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IMOLA, ITALY - APRIL 18: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 during the F1 Grand Prix of Emilia Romagna at Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari on April 18, 2021 in Imola, Italy. (Photo by Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Imola predictions: Will Ferrari come out on top once again?

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As F1 returns to Europe for the first time in 2022, we look at who will prevail in Imola.

What have previous outings to Imola looked like?

The venue returned to the calendar for the first time in 14 years back in 2020, when many tracks could not host races due to the pandemic.

Previously, the San Marino Grand Prix was hosted here between 1981 and 2006.

The 2020 race saw Bottas take pole before teammate Hamilton charged ahead for the win. 

Verstappen had tyre failure and his car was beached, resulting in a significant safety car period. During this, Williams’ George Russell swerved into the wall just as it looked like he was going to score his first points.

Although many believed the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix would be a one-off, its return in 2021 was highly anticipated. 

That wet race will forever be remembered for the high-speed crash between Bottas and Russell, which caused some rifts in the Mercedes family.

In the close-fought championship battle, Verstappen drove a dominant race as Hamilton crossed the line in second, ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris.

Imole 2021 podium (Photo by Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)
Weather forecast

F1’s last trip to Imola saw heavy rainfall, causing drivers to start on intermediate tyres.

To the dismay of fans, this is unlikely to be repeated this weekend.

There is a chance of rain on Friday, which could significantly affect qualifying results. There has not yet been a wet session this season, so it is hard to tell which teams could use the bad weather to their advantage.

Saturday and Sunday are more likely to be sunny, with a low chance of rain for both the sprint and main race.

Are any teams bringing upgrades to Imola?

As tradition dictates, almost half the grid is developing their cars going into the first European round.

Naturally, bosses have been fairly reserved about the exact details of their upgrades. However, it appears that Alpine will be making the most drastic changes.

Team principal Otmar Szafnauer said that Alpine’s changes will be “all aero”, and it is believed that the upgrades will focus on the floor of the car.

Elsewhere, Red Bull’s Christian Horner shut down rumours of a major upgrade package.

“It’s all part of [an] evolution,” he explained. “Being a sprint race, you get very little time to evaluate these things. You’ve got to be very confident about what you’re putting on the car.”

Title rivals Ferrari are thought to introduce limited changes. Ambassador Marc Gene said to Sky Sports News that the team were not planning on bringing “that many” updates due to the format. He also emphasised their focus on perfecting a low set-up for all sessions. 

Mercedes have struggled with performance so far, and it’s unlikely that we’ll see them take a sudden leap forward. Despite this, Toto Wolff seemed confident in the team’s abilities.

He said: “There was a lot of hard work over the Easter weekend in the factory to make improvements to the car and get it ready for the next race. That shows the team’s dedication to turning things around.” 

Whilst they cannot match the pace of Ferrari and Red Bull, be careful not to rule out the Brackley outfit. Russell and Hamilton have proved their skill at capitalising on others’ misfortune, with the former snatching a podium in Australia after Sainz and Verstappen retired.

How is the format different this weekend?

Imola will host the first of three sprint races this season after the format was deemed a success last year.

The normal qualifying sessions will take place on Friday before drivers compete in a shortened 21-lap race on Saturday afternoon.

In a change from 2021, the top eight finishers in the sprint race will all earn points – 1st place will take eight points, 2nd will take seven, etc.

This adjustment could have long-term implications for the championship. If a driver has a perfect weekend (winning the sprint race, Grand Prix, and securing the fastest lap), they could achieve a whopping 34 points rather than the usual 26.

Another change focuses on who receives the official pole position title. Last year, the winner of the sprint race took it.

After complaints from drivers, the title will now belong to whoever sets the fastest time in qualifying, just like every other race weekend. 

As Horner mentioned above, the sprint race format impacts teams’ development plans. The added session means that they only get one hour of practice before set-ups are locked in for qualifying.

Who’s likely to excel in qualifying?

It’s certainly not bold to predict that the battle between Red Bull and Ferrari will continue at the top.

So far, it looks like the Bulls stand out with their end-of-straight speeds. Their only pole came in Jeddah, which is undoubtedly a super-fast circuit.

