Conclusions from the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

Oliver Harden
Conclusions from the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix. Imola April 2022

Max Verstappen led a Red Bull one-two finish in the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix to cut Charles Leclerc’s lead in the 2022 Formula 1 World Championship after the Ferrari driver’s mistake.

Here are our conclusions from Imola…

Perez could be key to Verstappen’s title chances

What a difference a fortnight makes.

Verstappen didn’t even want to think about the World Championship following his second retirement in three races in Australia, admitting he was “already miles behind” runaway leader Leclerc.

Having taken his second win of 2022 at Imola to cut the deficit to Leclerc from 46 to 28, however, the Drivers’ standings already make for much better reading.

Verstappen was very much the driver we have come to expect at Imola, excelling in the damp conditions of Friday qualifying and race day either side of a well-executed victory in the sprint.

But perhaps the greatest difference this year, especially compared to his battle with Lewis Hamilton in 2021, is that he can now regularly rely on his team-mate’s support.

After underdelivering by qualifying seventh on Friday, Sergio Perez recovered nicely to third in the sprint, and as Verstappen got on with the business of winning the grand prix it was left to him to eventually frustrate Leclerc into a mistake.

No more was that apparent than after the stops from inters to slicks when Leclerc appeared to have jumped Perez only for the Red Bull, braking on a damp patch of track, to boldly repass into the Villeneuve chicane.

With the RB18’s superior straight-line speed shielding him from attack on the pit straight, Perez, with his feather-light touch on the throttle, lived up to his reputation as the hardest driver to overtake in F1 long before Leclerc’s spin, his P2 finish maximising Red Bull’s haul of points.

His second successive podium finish, following his first-ever pole position in Saudi Arabia, is yet more evidence of Perez’s growth in 2022 – a function not only of this being his second season at Red Bull, but perhaps also of the new-generation cars rewarding those with a smoother style.

As Verstappen gets to work on closing the gap to Leclerc, Perez can be a very useful irritant in the fight with Ferrari.

Leclerc’s self-destructive side comes to the surface

Leclerc’s stunning start to the 2022 season seemed to confirm, once and for all, that he is a driver of a similar standard to Verstappen and Hamilton.

The only thing now stopping him from joining the elite? Temperament.

It has always been the case for Leclerc, who ever since his breakthrough season with Ferrari in 2019 has allowed ill-timed errors to leave large blemishes on an otherwise outstanding body of work.

Talk of Leclerc 2.0 at the beginning of this year led some to believe those mistakes were a thing of the past, but under pressure for arguably the first time this year his self-destructive side rose to the surface.

Winning two of the first three races allowed Leclerc to build a relatively comfortable points lead but has also brought its own kind of pressure, converting Ferrari’s tentative hope into total expectation in their search for a first World Championship since 2008.

And as he was hunting down Perez for second place in the closing stages of the Scuderia’s home race, there was a sense of doing it for Ferrari – doing it for the tifosi – before, in his desperation to get DRS, he took too much kerb and spun at Variante Alta on Lap 53.

His late recovery from ninth to P6 limited the damage and, as ever, Leclerc couldn’t have been more apologetic over team radio at the chequered flag – but it has never been more important for him to learn from and fully eradicate his mistakes.

If it is true that every weakness is exposed in a tight season-long title battle, Leclerc’s are currently far more visible, and thus more likely to be exploited, than those of Verstappen.

Let this be a warning to race more with the head than the heart.

Sainz’s first-lap misfortune compounds his misery

In the week his Ferrari contract was extended until the end of 2024, all signs pointed to a productive – potentially breakthrough – weekend for Carlos Sainz’s season at the Emilia Romagna GP.

By his own admission Sainz has struggled more than Leclerc to adapt to the F1-75 car in the early weeks of 2022, but the unsettled forecast at Imola – the wet conditions he has always thrived in – represented a chance to minimise the performance gap.

In the event he didn’t last long enough to welcome the rain in Friday qualifying, following his race-ending spin in Australia with a crash at Rivazza and later insisting he wasn’t pushing particularly hard at the time.

His recovery to P4 in the sprint gave him the chance to start from scratch as the rain returned on race day, but again he was unable to capitalise after being tapped into a second successive DNF by Daniel Ricciardo at Tamburello on the opening lap.

Sainz is clearly suffering from a crisis of confidence and the words of advice to him from former Ferrari driver Felipe Massa, who knows what it’s like to be punished week after week by a prodigiously gifted team-mate, over the weekend – to just “calm down” – were instructive.

