Forced to recover from early Red Bull reliability woes, Imola was the weekend which gave Max Verstappen belief in a title challenge.
The 2022 campaign certainly began on a rough note for Red Bull with the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix bringing a double DNF, Verstappen on to finish P2 at the point where his RB18 let him down.
And although the Dutchman responded with victory in Saudi Arabia, another DNF followed at the Australian Grand Prix.
Verstappen though emphatically turned the tide as the season progressed, Red Bull developing the RB18 to become the fastest car on the grid as Verstappen claimed his second World Championship in succession, winning a record 15 races.
And it was Imola, where Verstappen won the sprint and Emila Romagna GP, while Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc spun and finished P6, that inspired Verstappen to believe he could win the title.
Asked in a press conference at the FIA’s Prize Giving Gala at which point he felt ‘I’ve got this’, Verstappen joked: “I think after Bahrain. No, maybe not.
“But I mean, when we put the car on the track in the winter testing, I think it was a very competitive car, but it was a little bit overweight.
“But I would say the way we bounced back after of course, a tough weekend in Australia to then go to Imola and the weekend we had was just incredible.
“I knew that there was a lot of potential but I also knew of course at that point, we still have a lot of ground to catch up on but yeah, the car since then has been continuously just being developed in the right way and slowly the car was getting skinnier as well, so that was good.
“We’ve had a lot of incredible weekends as a team since then, so difficult to say which exact moment but after Imola, I was confident that we certainly had a good opportunity.”
Verstappen’s Red Bull team boss Christian Horner concurred that Imola was a key turning point, and a moment which perhaps wounded Ferrari as Red Bull dominated on the Scuderia’s home turf.
“I think they had a faster car than us in the early part of the season,” Horner suggested. “And I think that we were able to stay in touch and that was very, very important, particularly after, I mean, our championship was 21 races because we missed the first one by having a double DNF.
“But we had to stick with them and for me, one of the crucial weekends was Imola with the sprint race and then the victory, and to win both those races, to achieve the one-two finish and to beat Ferrari on their home ground was I think psychologically a big thing for us as a team, potentially for them as well.
“And I think then as we developed the car and we improved the car and we lost a little bit of weight on the car, then the speed came, and I mean these guys [Verstappen and Sergio Perez] have been just fantastic this year.”
Although Verstappen ultimately secured the title with four rounds still to go, after those early frustrations he tackled the rest of the season with the mindset that he could not afford any mistakes.
Bar a spin in Hungary which did not prove to be particularly costly, Verstappen was flawless otherwise.
“I think as a driver you learn from every single year, you get more experience and you look at what you can do better,” he said.
“I think anyway you know that when you have to fight for a title, you have to score points basically every race as much as you can. That’s why of course in the beginning of the year, it was very tough to have these DNFs, but I knew from that point onwards, I could not afford any mistake from my side in case we would have a retirement for whatever reason.
“So you always try to be as clean as you can be and try to be as perfect as you can every single weekend. And that’s what I try to demand for myself every time I jump into the car.”
Verstappen’s stroll to the 2022 crown came in stark contrast to his 2021 success, where the title was decided on the last lap of the last race as Verstappen made the overtake on rival Lewis Hamilton.
But when comparing the feeling of both titles, while Verstappen said this second one was less emotional, it did feel more rewarding.
“The emotions are very different,” he said when asked how this title feels compared to the last.
“But I think anyway, they should be different because your whole life you aim for one particular goal and that’s become a world champion, for me in Formula 1. So yeah, the first one is always very emotional once you achieve it.
“But this year has been very different. I do think we were more competitive this year, and also I think more enjoyable with the way we were performing as a whole team, we won the Drivers’ and the Constructors’ [titles]. We had a lot of victories as a team. So I would say this one is better and more rewarding, but the first one will always be more emotional.”