Drivers: Ferrari, Force India, Lotus & Williams in tight Monza fight
Lotus's Grosjean and Force India's Hulkenberg expect tight four-team battle in runaway Mercedes' wake at Monza
By James Galloway at Monza
Last Updated: 09/09/15 1:13pm
The battle brewing behind Mercedes at the Italian GP is poised to be an "exciting and "close" multi-team affair, according to Lotus's Romain Grosjean and Force India's Nico Hulkenberg.
While the arrival of a new engine for the works Mercedes team at Monza on Friday appeared to further increase the world champions' already large advantage, the next four teams on the timesheet - Ferrari, Force India, Lotus and Williams – were more closely matched with just six tenths separating the quartet in Practice Two.
And Grosjean, who claimed Lotus's first podium for two seasons last time out at similarly high-speed Spa, is predicting a weekend-long battle for honours.
"It will be exciting between Ferrari, Force India, Williams, ourselves – and then I think there's a bit of a gap. But that's quite an exciting battle," the Frenchman said after finishing seventh fastest in P2.
"It was the case in Spa that Force India were a bit ahead of us and then we caught back up in qualifying. So that's certainly what we are going to try [to do]."
With Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel third in both sessions, Force India's drivers doubled up in fourth and fifth places with the Mercedes-powered VJM08 seemingly right at home on Monza's unique combination of straights and chicanes.
Nico Hulkenberg admits he was slightly surprised to see Force India quite so high up the order, but believes they can remain in the mix if they put together an error-free weekend.
"The car has improved again. It's feeling pretty good here today and you see it in the lap times, we're quite competitive," he told Sky Sports.
"But it's only Friday. We've seen that a few times this year that on the more green track we are quite competitive and come Saturday Williams find a bit more performance and some other teams as well.
"But it's really close. If you look around us - Williams, Lotus and Ferrari – we're all quite close together and the smallest mistake can make a big difference. But tomorrow and Sunday is when it counts and we have to put it all together."
However, on the back of a forgettable Spa when he made a mistake in qualifying and then was unable to take the race start due to car trouble, Hulkenberg warned: "We saw in Spa that a little problem for me meant out of the top 10. When it comes to there [qualifying] everyone puts the best engine modes and low fuel, so anything can happen. But the car definitely has the potential and the capability of being in the top 10."
Grosjean also suggested that teams' race fortunes in particular could be affected by how they adapt to the mandatory increase in Pirelli tyre pressures.
"You can feel that it's harder to drive and manage and some cars are going to struggle more than others. It's not that much for the qualy lap, more in the race.
"We have some work to do around it, but I'm sure we are going to find solutions to make it more efficient."
One team who are unlikely to find themselves in the 'best of the rest' fight behind Mercedes on Sunday, however, are Red Bull with the confirmation of expected grid penalties compounding what was always likely to be a tough weekend for the Renault-powered team.
Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat are set to join the similarly-penalised McLarens at the back of the grid on Sunday after picking up 25- and 15-place penalties respectively for changing a number of power unit elements.
Both drivers then completed limited P2 mileage owing to hydraulic and gearbox faults, with Kvyat's running in any case focused on heavy-fuel runs.
Ricciardo admitted the car itself was handling well again, but their Renault power deficit was showing up more than ever.
"We won't be completely at the back. We'll come through a few guys. The car does again feel quite good," he said. "First practice we rolled it out and it felt pretty racy again. So the chassis it's probably three races in a row now where we've felt comfortable with it, more like last year, so that's good.
"We bleed a chunk on the straights – and that's what it is around here."
And asked for a prediction of who they might be able to challenge coming from the back row on race day, the Australian replied: "Anyone in a Mercedes-powered car would be a good result for us!"