Ferrari's best Monza hope in nine years still looks marginal

How steep is the famous Monza oval? (1:41)

ESPN's F1 editor Laurence Edmondson takes a closer look at the heavily-banked oval section of the Monza GP track. (1:41)

MONZA, Italy -- Ferrari's loyal fans -- the tifosi -- will arrive in Monza's royal park on Sunday expecting victory. It's been nine years since Fernando Alonso stood on the top of F1's most famous podium to celebrate a Ferrari victory on home soil and, on paper at least, Sunday should be the team's best chance of ending its Monza drought.

The circuit's long straights play to the inherent strengths of this year's Ferrari car, which has the most powerful engine and the least drag of the top three teams in Formula One. At the Belgian Grand Prix two weeks ago, the traits of the SF90 saw Charles Leclerc hold off Lewis Hamilton for the team's first victory of the season, and that is very much the target again on Sunday.

But Monza won't be a slam dunk for Ferrari. Mercedes remains a formidable opponent -- even in its low-drag setup -- and the early signs from Friday practice suggest Ferrari's advantage is not as big as expected.

"No doubt that after Spa the expectations can only be high," Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto said on Friday. "This is a circuit with long straights and we know that our strengths are on the straights, but we also know from Belgium that we just finished the race a second ahead of our competitors and so there is no margin there.

"It has been a great and perfect weekend for us in Spa, and we know that we can do well here in Monza, but only if we have a perfect weekend."

In a year in which any chance of championship success has slipped away from Ferrari, victory at the Italian Grand Prix carries even more importance for the team from Maranello. So much so that it has waited until this weekend to deploy its last engine upgrade of the year after its customer teams did the groundwork with the new components last weekend at Spa-Francorchamps. Fail to win on Sunday and there's a chance Leclerc's win in Belgium will stand as the team's only victory of an underwhelming year.

Single-lap pace

On the face of it, Ferrari got its weekend off to a good start by topping both practice sessions.

However, the size of the gap between Leclerc and Hamilton at the end of second practice was smaller than expected at just 0.068s. As expected, Ferrari held the advantage on the straights, especially on the straights in sector one, with Hamilton making up time in the final sector that includes the high-speed Ascari chicane and the long right-hander of Parabolica.

"It definitely is surprising," Hamilton said after the session. "I didn't know exactly what to expect this weekend. I expected them to be quick on the straight, which they are, but there's enough corners where we're able to gain it back. They're not really that quick through the corners, so it kind of balances us out."

But one factor worth bearing in mind is the slipstream. Monza's long straights mean all drivers look to benefit from the car in front punching a hole in the air so they face less wind resistance and maximise top speed. Hamilton benefitted from running in formation behind teammate Valtteri Bottas on his quick lap in FP2 whereas Leclerc didn't.

"Everybody will go for the tow [in qualifying]," Hamilton said on Thursday. "That was a key player last year, everyone was within two or three seconds of each other to get the tow, and that will be the same again this year seeing as the car is more affected by the tow. But Ferrari will most likely be quicker than us on the straights."

The impact of the tow is particularly strong in the first two sectors, and to underline the advantage Hamilton gained, Bottas lost 0.248 of his 0.301s gap to his teammate in that section and just 0.053s in the final sector where high-speed cornering performance is key. Therefore, if the Ferraris can gain a tow similar to Hamilton's in qualifying on Saturday, that slim margin Leclerc held over a single lap might be stretched a bit further.

Nevertheless, Leclerc was refusing to read too much into the times on Friday given the drizzle that started to fall while the Mercedes drivers were on track.

"It's nice to be quickest, but I don't think it is a real picture of everything because I expect Mercedes to be very strong tomorrow when we will all be in the same conditions. They did their lap time in more difficult conditions, so they are very quick and we need to work hard as well."

Race pace

Ferrari fans have to cast their minds back just 12 months to know a front-row lockout is no guarantee of success on race day. A spin for Sebastian Vettel on the opening lap and blistering rear tyres on Kimi Raikkonen's car were enough to turn likely victory into a second- and fourth-place finish last year as Hamilton won the race.

In Spa, we saw Ferrari had good pace on the soft compound over a race but Mercedes closed in when they switched to the mediums. Even though the compounds are all a stage softer this weekend, the same trend was apparent on the long runs on Friday afternoon.

Over similar soft tyre runs, Leclerc and Bottas were evenly matched with average lap times of 1:24.689 and 1:24.780 respectively over long runs. Such a gap would be enough for a Ferrari to hold off a Mercedes in the opening stint of the race, but it could be a different story when they switch to mediums.

Over similar medium tyre runs, the averages of Hamilton and Vettel were split by over 0.6s, with the Mercedes averaging a lap time of 1:25.049 over 16 laps and the Ferrari averaging 1:25.675 over 15 laps. Part of that might be down to Vettel's struggles with the tyres on a low-downforce setup -- he had the same problem in Spa -- but it could also be down to the cooler temperatures on Friday that made it hard to get the harder compound tyres working.

And so we come to biggest factor influencing Ferrari's chance of victory: the weather. If it's hot and sunny on Sunday, Ferrari stands a good chance of making the most of its car's inherent strengths. If it is cold, or, even worse, wet, the team is likely to struggle. Therefore, the tifosi may well be looking to the sky on Sunday morning to know whether their victory drought is over.