Formula One is back in Europe for the first time this season following three highly intriguing races to start the campaign.
While Charles Leclerc and Ferrari have built commanding leads in both world championships, the Maranello-based outfit are sure to be tested on home soil as Red Bull look to bounce back from reliability issues and Mercedes hope to take advantage of unpredictable weather following their poor start to the season.
There’s plenty in the pipeline when the drivers take to the Imola circuit, including the new sprint race format, as Sportsmail looks at seven reasons why you can’t miss this weekend’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix…
Formula One returns to Europe and Imola, where local fans will be desperate for a Ferrari win
The return of sprint races
A new concept tested at three Grands Prix last season, sprint races make their return in 2022 but there have been some big changes and they are more relevant than ever.
Tested at Silverstone, Monza and Interlagos in 2021, Imola is the first of three venues where sprint races will be back on the calendar with the Red Bull Ring also featuring alongside a return to Sao Paulo.
Firstly – to clarify what a sprint race is – it is just a shortened version of a Grand Prix (around 30 minutes) that will take place on a Saturday instead of the traditional qualifying session.
The order in which the cars finish the sprint will determine how the grid lines up for Sunday’s race, just like how qualifying usually does. The starting order of the sprint race is determined by a qualifying session held on Friday.
Sprint races were held at three venues last season including Interlagos, Brazil (above)
TOP SIX TITLE STANDINGS
1. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) 71 points
2. George Russell (Mercedes) 37
3. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) 33
4. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) 30
5. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 28
6. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 25
1. Ferrari 104 points
2. Mercedes 65
3. Red Bull 55
4. McLaren 24
5. Alpine 22
6. Alfa Romeo 13
In this regard, there have been no changes between 2021 and 2022 but there have still been a few tweaks to take note of.
The biggest is they are now more important than ever. Last year the sprint race winner received three points, with one and two points handed out to third and second respectively.
This, however, didn’t dangle enough of a carrot for many drivers to be daring in overtaking attempts so greater points are now on offer. The winner will now receive eight points with each position below scoring a point fewer down to one point for eighth place.
In a rather confusing and controversial decision too, pole position for the Grand Prix will be awarded to the fastest driver in qualifying for the sprint race. So if Lewis Hamilton were to qualify first for the sprint race and finish fourth during it, he would start Sunday’s Grand Prix from fourth but still be credited with pole position for the weekend.
So how does this shape up the whole weekend? Friday’s one hour practice in the morning will remain but the late practice session is replaced by sprint race qualifying which runs just like traditional qualifying with its Q1, Q2 and Q3 elimination format.
Saturday morning practice remains but is known as the second practice rather than the third, while the traditional qualifying in the afternoon is replaced by the sprint race. Sunday’s running with just the main event of the Grand Prix remains unaffected.
Sergio Perez celebrates with his pole position trophy alongside chef Gordon Ramsay at last month’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
Only Formula One fans can get excited by a weekend of cold, wet and changeable conditions.
But they have good reason to. It’s these conditions that often throw up incredible action and unpredictable results, and you can never have too much of that despite the exciting start to the 2022 campaign.
Imola was wet last year, of course, when Max Verstappen stormed to victory and weather forecasts predict more rain to come throughout the weekend in Italy.
Friday qualifying has the highest chance of seeing rain at around 16 degrees Celsius and while the sprint races and Grand Prix on Saturday and Sunday respectively expect temperatures of around 20 degrees, there remains a fair chance of rain falling.
An awful few nights’ sleep await for race strategists with the lack of certainty, but for everyone else it’s a highly-anticipated wait to see who has the car and driver combo best equipped for wet-weather running.
Imola was hit by wet racing last season, as Max Verstappen (right) and Lewis Hamilton jostle for position heading into the first chicane
Red Bull improvements
The great Murray Walker said it best: To finish first, first you must finish.
Red Bull have proven in the first three races that their 2022 challenger is quick enough to battle for the championship, but is it reliable enough?
In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Australia their combined six starts have produced three retirements, all related to mechanical failure concerning their engines – with world champion Verstappen suffering two of them.
Already, that leaves him a big 46 points behind Charles Leclerc in the championship, even if there is still a long way in the season to go.
So have Red Bull fixed their gremlins ahead of the weekend? According to chief Helmut Marko, Honda, who have been helping Red Bull develop their own powertrain, are hopeful of having found a solution.
‘Reliability. We had to take a lot of punishment and we are now well behind Charles Leclerc. However, we have dealt with things quickly,’ Marko told Austrian broadcaster ORF.
