Ferrari up the ante in title battle
Having watched the country's football team crash out of the World Cup, Italy is once again looking to Ferrari to raise the national spirit at this weekend's European Grand Prix in Valencia.
This race could be a critical turning point in the championship battle if Ferrari's most significant raft of upgrades is proved to work as dramatically on the track as they have in simulations.
Can the modified Ferrari catapult Fernando Alonso to the front? Photo: AFP
Alonso even admitted to an Italian colleague in Istanbul that he was very worried how quickly Ferrari had fallen behind their rivals in the development race.
He was concerned that unless the team reacted strongly in Valencia, earmarked as the weekend for the next big round of updates, then any title ambitions could be over before half season.
Well, here we are in Spain, on Alonso's home turf, and Ferrari have arrived with their version of Formula 1's latest must-have system, the much-vaunted exhaust-blown diffuser which is reputed to have contributed so much to Red Bull's whirlwind start to the campaign.
Now the question is - can the drivers really find the performance improvement that's said to be worth at least half a second, lifting them right into the thick of the action across all circuits?
The last race in Canada showed that under the right conditions the F10 had the pace. Alonso could have won in Montreal but for unforeseen circumstances as Mark Hughes explained last week.
First impressions during Friday practice can be cloudy but Massa sounded suitably encouraged.
"I'm convinced we've improved - but how much it is difficult to say," the Brazilian said. "I feel the car is competitive and that's important to fight and I hope we are fighting."
Massa's view was confirmed by two of Ferrari's rivals, one of whom said the Ferrari was the fastest car at Valencia on Friday.
Ferrari tell me that this is no straight Red Bull copy, rushed into development as soon as it appeared.
I'm assured that the designers at Ferrari HQ in Maranello had been planning its introduction since the winter.
But the lack of testing means that key concerns have yet to be truly answered.
How successfully will the gasses from the exhaust be channelled over and through the diffuser? How will the car's rear suspension, the wishbones and the floor withstand temperatures of around 800C?
"Watch out for fires," was how one Red Bull engineer put it on Thursday night.
The levels of rear downforce may be improved in the short run but clearly if the heat is too extreme it'll damage the car over long runs and hugely compromise performance.
Track temperatures will be high. They're expected to reach at least 45C.
It was noticeable how in first practice Alonso held the car at the exit of the pit lane to simulate the wait on the grid before the red lights go out for the race to start.
That said, track time on Fridays and Saturdays can tell the engineers only so much. They need a full race distance to gauge its effectiveness.
And, most certainly, the system will be refined for the next race at Silverstone and beyond.
Remember, Ferrari have already endured one false start in development when their first effort at the F-duct - reducing drag on the rear wing to improve straight-line speed - saw them go slower in Barcelona.
So far, only McLaren, the team which pioneered the device has achieved the most impressive results. That's because it's been worked on for almost two years.
Because of the current ban on testing, it's so often a case of "fit and hope" in the words of a Mercedes engineer.
Needless to say, Ferrari's filming day at their Fiorano test track last Friday when Alonso tried out the new exhaust has infuriated many in the paddock who believe the team bent the rules banning testing.
And there's the rub. Ferrari are not alone in playing catch-up. F1 development has never been so fierce.
Naturally, Ferrari hope they will make an important step forward this weekend. But there's no guarantee that it'll be any greater than that made by anybody else. If anything, it may just keep them up to speed in their current position as third fastest team.
McLaren, I'm told, targeted the British Grand Prix for their new exhaust system because they felt the gain at Silverstone would be greater than here in Valencia, plus it gave them more development hours.
And if Jenson Button's excitement at its prospective benefit is any guide, it can only up the ante of a thrillingly intense championship where five drivers have already held the lead.
The one notable absentee from the list is Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel.
"Ah, but it's who's the leader at the end of the season that counts," said his team boss, Christian Horner.
For a man whose pace-setting team could come under attack this weekend like never before from so many different angles, Horner has been a picture of cool.
He's almost amused that rivals believe they've rumbled Red Bull's trick performance tool - where previously it was a clever ride height control system, which turned out not to exist.
"We found that for us, the exhaust system was only worth one 10th of a second," he said on Thursday.
Yes, he would say that, wouldn't he?
But as McLaren have demonstrated over the last two races, the competition is closing in and it's increasingly tough for Red Bull's design genius, Adrian Newey to eke out further performance gains.
If Ferrari have done their calculations correctly - not to mention Mercedes, with team principal Ross Brawn asserting that they're still in the title hunt - Newey's life could become even more challenging.
And the overall winner can only be Formula 1, whatever the distractions in South Africa.
UPDATE, Saturday, 1710 BST:
For all the talk about the improvements made by Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault, Red Bull were somewhat overlooked - but they proved in qualifying that they are still ahead of the field on pure pace.
Somewhat under the radar, they have brought to Valencia a new diffuser and an improved version of their F-duct, and they were as dispirintingly quick in qualifying as they have been at almost any other race this season.
Their relentless pace of development will continue but, as has been proved before, their advantage on Saturday is not necessarily repeated on Sunday.
There are also still questions over their reliability, particularly here Sebastian Vettel's gearbox, which he had to nurse over the closing laps in Canada two weeks ago.