Five big Emilia Romagna GP questions: Ferrari’s big upgrade, dark horse identified and more

Sam Cooper
The Imola circuit

F1 is back in Imola after a year away.

After a year away, Formula 1 is back in Emilia-Romagna for the race at Imola. Here’s what we can expect from the weekend.

Severe rain saw the 2023 edition cancelled but there are no signs of a repeat this weekend which promises to be a fascinating watch as Red Bull look to respond from their surprise defeat at Miami.

A return to Imola after a washed out 2023

Additional reporting by Pablo Hidalgo

The first thing to note is that Imola is back on the schedule after being washed out for 2023.

This time last year, that particular region of Italy was suffering some of the worst storms and flooding in memory that left plenty stranded away from their home.

With this in mind, F1 and the local authorities decided resources were better spent elsewhere than policing a race circuit but thankfully, the weather has been kinder this time around and the race is set to go ahead.

As for what’s different, well, the track itself has changed with the run-off area removed at Turn 9 [Piratella], the run-off area reduced at Turns 11, 12 and 13 [Acque Minerali] and a gravel trap added to Turns 14 and 15 [Variante Alta].

These are not major changes by any stretch of the imagination but even the most minor alterations can require the drivers to retune their radars and we could see a few more offs than usual, especially in the early practice sessions.

The development war begins in earnest

Imola sees the start of the European season and although McLaren and Mercedes jumped the gun in Miami, this tends to be the time when we see teams unveil their first major upgrade package.

Although they did upgrade the car from Suzuka, Red Bull are expected to bring another package to Italy with Helmut Marko confirming as such to OE24.

“I’m not worried because [Lando] Norris is more than 50 points behind [Max Verstappen],” Marko said.

“Besides, we are bringing an upgrade to Imola, which I expect a lot from. But Miami shows that we need to concentrate on the sporting side of things.”

For now, details of what the upgrade package will include are limited so keep your eyes peeled for when the confirmed changes arrive on Friday.

Ideal Qualifying Gap: Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren
Ferrari and McLaren making progress, but work still to do to narrow gap to Red Bull

As the title of this graph states, the graph refers to ‘ideal’ qualifying times. That is, by putting together the best sectors set by each team during the session. And this is the average gap of Ferrari and McLaren to Red Bull in this aspect throughout the current season.

We use this kind of analysis to really assess the performance of each car by trying to extract the ‘perfect’ lap and using the season trend we can evaluate how each team is evolving.

But if instead of ideal times we look at the ‘real’ average gap, the officially recorded lap times at the qualifying sessions, Ferrari is +0.345s on average and McLaren +0.434s.

In other words, Red Bull always manages to squeeze a little bit more out of the car than both of them at the important moments.

A bad performance of this new package could be fatal for Ferrari for the rest of the season. McLaren has already found the right development line and the pressure is on the Italians.

Will Ferrari’s upgrade be a game changer?

Another team bringing upgrades to Imola is Ferrari who will be competing in the first of their two home races this season.

The first look of this upgrade package came at their filming day in Fiorano this week but it will not be until Friday when we get the full spec of what has changed on the SF-24.

It has been described in some parts as a “game-changer” and with McLaren threatening not only Ferrari but Red Bull as well, the Italians certainly have some ground to make up.

Race pace gap to Red Bull
McLaren and Ferrari have been gaining ground on Red Bull in recent races.

Red Bull: Real problems or a bad day at the office?

So, what happened to Red Bull in Miami? Firstly, the track conditions at the Miami International Autodrome were strange for everyone. And in times of uncertainty, just as in wet conditions, the grid order tends to even out.

Still, in the Sprint format we saw that McLaren in qualifying pace was faster and a disastrous SQ3 attempt for all drivers where Max Verstappen minimised damage, making Lando Norris miss out on pole. It was a different story on Sunday.

McLaren was the fastest team followed closely by Red Bull and Ferrari. Red Bull had no answer against Norris in the second stint.

