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Graham Read
Formula 1 Correspondent
5:03 PM 24th April 2022
sports

Double Top For Verstappen At Imola

Following the third round of the season in Australia a fortnight ago, Formula 1 was back in racing action again this weekend at the iconic Imola circuit in north eastern Italy and it was Red Bull’s Max Verstappen who emerged with a maximum points haul after winning today’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix and yesterday’s Sprint event as well as taking the extra point for the fastest lap this afternoon.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen won both races at Imola this weekend
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen won both races at Imola this weekend
The Sprint race concept had been introduced last year to increase the amount of racing activity across an F1 weekend, with the top three finishers receiving an additional 3-2-1 points beyond whatever they achieved in the following day’s Grand Prix. For this season though, the importance of the Sprint events has significantly increased as the top eight finishers now score points on an 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis and thus a strong result in the Sprint encounters has greater importance towards the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championship standings. The status of being the official pole position holder in the record books would also now be awarded to the fastest driver in qualifying rather than to the Sprint race winner as had been the case last season. In these budget capped days each team is being allowed to spend an additional US$150,000 per Sprint contest, with a further US$100,000 permitted if either of a team’s two cars has to retire from the race.

Last Thursday there had been an announcement that Ferrari had extended its current two year contract with 27 year old Carlos Sainz until the end of the 2024 season. The likeable and gifted Spaniard has proved to be an excellent team-mate for the current Drivers’ Championship leader Charles Leclerc, although the young Monégasque had himself had a less pleasant experience three days earlier. Leclerc had escaped unhurt from an incident in the Tuscan city of Viareggio when he was robbed of a US$320,000 Richard Mille watch whilst with his trainer Andrea Ferrari en route to Imola. Richard Mille has been a longtime sponsor of Leclerc and became an official partner of the Ferrari team last year. This incident brought back memories of July 2021 when McLaren driver Lando Norris also had an expensive Richard Mille watch stolen from him after the delayed Euro 2020 football final at London’s Wembley Stadium.

In the build-up to today’s Grand Prix the standoff had continued between the FIA and Sir Lewis Hamilton regarding the governing body’s announcement at the previous race that they intend to enforce the longstanding rule that on safety grounds drivers are not allowed to wear any body piercings or necklaces whilst ontrack. Hamilton had defiantly continued to ignore the regulation in Australia and did so again this weekend, leaving everyone wondering which party will emerge on top in this simmering row which represents the first confrontation between the two new Race Directors and one of the leading drivers. In theory it should be a case of the governing body implementing its own rules, but we shall see, given Hamilton’s value to the sport’s worldwide image.

Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari contract has been extended until the end of 2024
Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari contract has been extended until the end of 2024
On another topical front, in Australia Verstappen and some of the other drivers had understandably criticised the Aston Martin Safety Car’s lack of power and speed compared to its Mercedes counterpart as drivers did their utmost to maintain vital tyre and brake temperatures prior to restarts. However, the FIA subsequently denounced the differential between the two types of Safety Car as unimportant, with Aston Martin carrying much commercial clout in current F1 circles.
One thing for sure was that those low level flypasts by the Italian Air Force aerobatics team with their smoke trails reflecting the colours of the national flag so got the hairs on the back of your neck rising, ready for the off
.
Turning back to Imola, the teams have been struggling this year to get their new cars down to near the minimum weight limit of 798kg, hindered by the impact of revised safety regulations and the larger 18-inch wheels. This has meant that there has been a growing trend of cars running with increased areas of raw, black carbon fibre, the paint having been removed to save weight, and the latest version of the Williams FW44 is a good example. This may all sound a little extreme, but is very relevant to the world of F1 where excess weight is very unwelcome as it directly reduces performance and running your car as close as possible to the stipulated minimum is highly desirable.

With the pit lane time loss at Imola being the longest of the season at 28 seconds and with tyre degradation being historically low around its sweeps, climbs and descents, a one stop strategy would tend to be the obvious choice, although of course any ontrack incidents requiring the intervention of either the Virtual Safety Car and/or the full Safety Car could change plans instantly. Overtaking has always been tricky at this Italian venue too, with the run from the grid to Turn 2 clearly the best opportunity.

