With Ferrari nearly 40 points ahead of Mercedes and Red Bull in 2022, the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix stands to be one of the most important races of the year for the Italians, who are looking for a race-winning homecoming this Sunday.
The town of Imola is surprisingly tiny compared to other circuit venues such as Abu Dhabi or Melbourne. With barely 70,000 Italians calling the place home, it’s a close community of red-blooded motorsports fans that have hosted races ever since 1953. With the track itself having been out of contention for several years after safety concerns ramped up in 2007, it’ll be the first time fans get in on the action, after the circuit was reintroduced mid-pandemic in 2020.
With plenty of racing history steeped in each corner he’ll take this weekend, championship leader Charles Leclerc is the GP’s clear favorite, having won two of the season’s three opening races, and coming second in the other.
“Italy will be incredible, but we need to approach the race weekend just like we approached the first three weekends,” Leclerc said after winning the Australian GP.
What’s not historical is the track record Leclerc is writing here – it’s been a very long time since Ferrari has displayed such dominance, and the atmosphere at Imola is absolutely electric in response. “The Ferrari hype train has well and truly left the station,” said veteran F1 correspondent Lawrence Barretto.
“This has resulted in huge interest from fans unable to attend the last two runnings of the event because of Covid-19. Sunday is already a 62,000 sell-out.”
The good news keeps rolling into Maranello, as Ferrari also signed on Leclerc’s teammate Carlos Sainz with a fresh contract, reeling him in for another two seasons.
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The last time that Ferrari won in Italy, Charles Leclerc was behind the wheel of the SF90 at Monza, back in 2019. That’s three long years of waiting for the team — who had since watched both Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen win at Monza in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
What are their chances like this weekend? Let’s start with runner-ups Mercedes.
“Imola is going to be a challenging event,” said the Silver Arrows’ Motorsport Strategy Director, James Vowles. “It is our first sprint race of the season, so unlike previous events where we had FP1, FP2 and FP3 really to get to grips with the car and test how we are going to improve the car performance, we now just have one free practice session and that free practice session dominates what happens in qualifying and in the race, so it is very limited in terms of what we can learn and what we can do.”
In simple terms, Mercedes isn’t looking too confident, and will likely play it safe by relying on all the recent testing and tuning they’ve been up to. The team even employed the use of a strange underbody ‘light’ at the Australian GP, which was later revealed to be a high-tech sensor — part of Mercedes’ efforts to eliminate their difficult aero issues.
“There’s been a lot of hard work over the Easter weekend in the factory to bring improvements to the car and get it ready to head to the next race, and that shows the team’s dedication to turning the situation around,” shared team boss Toto Wolff. “Of course, we must be realistic, it will take time to make the gains we want, but we’re learning as much as we can from each race and finding avenues to push us forward.”
With major team figures wringing their hands, it seems that Mercedes may have to settle for being happy with a podium place on Sunday.
What about Red Bull? With Verstappen’s car failing yet again before the finish line, the team’s reliability issues are their biggest concern moving forward.
That said, things aren’t quite so simple. The RB18 is still the fastest car on long straights — proven by Verstappen’s success at the blazingly-fast Jeddah Corniche Circuit in Saudi Arabia. The Ferrari has proven itself superior at cornering and acceleration. So which car will be happiest at Imola?
If you look at the circuit map of Imola above, you’ll notice that the first sector (red) is a very long, pedal-to-the-metal straight, interrupted by two chicanes. This seems to be Red Bull’s ideal zone, where they can make gains on Leclerc and Sainz with their superior top speed.
Ferrari, however, have an advantage in both remaining sectors. Not only does sector two (blue) feature a series of corners — the transitory spot between sector two and sector three (yellow) is an uphill climb, favoring the Ferrari’s greater low-gear performance.
It seems that F1 glory will finally come back to Italia once more; although we’ll never know until the final laps take place. The weather forecast is seeming a bit more wet than many teams expected, and even the most experienced drivers have a mere handful of laps recorded on the circuit.
The Emilia Romagna Grand Prix will take place on Sunday, April 24th, 2022.
(Featured Image Credits: @redbullracing/Twitter, @scuderiaferrari/Twitter)