The European leg of the Formula One season concludes this weekend at Monza, Italy, and the characteristics of the continent's oldest active racetrack should suit Lewis Hamilton, the drivers' championship points leader. The leading teams are, however, facing a technical conundrum. At the beginning of this season, McLaren pioneered an aerodynamically ingenious system - a conduit that leads from the cockpit to the rear of the car. On long straights, the driver uses his left knee to block a nearby vent and this alters the flow of air behind him. In turn, this causes the wing to stall, reducing drag and boosting top speed by several kph.
Movable aerodynamic devices are strictly outlawed in F1, but McLaren's system bypasses such inconveniences because the only thing that moves is the driver. The system, known as the F-duct, has been mimicked by all the leading runners - albeit using hand-sealed cockpit vents - but there has been serious debate about the wisdom of using such technology at Monza. The circuit is famous for its long straights, but cars run in such low-downforce configuration that there isn't much of a rear wing to stall. Some teams are likely to run comparison tests during today's free practice before deciding whether to discard the system for the weekend.
"Monza demands its own bespoke aero package and getting the downforce level correct is not as straightforward as it seems," said Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal. "We require a complex number of mechanical and aerodynamic variables to work harmoniously." Hamilton has only a three-point lead over his closest rival, Mark Webber of Red Bull Renault, with six races remaining. Monza represents Hamilton's best opportunity to increase that gap.
His Mercedes V8 engine has a marginal but useful straight-line advantage over the Red Bulls' equivalent Renault and the circuit's stop-start nature - long straights interspersed with predominantly slow corners - is similar, physically, to Montreal, where the Red Bulls were at their least effective. That weekend, the team greeted Sebastian Vettel's fourth place with the kind of elation usually reserved for victories. Christian Horner, the Red Bull sporting director, called it "a useful exercise in damage limitation" and admits that this weekend's target is similar.
Monza was first used in 1922 and its location, a royal park close to the Milanese suburbs, is unique in modern F1. The circuit might meet contemporary safety criteria, but the immediate surroundings - which include babbling streams, a rich seam of birdlife and a goat farm - are wonderfully anachronistic. The circuit featured on the inaugural F1 world championship calendar in 1950 and has since been absent only once, in 1980, when the Italian GP relocated temporarily to Imola.
It has staged more world championship grands prix than any other circuit and this weekend's event will be the 60th. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org