If the timing of his new contract was intended to settle Sainz after a miserable Melbourne, another disastrous weekend at Imola will sustain his insecurities.

And while Perez – comparatively more comfortable in his own skin – has long accepted his place as Verstappen’s wingman, there is a suspicion that Sainz is still fighting against the same fate at Ferrari.

Now 46 points behind Leclerc, his resistance is unlikely to last much longer.

Russell/Hamilton dynamic is beginning to have shades of Red Bull’s 2014

When it comes to assessing Mercedes’ disastrous start to 2022, Hamilton is currently averaging at least one damning statement per weekend.

After standing despondently in the garage at the end of FP3 in Saudi Arabia, the seven-time World Champion admitted nothing the team tried was making a difference after Friday practice in Australia.

The defining quote of Hamilton’s Imola weekend, meanwhile, was more of a statement of the obvious.

“We are obviously not fighting for the championship,” he said – shock horror! – after finishing 14th in the sprint. “But we are fighting to understand the car and improve and progress through the year. That’s all we can hope for right now.”

His comments came less than 24 hours after Hamilton had been caught in a tense exchange with team boss Toto Wolff following his elimination from Q2, encapsulating the stress of the situation in which Mercedes find themselves.

As with his Q1 exit in Jeddah, Hamilton’s poor qualifying performance was partly a result of a setup gamble gone wrong, his decision to run with a lower-downforce rear wing than team-mate George Russell hurting his pace and treatment of the tyres in the damp conditions.

If Hamilton is guilty of trying too hard to recapture what Mercedes have lost, Russell – 21 points ahead of his team-mate after his fourth consecutive top-five finish – simply knows no different.

In that sense there are potential parallels to be made with Red Bull’s 2014 season, when Sebastian Vettel’s streak of four straight titles came to a sudden stop and he found himself upstaged by new team-mate Ricciardo.

After winning a total of 81 races across the previous eight seasons, the prospect of being lapped by Verstappen while losing the fight for P12 to Pierre Gasly is distinctly unfulfilling for Hamilton, unable to avoid racing under the spectre of what came before.

Like Ricciardo in 2014, meanwhile, Russell can simply get on with it and drive with an open pair of eyes, with more freedom and, crucially, without that baggage.

Vettel’s solution back then, of course, was a change of scenery, leaving the team who had provided him with so much for a fresh start elsewhere.

Hamilton himself dismissed suggestions that he might walk away from Mercedes and F1 as “silly” and “a bunch of nonsense” over the weekend, insisting he is fully committed to the team despite the prospect of a painful year.

Yet after all he’s achieved it remains to be seen just how much pain he’s prepared to take at this stage of his career.

Norris podium proves McLaren are getting there as Daniel’s decline continues

“Me being me, I don’t believe we had the third best car today behind Red Bull and Ferrari,” Lando Norris said after claiming P3 at Imola, preferring to put his first podium appearance of the season down to McLaren’s teamwork and togetherness.

He has adopted a curious attitude when it comes to discussing the MCL36, displaying a clear reluctance to get carried away when it looks promising and appearing genuinely lost – see his post-race reaction in Bahrain – when the car underperforms.

It is almost as though Norris – riddled with self-doubt at the best of times – is still in the process of working out what exactly he has at his disposal in 2022 and understanding the full potential of the car.

McLaren have been consistent in their view that the MCL36 is at its best in the faster corners, and after getting both cars into the top six at a redesigned Melbourne a return to the podium at Imola would hint they are gradually getting there.

Norris’s own performance, earning him third in Friday qualifying, was of a similar standard to the best of his 2021 drives.

But with Red Bull and Ferrari in a league of their own – even more so perhaps than Red Bull and Mercedes last season – it was a lonely race and seemed set to go without the recognition of a podium finish until Leclerc’s late spin.

Also reminiscent of 2021 was the performance of Ricciardo, who was six tenths adrift of Norris in Q3 on Friday and clumsily slid into Sainz at Tamburello at the start – the driver once so smart in battle developing a habit of hitting drivers at the start after spinning Valtteri Bottas in Mexico last year.

Ricciardo acknowledged the incident was his fault and visited Ferrari’s hospitality unit to apologise to Sainz after the race, but this was another worrying moment in Daniel’s decline.

 

Red Bull bounce back with 1-2 finish at Imola

Reb Bull knew they needed a good weekend, and they got exactly that with their drivers taking maximum points from the race.