On the other hand, the F1-75 aces low-speed corners and is a master at acceleration.

Focusing on Imola, Sector 1 is likely to be Red Bull’s strongest due to its high-speed nature. However, Ferrari may have an advantage in areas such as the hill coming out of Acque Minerale. 

If the top teams are that evenly matched, who will come out on top?

Sainz announced a contract extension to 2024 – this show of confidence from the team could boost his motivation after a poor weekend in Australia. Maybe we’ll see the Spaniard secure his first pole position.

On the other side of the garage, teammate Leclerc is on a roll. Coming off the back of a dominant performance, it’s highly probable that he will continue his strong run and set the fastest time.

Leclerc achieved his first grand slam out in Australia (Photo by Mark Peterson ATPImages/Getty Images)

If I had to choose between the two, I would lean more towards Leclerc. Although Ferrari has said they’re not yet choosing a first driver, the Monagasque’s qualifying performances have been stronger than his teammate.

Red Bull’s drivers have lagged slightly behind the Italian team in qualifying, with the exception of Checo’s pole in Saudi Arabia. 

Ferrari also has the benefit of this being their home race, so they’re our favourites for pole position.

Who could surprise in Imola?

It would be too easy to predict Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes as the top three teams.

Whilst this does seem to be the pattern of the season, there have been flashes of brilliance from Alpine. 

Alonso was close to beating Leclerc’s pole lap before a hydraulics issue led to him spinning out of Q3 in Melbourne. 

Alonso was rapid in Melbourne before a Q3 crash (Photo by Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Both he and Ocon have shown consistently strong drives over the first few races. This, combined with the rumoured floor upgrades, could see the team confidently at the top of the midfield.

In addition, McLaren will be hoping to continue their upward trajectory coming out of Australia. With Norris taking a podium in Imola last year, they could easily see themselves in the top 10 again.

What could strategies look like?

The tyres have had a makeover for 2022, so teams will have to start from scratch in terms of strategy.

Pirelli boss Mario Isola explained: “Imola is an old style and challenging track. Overtaking can be difficult, so a strategy designed to avoid traffic is likely. 

“Imola is an average severe track for tires, plus it is used quite often. This means that we could see the track evolve slightly less than on other circuits, as it is already well rubberised from the start.”

Teams are unlikely to have to consider using intermediates during the actual races. Other than that, there is little to go off in regards to tyre strategy.

Could a red flag switch up the weekend?

An incident in Imola is highly likely based on both previous outings and recent events.

Looking at the venue, parts of the track are relatively narrow. The main overtaking opportunities are at turns 1, 7 and 17, so any manoeuver attempted elsewhere could end in disaster.

Adding to this, the fragility of the RB18 has been made abundantly clear.

Both Verstappen and Perez suffered from fuel pressure problems in the season opener, and the Dutch racer was forced to retire again due to a fuel leak in Australia.

If the Red Bull faces another similar issue and becomes beached (à la Max in Imola 2020), there could be a safety car period or even a red flag. 

Final standings prediction

It could go either way, but I reckon at least one Red Bull will experience a mechanical problem and retire.

If we assume that the unfortunate driver is Verstappen again, Perez will fail to achieve a podium. With his teammate out of the race on Sunday, he will likely drop back. 

With a new deal to stimulate him, Sainz will take his first-ever win in F1. Leclerc will inevitably be right behind him, resulting in a Ferrari 1-2.

Whilst their performance will propel them even further ahead in the constructors’ standings, there will be a surprise on the last step of the podium.

It’s about time that Alpine’s promising drives brought the team a tangible result. Alonso’s old magic touch will return, and he’ll cross the line in third to solidify Alpine’s place at top of the midfield.

Further down, Russell’s run of bad luck in Imola will hinder his performance, whilst the unreliability of the Aston will lead to yet another retirement for Lance Stroll.

The full standings will look like this: 

Do I have too much faith in Fernando Alonso and that Alpine? Probably! Should I have higher expectations for Red Bull? Almost definitely.

What madness do you think we could see in the first sprint race of the season? Let me know in the comments.

Featured Image Credit: Getty Images

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