This weekend’s Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix will see tifosi paint the stands red in hopes of yet another win for championship leaders Ferrari, but conditions could well spell a surprise.
As the rain fell on the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari this morning, there was a hint of apprehension from championship leader Charles Leclerc.
The first F1 sprint of the season leaves just one session to perfect a setup amid an unpredictable forecast for Sunday’s race.
“Rain hasn’t been one of our strengths in recent years,” said Leclerc, winner of two of the first three races.
“We have to make sure we start the weekend on the right foot and develop the car well for the conditions.”
Qualifying takes place tonight ahead of tomorrow’s sprint, which will decide Sunday’s starting grid, and has been revamped to award points to the top eight after a rather stale introduction to the sport last season.
Max Verstappen this morning described himself as “not a fan” of the new format, with many drivers unimpressed with the new overall weekend setup for 2022 and open to continued experimentation.
But Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who has just signed a new two-year contract, said: “We are discussing with F1 and the FIA how to spice up sprint weekends and there is good potential.”
Nonetheless, F1 can be optimistic about stretching an entertaining start to the season into a fourth consecutive race at Imola, one of Europe’s fastest circuits.
Imola seems to be a magnet for the predicted conditions, and Safety Cars have been performing regularly since F1 returned there in 2020. In just three races this season, four Safety Cars and two Virtual Safety Cars have played a instrumental role in providing excellent entertainment.
Leclerc, who had his watch stolen while posing for photos with fans on Monday, is otherwise in good spirits and with a 34-point lead over second-placed George Russell.
While the rain might give Mercedes some hope – Lewis Hamilton and Russell are good in the wet – their performances against Ferrari and Red Bull show little sign of slowing down.
But Russell said this morning: “I think it’s a reasonable start. [to the season] with the package we have, but we know we won’t maintain that position unless we find more performance.
“There’s nothing substantial that’s going to make a drastic difference this weekend. We’re constantly trying out new tunes, but in terms of the overall result, we’re just too far behind.
“We will continue to close that gap, but I think it is too early in the season to close that deficit, so we will continue to go there this weekend and see another opportunity there, because the conditions will be mixed and we have to make the most of it.
Verstappen is also good in the wet, and Red Bull is in the best position to upset Ferrari. The defending champion will want to make a statement after having two seemingly assured podiums wiped out by retirements.
It would also be foolish to rule out a potential raise for AlphaTauri, based in Alpine or Italy.
Certainly, F1 this year has thrown up plenty of surprises and entertainment in just a few short weeks – and this weekend looks to only increase the drama as the sport returns to soggy European soil.