By Alan Baldwin
MONZA, Italy (Reuters) – The louder the booing, the more Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton is likely to be smiling after the Mercedes driver’s annual incursion into Ferrari’s home territory on Sunday.
Last year, the Italian team locked out the front row at Monza with Kimi Raikkonen a popular pole sitter after the sport’s fastest lap.
When Hamilton then won, equaling Ferrari great Michael Schumacher’s record five Italian GP triumphs by delivering Mercedes’s fifth successive win at the ‘Pista Magica’, some of the locals vented their anger at the podium.
“I welcome it, if they want to continue to do it, it just empowers me,” he said then.
This time the massed ‘tifosi’ are again gearing up for a celebration, with the sport’s oldest and most glamorous team returning triumphant from Belgium after Charles Leclerc’s first victory.
Monza, whose former royal park on the outskirts of Milan is a place of devotion for Italian motorsport fans, is also marking Ferrari’s 90th anniversary and the 90th edition of the Italian Grand Prix.
“It’s all straights so … it’s going to be a happy weekend for Ferrari, most likely,” commented Hamilton after finishing second in Spa to stretch his championship lead over team mate Valtteri Bottas to 65 points with eight races remaining.
“We’ve got to make some drastic improvements to our straight speed, somehow. I don’t know if that’s possible. But if anyone can do it, it’s our team.”
Bottas, his place at Mercedes now secure for next season, agreed the Ferraris would be the team to beat but also felt Mercedes could again upset predictions.
“Last year they were quick as well, but we managed to make their life pretty difficult,” said the Finn, who was third last year.
“I think that’s where we got booed on the podium and everything. We try to do the same again.”
MIGHTY ON SATURDAY
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff had no doubt Ferrari would go into the weekend, the last of the traditional European season, as favorites.
“We don’t expect the Italian Grand Prix to be an easy weekend,” said the Austrian.
“While we have had the fastest overall package on the grid this season, it’s not ideal for a track where straight line speed is a key performance differentiator.
“However, we’ve also seen that the Ferraris look mighty at high-speed tracks on Saturdays, but don’t look quite as strong on Sundays.”
While Leclerc is hoping to win again in happier circumstances than Spa, with the death of French Formula Two racer Anthoine Hubert casting a pall over the weekend, team mate Sebastian Vettel needs to hit the reset button.
The German has gone a year without winning but Monza, the scene of his first victory in 2008 with Toro Rosso, could see him become only the second man after British great Stirling Moss to win there with three different teams.
Ferrari, who last won in Monza with Fernando Alonso in 2010, hope an upgraded power unit introduced for this weekend will deliver the goods.
“There will be no room for error. Our home race is always important, but that is especially true this time, as we are celebrating 90 years of Scuderia Ferrari,” said team boss Mattia Binotto.
“Racing in front of our home fans is always an extra boost and further motivation to do well.
“Apart from anything else, there is no podium quite like Monza and we think there is no better crowd than the Italian one.”
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)