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Ben Edwards column: Italy

Ferrari fan Monza
By Ben Edwards
C4F1 commentator 

“Are you here for the Formula 1?” asked the clerk at the hire car desk as I handed over my licence on arrival into Milan’s Linate airport. He said it with a certain glee, so while confirming his suspicion, I inquired as to whether he enjoyed F1.

“Yes, I like Formula One; anything with an engine. Football, no. I hate football” he glowered. “Rugby is OK. But any sport with a motor, that’s what I like.” As he tapped away on the computer keyboard I noticed his name badge said Stefano, and it made me think of Stefano Domenicali who came so close to leading Ferrari to championship success in both 2010 and 2012. Indeed in 2012, Ferrari’s man Fernando Alonso left Monza leading the championship with a 39-point margin over the driver who would ultimately win that year’s title, Sebastian Vettel. 

“So will Ferrari win this weekend?” I asked. 

“I’m not so sure,” he said slowly, looking at me directly. “Mercedes is very strong, no? But what is good is the fight, one and then the other. That is what I like. I hope…but I do not know.”

That conversation in Linate Airport in many ways is the story of the season. Nobody really knows which of the two teams will be the strongest at any particular circuit, or even on any particular day. Spa was a reminder of that, with Sebastian Vettel pushing title rival Lewis Hamilton throughout the race on a circuit that we thought would probably favour the Silver Arrows, but which proved incredibly close. 

Without that late safety car or without Hamilton’s instinctive racecraft, it could well have been a Ferrari victory and there was so little to choose between them. 

This weekend we come to Ferrari’s geographical territory but Mercedes’ competitive stomping ground in recent years; Toto Wolff’s team is aiming to become the first-ever constructor in over 80 years of racing at Monza to win here four times in a row. They have a magnificent power unit combined with a relatively low drag chassis that should be a winning combo once again. But nothing is simple in this year’s championship.

The Ferrari is an incredibly responsive yet stable car, shorter in wheelbase which should help with direction change through the chicanes, and superb on the brakes; even Toto admitted to that on our C4F1 programme last week. And being that this is their home race, one can only imagine the effort that will have gone into extracting everything possible out of what will be a pretty unique low-downforce aerodynamic package. 

Keep your eyes peeled for wafer-thin rear wings, much like Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull experimented with in Belgium. I’m sure that in the bowels of Ferrari’s factory in Maranello, there must be a group of engineers whose sole task is to make the car fast at Monza.

As for the drivers themselves, both key contenders adore racing here. Hamilton has as many pole positions (five) as anyone and his three wins have all come in the last five years. Vettel has also won here three times, including his remarkable first-ever win at the wheel of a Toro Rosso in the pouring rain. They traded victories here between 2011 and 2015, and only Nico Rosberg has snatched a victory from them in the six years since that sequence began. 

The history, the sense of interacting with the greats of Grand Prix racing is more powerful here than at any other circuit on the calendar, and both are striving to put their names at the very top of the list. This weekend promises to be another monumental showdown, and for the Tifosi, the army of Ferrari fans who live and breath every turn of a red car’s wheel, the sheer possibility of success should be enough to whip them up into an even more heightened fervour. 

The opportunity to see a Ferrari win at home for the first time in seven years will draw them in from all over Italy, and I can only hope that the majority of them are as even-minded as the rental car clerk, and prepared to ride the wave of unpredictability in this season’s fascinating duel. 

Highlights of the Italian Grand Prix air on Channel 4 at 5:45pm.
Read more from Ben Edwards on his blog.