‘The problems we had in Bahrain were different to the problems we had in Australia and also different to the problems we had during the winter tests. But according to Honda, we can count on the problems being fixed before the next race.’
Marko has also claimed there will be upgrades for their cars at Imola, telling RTL: ‘We take this risk of bringing new parts with just one practice session. We want to attack fully and see our chance instead of just waiting. Ferrari and Leclerc are too strong for that’.
Verstappen was forced to retire from the Australian Grand Prix from second place
Mercedes hanging tough
It’s been an odd start to the season for Mercedes. They are way off the pace and are in danger of suffering their worst campaign in nine years while being way out of title contention.
But despite being considerably slower than Ferrari and Red Bull, they head to Imola second in both world championships.
While they may be slower than Red Bull, they have been far more reliable and that blend has so far allowed them to largely maximise their realistic points availability in the first three races.
Unfortunately, there still appears to be no quick fix on the way regarding their porpoising issues. That is creating instability as they run at high speeds – of which there are plenty of areas around Imola.
They could, though, still pinch another decent result at Imola with the wet conditions a favourite for Hamilton, while George Russell also proved at last season’s Belgian Grand Prix – where he qualified second in a Williams – that he too can handle tough conditions.
Russell currently has a nine-point gap over Hamilton in the championship and is looking to finish ahead of his illustrious seven-time world champion team-mate for the third race in a row.
Hamilton, meanwhile, will be looking to hit back against two-time champion Mika Hakkinen’s claims that he has been ‘sulking’, with a stand-out performance.
Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have struggled with porpoising on their car this season
George Russell (left) leads his British compatriot by nine points in the championship
More overtaking and DRS tactics
Formula One fans were a little spoiled in the first two races of the season with plenty of on-track battles and overtaking at the Bahrain and Saudi Arabian Grands Prix.
That was rather reduced in Australia, despite some impressive moves – notably from Sergio Perez for Red Bull – especially as out in front Charles Leclerc cruised to a win.
But Imola has greater promise of overtaking, especially with the new rules for 2022 introduced to make cars more able to run closely together.
There is just one DRS zone that runs into the first corner. The detection zone for this comes at turn 17 near the end of the lap at the first Rivazza corner, which in itself offers an overtaking opportunity to cars coming out of the Variante Alta chicane in the previous section.
The fun and games we saw between Verstappen and Leclerc in Saudi Arabia – where neither wanted to be a victim of DRS-assisted passing and tried to reach a detection corner as the trailing driver – could come into play once more.
But fans will be more than happy to see another classic Imola duel such as the ones produced by Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher in 2005 and 2006 where they battled furiously for the lead up until the final corner in both years.
Michael Schumacher (left) and Fernando Alonso (right) enjoyed stunning Imola duels in 2005 (above) and 2006 when the track held the San Marino Grand Prix
Another new Imola winner?
Imola has been rather curious in its most recent race winners and even in its history of repeat winners.
Only four drivers have ever won the race two years running since its first race as the Italian Grand Prix in 1980. Nelson Piquet triumphed, then repeated the feat the next year when the track returned to hold the San Marino Grand Prix.
But only Ayrton Senna, Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher, who won the race five times in six seasons from 1999 to 2004, achieved back-to-back wins before the race dropped off the calendar in 2006.
Fernando Alonso and Schumacher won the final two events before it was replaced, while Lewis Hamilton and Verstappen have triumphed most recently at the track since its 2020 return as the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.
With Charles Leclerc having established an early advantage in 2022, he could now make it five unique winners in a row and it would prove a highly-popular one too…
Charles Leclerc could become the fifth different winner at Imola in as many races
Ferrari’s first home race
Monza is the traditional home of the Tifosi for the Italian Grand Prix, but let’s not kid ourselves. With the Emilia Romagna race being held in Italy this is Ferrari territory and you can bet the grandstands will be full of locals cheering on those red cars.
It’s not just the grandstands either, with Imola also being notable for effectively taking place in people’s back gardens… giving some very lucky fans the chance to watch the race live at the venue from within their own home!
Charles Leclerc has won two of the first three races and was only pipped to victory in the closing laps at Saudi Arabia by Verstappen. Expectations are high once again for Ferrari fans who will be partisan in support of the world championship leader who is looking to become the team’s first world champion since Kimi Raikkonen in 2007.
The sight of the ‘Tifosi’ will be a welcome one as F1 returns to its heartland in Europe, where the sport’s traditional fanbases are likely to provide a superb atmosphere.
Imola is held close to residential homes and is expected to draw a large Ferrari crowd