Monza, Italy, Sept 11, 2011 (AFP) - Italian motor racing fans had cause to smile as they filed into the old Autodromo Nazionale Monza, hoping to see a Ferrari success in Sunday's Italian Grand Prix.
Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, during his annual visit to the track for qualifying on Saturday, had given an unqualified signal of his continuing support for the team they love - and one of their favourite drivers, Jarno Trulli had re-signed for Lotus for another year.
Trulli, a 15-years veteran of 246 Grands Prix in a long career that has seen him race for many teams, but not the scarlet scuderia, was thought to be under pressure and close to retirement.
But the team decided it was too soon to part company with the 37-year-old Italian and that they needed to keep his experience - as demonstrated during qualifying for Sunday's classic 53-laps race. Team chief Tony Fernandes, who is also the new owner of English premier league soccer club Queens Park Rangers, said: "We are all delighted that we have been able to reach an agreement to keep Jarno on board for at least one more year with our team.
"He has shown in qualifying in Monza just how much pace he has and how he can wring every last drop of performance out of his car and since day one with us he has brought a level of professionalism, insight and raw speed to our team that has helped accelerate our development on and off track."
The signing had many paddock observers comparing it to Fernandes' efforts to sign former England captain David Beckham for his soccer club. On another fine late summer's day in northern Italy, where thunderstorms are forecast, runaway championship leading German Sebastian Vettel was all smiles as he contemplated the weather.
The 24-year-old defending champion and Red Bull driver won his maiden Grand Prix at Monza in torrential rain for Toro Rosso in 2008 and had no worries - as then, he is on pole for Sunday's race. "I am surprised but it is a nice surprise," he said. "We thought it would be much tougher this weekend than it has been."
Vettel starts from the front for the 25th time in his meteoric career and the 10th time this year with nearest rival Briton lewis Hamilton of McLaren alongside him on the grid.
For Hamilton, like Australian Mark Webber in the second Red Bull, Spaniard Fernando Alonso of Ferrari and fellow-Briton and McLaren team-mate Jenson Button, the race may be the last realistic chance to keep Vettel within reach.
The German has a 92 points lead on Webber and more than 100 on the other three contenders and after 12 races in which he has only been off the podium once - when he finished fourth in his home German Grand Prix - he knows more of the same will take him to a second title.
His rivals will all hope for a rare Red Bull mechanical problem and an enforced retirement - for the sake of the championship, if not Sunday's showdown in the tree-filled former royal park.