For the first time in five races, F1 had a dry day of practice on Friday. This allowed the teams to complete a normal pre-race build-up, work out how to tweak their set-up for a single-lap flier in qualifying, and observe how well the tyres hold up to a long race stint when the cars are heavy with fuel.
Mercedes looking strong
The result was a tantalising glimpse of what looks set to be a very close race. Little more than a quarter of a second covered the top eight in the second practice session. More than half of those drivers had a Mercedes engine in the back. The 2.4-litre FO108Z V8 has been renowned as the best in F1 for sheer power, and so it usually proves when the teams arrive at Monza.
Mercedes’ engines feature in the story which is dominating Formula One at the moment: the destination of Lewis Hamilton in 2013. The 2008 world champion is rumoured to be leaving McLaren, with whom he has spent his entire career to date, to join Mercedes.
This could be a smart move as a new engine formula is on its way for 2014, and Mercedes are a full factory team who build their own power plants. Yes, McLaren get to use the same units, but Mercedes have a greater opportunity to determine their development and therefore could have an edge.
The alternative view is that this is just a tactical move on the part of Hamilton’s management team to obtain better terms from McLaren. As usual at Monza in September the silly season is in full swing.
Schumacher leads first practice
Mercedes’ prospects have not looked at all good in the last few races but that could change here. Michael Schumacher was fastest of all in the first practice session in his W03.
Team mate Nico Rosberg was just 0.156s off the best time in the second session while Schumacher was compromised by a technical problem. The dreaded gremlins have been a persistent feature of Mercedes’ season, especially for Schumacher. However the W03 has good straight-line speed, which is crucial at Monza. And Schumacher had a very strong Italian Grand Prix last year, scrapping with Hamilton for much of the race.
Both Mercedes drivers have odds of 12.00 to claim pole position this weekend, and are certainly worth considering. Rosberg has already had a pole position this year and Schumacher was quickest at Monaco, only to lose pole due to a penalty.
Ferrari on form at home
The good news for the home crowd is that Ferrari appear more competitive this weekend. Alonso was third in final practice, a mere 58 thousandths of a second slower than Hamilton, who headed the times at Monza.
The championship leader had a couple of scares in practice: an engine failure at the end of the first session and a gearbox problem in the second. Fortunately for him, neither will result in a penalty.
Alonso is yet to score a pole position in a dry session this year, but that could change here, and you can back him at odds of 6.50.
McLaren are pole favourites
McLaren appear to have picked up where they left off at Spa and ended Friday fastest of all. Their drivers are favourites for pole position – Hamilton on 2.75, Button 5.00. But it’s far from a sure thing at the moment. The margins between the front runners are incredibly narrow, even more so than usual in what so far has been a close and competitive season.
Keith Collantine is the editor of Formula One blog F1 Fanatic.