long straights divided by chicanes and a couple of wide corners.“It’s so different compared with the more modern circuits, as the layout means the car needs to be set up differently,” said Kimi Raikkonen, a driver at the Lotus team. “To go fast at Monza you need a car that is good aerodynamically, stable over the curbs, and has a strong engine, as we are using full throttle for most of the lap.”
It is also one of the hardest circuits on brakes, like the Canadian Grand Prix track, and braking takes place during about 11 percent of a total lap. The cars reach speeds of up to 340 kilometers, or about 211 miles, per hour during the lap, and at the end of the long main straight they brake down from that speed to 75 kilometers per hour in a couple of seconds. That first chicane requires a distance of 148 meters, or 485 feet, for the cars to brake. “The brakes are under considerable mechanical stress due to the magnitude of the change of speed at the end of the long straights,” said Xevi Pujolar, chief race engineer at the Williams team, “although the long straights do aid in cooling them down again.”
Thanks to its long straights, Monza requires the lowest level of downforce of the season.
And like at Monaco’s extremely low-downforce street circuit, in Monza teams use a rear wing designed for use only in Monza. Additionally, some teams also bring a front wing specifically designed for Monza. But the car must nevertheless maintain enough downforce to ensure stability during the heavy braking areas.
“Monza is a unique challenge for the drivers and engineers as the circuit efficiency requires our lowest drag configuration of the season,” said Tom McCullough, the head of track engineering at the Sauber team. “The majority of the grip-limited time comes from medium-speed cornering and two lower-speed chicanes,” he added. “The track is pretty bumpy in some areas and you need to be able to use the curbs, so the ride quality is also animportant factor.”
For that, particularly at Turns 1 and 2 and then Turns 4 and 5, the setup calls for a softer suspension with longer travel. But the higher speed Ascari chicane at Turns 8, 9 and 10, where is little use for riding over the curbs, requires a stiffer setup with sharper change of direction.
Romain Grosjean, a driver at the Lotus team, said the track offered a unique challenge for everyone on the team.
“For the designers, you need to have a car that’s very slippery through the air,” he said. “Then for the engineers, you have to make the correct decision on gearing to make the most of the slippery car and engine power along the straights. For the driver in the car, there are a couple of heavy braking areas where you are slowing from the highest speeds of the year, so you have to be careful to get your braking right, otherwise you can overshoot the corner. You see that quite a few times over the weekend.”
Monza is hard on tires, not only because of the high speed, but also because of air and track temperatures that can often be high during the race. As a result, there will likely be tire inflation and camber restrictions that the teams will have to obey to avoid tire failures. Pirelli will supply the teams with its two hardest compounds, the hard and medium tires.
“It’s very easy to see why the place has been called 'the temple of speed,”' said Paul Hembery, director of Pirelli’s racing program. “It’s actually the quickest circuit that we go to all year, and the long straights and fast corners put plenty of energy through the tires. This means that overheating and blistering can be a problem if not controlled. So correct tire management can have a very important effect on the race and the strategy, and this is something that the teams will assess during free practice.”
“Not only the performance of the tires is tested here but also the durability,” he added, “as there are plenty of high-speed impacts with the curbs, which represent another important aspect of this race.”
A large portion of the lap is done at full throttle, and so engine power is important. But so is the gear ratio setup, and a smooth and driveable engine is required for exiting the corners onto the straights.
“Coming from a track like Spa, we need to adapt to Monza in terms of driving style, strategy and set-up,” said Esteban Gutiérrez, a driver at the Sauber team, referring to the Belgian Grand Prix track. “It will be a crucial time, because stability in slow corners is important and, unfortunately, this is where we’ve been struggling.”