The conditions had been very damp for Friday’s opening free practice session, with full wet tyres initially required before it was dry enough for intermediates. Red flags flew after Lando Norris had put his McLaren into the gravel at Turn 12 and, when the session resumed with just three minutes remaining, the Ferrari duo of Leclerc and Sainz topped the timesheets, delighting the home fans, with Verstappen and Haas’ highly impressive Kevin Magnussen just behind them. In contrast George Russell was only 10th for Mercedes, with his team-mate Hamilton down in a lowly 18th place.

Lando Norris was delighted to earn an unexpected podium finish for McLaren
Lando Norris was delighted to earn an unexpected podium finish for McLaren
Friday afternoon’s subsequent qualifying hour to set the grid for yesterday’s Sprint race unfortunately proved to be a disjointed affair interrupted by a further five sets of red flags in variable track conditions. Firstly the action was paused in Q1 when the rear right brakes of Alex Albon’s Williams suffered a fiery system failure. In Q2 Sainz went off at Rivazza 2, ending his involvement in qualifying. The off the pace Mercedes team also lost both drivers at this stage, with Russell 11th and Hamilton 13th, making it the first time since Japan 2012 that the formerly dominant outfit didn’t have at least one car progressing to the final stage of qualifying. Come the top ten shootout Magnussen went off at Acqua Minerale, causing further red flags, but at least the Dane managed to coax his car back onto the circuit and return to the pits. A further stoppage followed after Valtteri Bottas’ Alfa Romeo had ground to a halt trackside and lastly Norris stopped the action again after his own off at Acqua Minerale. The end result of all this was that Verstappen claimed pole position for the Sprint ahead of Leclerc, Norris and Magnussen.
Next season’s calendar is set to include for the first time ever a trio of races in Miami, Austin and Las Vegas.

In yesterday’s final practice period it was the brilliant young Russell who leapt the beleaguered Mercedes squad upto the top of the leaderboard, followed by the Red Bull of Sergio Pérez plus Leclerc and Hamilton. Soon it was time for the 21 lap Sprint event and Leclerc’s Ferrari gave him far cleaner gearshifts off the line than Verstappen had from his Red Bull, with the local hero quickly swept into the lead, to the delight of the passionate Tifosi all around the circuit. However, the action was soon calmed by the Safety Car after the AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly and Guanyu Zhou’s Alfa Romeo collided, with both drivers typically blaming the other! The result was a pitlane start penalty for the Chinese rookie today. Racing resumed in the Sprint at the start of lap five and Pérez and Sainz soon proved to be the men on the move as they climbed the order. With three tours remaining, Verstappen was right on the tail of the still leading Leclerc and on the penultimate lap the Red Bull team leader slipped ahead on the approach to the first chicane. So it remained to the chequered flag, with Pérez amd Sainz completing the top quartet just ahead of the McLaren duo of Norris and Daniel Ricciardo.

Yesterday’s Sprint result formed the grid for this afternoon’s Grand Prix and so Verstappen was again set to start on pole position, just ahead of Leclerc on the staggered grid. I well know from personal experience that Imola can be warm and sunny on a Spring day, but can also be cold and decidedly wet and this afternoon it was dry, if overcast as the start neared. Earlier rain had left plenty of standing water on the track and the teams were left deciding whether to play safe and start on full wet tyres or risk intermediates, especially with the risk of further precipitation to follow. One thing for sure was that those low level flypasts by the Italian Air Force aerobatics team with their smoke trails reflecting the colours of the national flag so got the hairs on the back of your neck rising, ready for the off.

