Monza's mix of fast men and loose talk

Speed's spiritual home gives troubled sport a much-needed boost

Speed can be a confusing narcotic, and when it is taken at a track such as the Autodromo di Monza in Milan's beautiful parkland it can be doubly potent.

Speed can be a confusing narcotic, and when it is taken at a track such as the Autodromo di Monza in Milan's beautiful parkland it can be doubly potent. Is Rubens Barrichello really the fastest man ever round this hallowed place, courtesy of his lap of 1min 20.089sec (161.804 mph), which earned him and Ferrari pole position for the Italian Grand Prix? Or should that honour really go to the man who will start alongside him, Juan Pablo Montoya, who lapped during pre-qualifying in 1:19.525 (162.952 mph)?

Actually, the pedantic answer is neither, since Pat O'Connor lapped at 177mph on the combined road circuit and banking way back in 1957, when nobody knew or cared what downforce was and the sole reason for using seat belts was to stop the intrepid drivers being bounced out of the cockpit by the fearsome bumps of the 31-degree banking.

It is, however, valued lore that makes this place such a key element of the Formula One calendar. At a time when factions within the sport are hell-bent on attacking the British Grand Prix (which may have to die in 2005 in order to rise again), it is good to know that places such as Monza remain secure, and to hear the FIA president, Max Mosley, acknowledge Budapest's recent race as "traditionally boring". It is seriously heartening that the sport's powerbrokers admit that, even if they seem disinclined to do anything to alleviate the tedium. (Just modify your circuits and make them like Hockenheim, where people pass and repass.)

This is the time of the year in which the silly season traditionally hits peak revs, and at one stage on Thursday every man and his guide dog were ready to tell you that the 1997 world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, sacked by BAR last year, had signed a two-year deal with Peter Sauber's team and was all set to replace the Renault-bound Giancarlo Fisichella. While it's true that Fisichella is leaving, and that Villeneuve has talked at length with Sauber, and may yet do such a deal, the fact remains that, most assuredly, it has not yet been done. It may never be. As one team member said: "When testing is so costly for us, why would we be running Vitantonio Liuzzi in Jerez next week if we had already filled the seat?"

The most sensational rumour, however, is that Kimi Raikkonen has already inked a deal to join Ferrari from McLaren for 2006, which might explain why Michael Schumacher has been looking a little self-absorbed and why McLaren's managing director, Martin Whitmarsh, had suddenly become F3000 champion Liuzzi's best friend during that series' qualifying session on Friday.

The one crystal-clear patch, however, appeared when Fiat's president, Luca di Montezemolo, nailed the prancing-horse flag of Ferrari firmly to the mast of the proposed breakaway Grand Prix World Championship in a scathing attack on the present stewardship of Bernie Ecclestone.

"Such an expensive sport cannot continue to survive if we do not increase the revenues," Di Montezemolo said. "It was a big mistake to sell the company to a German TV company and then to sell it to Kirch, and a mistake now that the sport is 75 per cent owned by banks.

"A certain era has finished and we have to look at something new and totally acceptable to the players, who at the moment only get 47 per cent of the TV rights and advertising and so on. It is not possible any more. Unfortunately, somebody does not understand."

When the field blasts into the funnel of the first chicane at the start today the confusion may return. Jenson Button will be racing for BAR Honda while openly coveting the BMW Williams, which Juan Pablo Montoya can't wait to abandon for the McLaren Mercedes which Raikkonen may, stress may, want to switch in favour of the Ferrari, which Michael Schumacher may then elect to vacate for retirement earlier than planned if he really does get a dangerous team-mate for the twilight season of his career. It all sounds like that old American soap Soap, which is being rerun over here, the one where the introductory blurb always used to end: 'Confused? You will be...'

With any luck there will be lots of confusion, with Barrichello and Montoya in the pound seats; Schumacher in a slightly uncomfortable third place with Fernando Alonso alongside him in a Renault that gets off the line like a dragster; the potent BAR Hondas of Takuma Sato and Button on the third row; and Raikkonen and BMW Williams stand-in Antonio Pizzonia on row four. It worked wonders at Spa, and it's not impossible that Monza could keep that ball of confusion rolling.

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