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September 13, 2008

F1: Italian Grand Prix Qualifying

It was a very wet day at Monza at the start of qualifying. Every driver got on track immediately to minimize the risk of being caught out if the rain were to intensify during the session, or there was a red flag or safety car situation. There’s little doubt that wet conditions typically result in unusual starting grid positions.

Often this is a result of car set up. One of the challenges for the teams is that the rules require the rear wing position used for qualifying to also be used in the race. So if the conditions change by race day, the teams and drivers are stuck with those settings.

Not only is the rear wing a major factor in overall downforce levels, but it greatly affects the aero balance of the car. The level of downforce dictates to a large extent the level of suspension stiffness needed to help control the attitude of the car. At a place like Monza (the fastest track on the calendar) a stiff ride height seems crucial, but at the same time rain will require compliance in order to improve mechanical grip in the turns. The curbing also requires compliance to help the cars ride over them.

Effectively the further ahead the settings have to be decided, the more of a role luck will play. It might (or not) spice up the action but it is artificial and arbitrary.

Another tidbit of interest mentioned by the crew of SpeedTV is that some drivers now use a heated helmet visor that reduces fogging in moist conditions. Hopefully they’ll talk more about it during tomorrow’s race.

During Q2 Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, and Robert Kubica all spun but none suffered any damage. Hamilton was the first (and perhaps only) driver to switch to intermediate tires from full wets and promptly came back in. It was too rainy for those tires.

Both he and Raikkonen missed the window of opportunity to advance to Q3 when they were unable to post faster times toward the end of the session as the rain intensified. As a result, they ended up 15th and 14th respectively. A bad day for those two.

Felipe Massa and Heikki Kovalainen were able to advance. Massa took the 6th starting spot while Kovalainen will start 2nd. But the big news was that Sebastian Vettel took his first pole position. He’s also the youngest driver to do so, at the age of 21 years and 70-some days. Great stuff.

The Toro Rosso cars, and Red Bull teams in general, have been doing very well with Mark Webber 3rd (Red Bull), and Sebastian Bourdais 5th in the other Toro Rosso. David Coulthard, driving in his final Italian Grand Prix was a distant 13th.

Tomorrow’s race will be decided in large part by set ups already on the cars. It’s going to be a lottery and the outcome is probably going to surprise.

Amazingly no one crashed in qualifying. There were several spins but overall the drivers did an amazing job.

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