George Russell drove superbly to finish fourth in today’s Grand Prix
George Russell drove superbly to finish fourth in today’s Grand Prix
Come the eagerly anticipated beginning of the race intermediates tyres proved to be the preferred choice and Verstappen, Pérez and Norris made great starts to lead the pack by the opening chicane. The Ferrari fans were soon holding their heads though as contact between Ricciardo and Sainz left the Spaniard beached in the gravel and facing another retirement. The Safety Car intervened to allow for recovery of one of Maranello’s finest, giving everyone time to also appreciate that a stellar start from Russell had promoted him from 11th on the grid to sixth. Racing resumed on lap five and Leclerc soon swept past Norris into third place, with Russell also moving up to fifth past Magnussen at the Variante Alta chicane.

With the circuit conditions improving and the threat of further rain receding, all the frontrunners pitted on laps 19 and 20 to switch from intermediate rubber to medium specification slick tyres. Second placed Pérez lost out to Leclerc in this phase, but soon remedied the situation, and as the race reached half distance Verstappen had a ten second lead over his team-mate, with the sole surviving Ferrari in his wheeltracks. Many of us were left wondering why the DRS facility hadn’t been introduced much earlier, but eventually it was enabled on lap 34 of 63.

As Verstappen continued to have a lonely, if highly successful race out front the Dutch driver must have enjoyed the moment on the 41st tour when he lapped his former arch rival Hamilton, who was languishing down in 14th position. Come lap 50 there was a flurry of further pitstops as Leclerc, Pérez and Verstappen all stopped again to take on soft tyres,but there was more Ferrari drama just four tours later when Leclerc made a big mistake at Variante Alta and hit the barriers. The Monégasque managed to return to the track and pitted for a replacement front wing, although his error had dropped him well down the order.

The massed Ferrari Tifosi had hoped for much better
The massed Ferrari Tifosi had hoped for much better
As the Grand Prix entered its closing stages Leclerc succeeded in recovering to sixth position behind Bottas, but the top four finishing positions were duly earned by Verstappen and Pérez for Red Bull, Norris for McLaren and Russell for Mercedes, with Hamilton only 13th. Aston Martin deserved a special mention too after Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll brought their cars home within the top ten points scoring positions.

Next up comes something totally different for Formula 1 as in two weeks’ time we will witness in Florida the first ever Miami Grand Prix, to be held at a new circuit being prepared in the grounds of the city’s Hard Rock Stadium. There have been no compromises in terms of the quality of the track itself and also the facilities for the teams and fans as F1 becomes ever more successful in conquering the massive US market. Next season’s calendar is set to include for the first time ever a trio of races in Miami, Austin and Las Vegas. Austin is already well established, so it will be fascinating to see how successful Miami is next month before Las Vegas joins the party in late 2023.

2022 Formula 1 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1hr32m7.986s
2 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) +16.527s
3 Lando Norris (McLaren) +34.834s
4 George Russell (Mercedes) +42.506s
5 Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo) +43.181s
6 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +56.072s
7 Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) +1m1.110s
8 Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) +1m10.892s
9 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) +1m15.260s
10 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) Lapped
11 Alex Albon (Williams) Lapped
12 Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) Lapped
13 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) Lapped
14 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) Lapped
15 Guanyu Zhou (Alfa Romeo) Lapped
16 Nicholas Latifi (Williams) Lapped
17 Mick Schumacher (Haas) Lapped
18 Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) Lapped
19 Fernando Alonso (Alpine) Retired
20 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) Retired

2022 Formula 1 Emilia Romagna Sprint

1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 30m39.567s
2 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +2.975s
3 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) +4.721s
4 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +17.578s
5 Lando Norris (McLaren) +24.561s
6 Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +27.740s
7 Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo) +28.133s
8 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) +30.712s
9 Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +32.278s
10 Mick Schumacher (Haas) +33.773s
11 George Russell (Mercedes) +36.284s
12 Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) +38.298s
13 Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) +40.177s
14 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +41.459s
15 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +42.910s
16 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +43.517s
17 Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +53.794s
18 Alex Albon (Williams) +48.871s
19 Nicholas Latifi (Williams) +52.017s
20 Guanyu Zhou (Alfa Romeo) Retired

2022 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship

1 Charles Leclerc 86
2 Max Verstappen 59
3 Sergio Pérez 54


2022 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship

1 Ferrari 124
2 Red Bull 113
3 Mercedes 77