The second half of the 2012 Formula One season got off to a spectacular and shocking start.
Mere moments after the red lights went out at Spa four drivers’ races had come to an end in a pile of smoking wreckage.
The culprit was Lotus driver Romain Grosjean. Having got off the line well he moved quickly to the right, but mis-judged the position of Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren and the pair made contact.
Ahead of them the pack was braking for the slow first corner and together they slammed into Sergio Perez’s Sauber and Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari with sickening force. The slow-motion replay from Alonso’s car, which showed Grosjean’s Lotus flying within touching distance of his crash helmet, made for terrifying viewing.
The sport’s governing body took a dim view of Grosjean’s driving and banned him from this weekend’s race. The last time that happened was 18 years ago, when Michael Schumacher was excluded from two Grands Prix.
Taking Grosjean’s place will be Belgian Jerome d’Ambrosio, who raced for Virgin last year and is Lotus’s reserve driver.
D’Ambrosio has never scored a point in F1 but that is more a reflection on the machinery he had to drive last year. His credentials in lower formulae racing are good.
At the moment his odds of winning are very long at 50.0, but remember that Lotus have more podiums this year than any other team bar McLaren, who are tied with them on nine. If you like your semi-plausible long shots, get in early on this one.
Who to look for at Monza
Monza is unique among F1 circuits. It’s best described as the nearest thing F1 has to an American-style oval, though a series of chicanes were inserted in the 1970s to reduce speeds.
Nonetheless the track calls for a very low downforce set-up and long gear ratios to produce the highest straight-line speeds of the year. The cars will hit 350kph (217mph) before braking for the first corner, the Rettifilio chicane.
McLaren revealed a low-downforce rear wing at Spa which Jenson Button used to superb effect. Lewis Hamilton opted against using it having had problems with it in practice, but don’t expect him to miss that trick again.
Hamilton is at odds of 4.25 to win, Button on 5.5. I expect these will fall as we get into the weekend, so this could be the best time to back them.
Of course Monza means Ferrari – so what are the home crowd’s chances of seeing a win for their beloved red cars this weekend?
On the face of it: not that great. Ferrari’s race pace was decent in Spa, even in the hands of Felipe Massa. But Alonso could only put the F2012 on the third row of the grid and winning from there is always going to be a challenge.
Given his prowess in the wet this year, expect to see the Monza stands stuffed with Ferrari fanatics draped in red, rain-dancing furiously.
Three cheers for Zanardi
I can’t sign off this week’s column without a word of praise for Alex Zanardi.
A supremely talented racing driver, Zanardi never managed to do justice to his obvious talent while in Formula 1.
He enjoyed massive success in America, winning consecutive CART championships in 1997 and 1998. That propelled him back into F1 with Williams but, once again, it didn’t work out.
Back in CART, he survived an appalling crash at the Lausitzring in Germany. Astonishingly, the swift response of the medical team saved his life despite both his legs being irrevocably severed in a savage impact.
Zanardi is now a Paralympic competitor, and on Wednesday he won a gold medal in the hand cycling event at – appropriately enough – Brands Hatch racing circuit.
Even more incredibly, this inspiring figure is now pitching for a return to racing at the American classic, the Indianapolis 500. Whatever he does next, he’s already a hero.