The damage the Dutchman suffered to his car after hitting a bollard at the Turn 14/15 chicane and colliding with the ground afterwards is difficult to assess, but with clean air and older tyres before his stop, Norris was quicker.

However, from lap 21 when Verstappen suffered this incident, the Briton was +0.364s faster on average per lap.

This time loss was mostly in Sector 1 where there is a succession of fast corners. In the mixed area – both fast and slow – of the circuit, i.e. Sector 2, he lost only 12 thousandths of a second on average per lap. So that damage, if significant, had its greatest impact in the fast corners.

Lando Norris v Max Verstappen at the Miami Grand Prix
Lando Norris v Max Verstappen: Red Bull had no answer to McLaren after the Safety Car

It is difficult to draw a clear conclusion. What is certain is that the Red Bull’s pace left a lot to be desired on the hard compound, and that was Max Verstappen’s first impression when he got out of the car.

Most likely, the car’s set-up was not ideal for handling the car in the fast Sector 1 on the hard tyres. And if there was damage, it only made the situation worse.

With slight improvements expected this weekend, Red Bull should be back in the top position. And the RB20 is a car that should be well suited to the characteristics of Imola: a short circuit, with fast corners and straights where the car’s aerodynamic efficiency is at its best.

We can find some similarity with Suzuka in this respect.

Can dark horse Alpine keep up their momentum to stay in the points?

Away from the top teams, Alpine’s resurgence has ensured the battle for the final points paying spots is as competitive as ever.

Of the contenders, it is Haas and RB who look the strongest but Alpine’s and Esteban Ocon’s performance in Miami was a good showing from a team who has not had much to write home about so far this year.

The cause of that change was a significant new floor design but given it has only been tested on one circuit so far, more data is needed to show if it really has put Alpine amongst the consistent point chasers.

One plus point for them is that while both Haas and RB have drivers who are failing to fire, the Alpine pair have made reasonable starts to the year given the car’s limitations and that could be crucial to pushing them further up the Constructors’.

RB, Haas and Alpine are the teams fighting for minor points
RB, Haas and Alpine are the teams fighting for minor points

After several modifications to the team’s internal structure, some improvements that came in China and the efforts of the technical team both in the factory and on the track, Alpine wants to consolidate its position as a mid-table team alongside Haas and RB and escape from the back of the grid where Kick Sauber and Williams still lie.

Imola is a good circuit for the Enstone-based team to make the difference against Haas and RB in the fast corners.

In particular, they should have an advantage over Haas in race pace, which tends to enjoy better qualifying on circuits where long straights and fewer corners predominate. Still, RB should enjoy a more pleasant weekend this time.

Track Domination: Alpine Haas RB Miami 2024
Alpine could well sneak another point or two in Imola

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F1’s musical chairs?

Away from the on track action, there has been plenty of talk regarding the staff at Red Bull.

McLaren’s Zak Brown can be seen as the main driving force behind this speculation after he suggested his team had received CVs from Milton Keynes but his Red Bull counterpart Christian Horner refused to be drawn in on the mind games.

It is not only Red Bull who are reportedly seeing staff head for the exit door with Mercedes to Ferrari another rumoured pathway.

Lewis Hamilton is an obvious example but performance director Loïc Serra is on his way over to Maranello and so too is Jerome d’Ambrosio has deputy team principal.

Asked if more Silver Arrows were interviewing at Maranello than usual, Fred Vasseur said: “A lot of people from all the teams are doing a lot of interviews in Maranello – including Mercedes.”

With all of these team principals present at Imola this weekend, it is bound to be a topic that gets brought up.

Senna Sempre

The return to Imola is also a poignant one as the circuit is due to mark the 30th anniversary of the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at the track.

You can expect tributes throughout the weekend but Pierre Gasly has already revealed his stunning helmet in the style of the great Brazilian.

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