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F1 Preview: 2017 Italian Grand Prix

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Formula 1’s stint in Europe for 2017 comes to a close this weekend with the Italian Grand Prix at the historic Autodromo Nazionale Monza, on the outskirts of Milan.

Lewis Hamilton heads into the race weekend riding high after a controlled victory in Belgium last weekend, drawing him back to within seven points of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel at the top of the drivers’ championship.

The high-speed nature of Monza should play towards Mercedes’ strengths, but the same was said of Spa, yet Vettel was able to push Hamilton all the way in the fight for victory.

There will be an extra dose of pressure facing Ferrari this weekend. Monza being its home race, the grandstands are set to turn a sea of red as its loyal Tifosi fan base turns out for the Scuderia’s 70th anniversary weekend.

Can Vettel deliver a popular home win for Ferrari, its first since 2010? Or will Hamilton continue to turn the screw on his rival in the title race?

Here’s what to watch for in this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix.

2017 Italian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton, Mercedes aim to tie things up

Lewis Hamilton’s victory at Spa last weekend gave Mercedes the perfect start to the second half of the season, responding to Ferrari’s one-two in Hungary before the summer break with a convincing victory.

While most were surprised by just how competitive Ferrari proved to be, Hamilton nevertheless capitalized on an opportunity for victory at a ‘Mercedes track’, reeling Vettel in at the head of the drivers’ table.

Another win for Hamilton on Sunday at Monza would see him take the championship lead, albeit on race wins should Vettel come second once again, the pair theoretically tied up on 238 points.

With Singapore coming up in two-and-a-half weeks, a race Ferrari should dominate, Monza is an important race for Mercedes to rack up some points and get in another blow in the title fight.

Hamilton could also become F1’s all-time pole position record holder on Saturday, having scored the 68th of his career at Spa to tie with Michael Schumacher. Taking a 69th on Ferrari home soil would be particularly significant.

Ferrari celebrates 70 years of racing

Seventy years since Enzo Ferrari first drove a car to bear his name, the Italian manufacturer is set for a weekend of celebrations and events at Monza as it bids to write the next chapter of its F1 success story.

Vettel’s showing at Spa gave the team confidence that it won’t be walked over by Mercedes at high-speed tracks, the German saying there is now no circuit for Ferrari to fear through the closing rounds of the season.

Monza is a crucial weekend for Ferrari all the same. With announcements regarding both Vettel and Raikkonen now out of the way, the team will know that this year’s race represents its best chance of a home victory for some time.

Will the Tifosi get the result they so want? Or will this anniversary weekend be one overshadowed by Mercedes’ success?

Will Red Bull get dragged into the midfield fight?

With engine power being a key area for this weekend’s race at Monza, Red Bull may find itself struggling to keep up with Mercedes and Ferrari even more than usual. The issues with its Renault power units are well-document, and while the situation may not be as bleak as things are for McLaren and Honda, the frustration is there.

Reliability has been one of Renault’s biggest weaknesses so far this season, with Max Verstappen suffering yet another failure at Spa last weekend. The Dutchman is reportedly set to take some new power unit elements for Monza, meaning he will start further back thanks to grid penalties, leaving Daniel Ricciardo to fight alone.

With the oncoming midfielders such as Force India and Williams armed with Mercedes power, they could yet suck Red Bull into the pack.

Fernando begins to think about his future

The saga surrounding Fernando Alonso’s future should hopefully begin to show signs of progress this weekend at Monza. The two-time world champion has long-stated he would begin to plot his 2018 plans come September, even joking at Spa that he had “one week of freedom” given it was the end of August.

Alas, Friday marks the beginning of September, and Alonso’s options are looking more and more limited. If he is desperate to stay in F1, then staying with McLaren or, in a strange twist to silly season that arose at Spa, a move to Williams may be the solution.

On-track, expect this weekend’s race to be another difficult one for Alonso. His sensational start at Spa was quickly overshadowed by his lack of straight-line speed, with cars streaming past on the Kemmel Straight. The decision to retire was questionable, with Alonso’s cited engine issue never being found by Honda…

2017 Italian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Autodromo Nazionale Monza
Corners: 11
Lap Record: Rubens Barrichello 1:21.046 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Super-Soft/Soft/Medium
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:21.135
2016 Fastest Lap: Fernando Alonso (McLaren) 1:25.340
DRS Zone: T11 to T1, T7 to T8

2017 Italian Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times

Ferrari teammates Vettel and Raikkonen fastest in rainy final practice at Australian GP

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen went one-two in the final practice session ahead of qualifying at the water-logged Australian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Vettel set a best-lap time of 1 minute, 26.067 seconds, more than 2.4 seconds faster than his teammate in second.

Both Ferrari drivers switched from their intermediate tires to the super-fast, ultra-soft tires for the final few laps of the session, testing conditions on the track after a day-long downpour left it slick and filled with small puddles.

Mercedes drivers Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton did not opt to try out their soft tires, sticking to the intermediates for the entire session. They had the seventh- and eighth-fastest times, after topping the leaderboard in practice in dry conditions on Friday.

The heavy rains subsided by early afternoon, allowing the track to rapidly dry during the third practice session and making conditions safe for drivers to test their soft tires.

Still, only a few drivers completed a timed lap with the softer compounds, with Mercedes, Red Bull and most of the others staying with their intermediates.

Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson had the third-fastest time of the session on ultrasoft tires, followed by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen on intermediates.

Hamilton remains the favorite to capture his fifth straight pole position at the Australian Grand Prix in qualifying later Saturday. He had the fastest laps on ultrasoft tires in the two practice sessions on Friday, though Verstappen was right behind him.

Verstappen and Vettel both slid on the slick track early in the third practice session, but maintained control and completed their runs without incident.

Verstappen’s teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, had the sixth-fastest time of the session. The Australian’s chances of winning his fifth career Grand Prix on his home track in Melbourne took a hit late Friday when he was assessed a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

The Australian driver was penalized for driving too fast under red-flag conditions during Friday’s second practice session because of debris on the track.