Will Red Bull’s reliability continue? Five talking points for F1’s Imola round RaceFans

The first European race of the season at the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix is ​​also the first of three sprint weekends on the 2022 calendar.

It will present greater opportunities than usual, with far more points on offer this year, but the pitfalls remain for anyone who hits trouble in Saturday’s extra race.

Ferrari head to their first of two home rounds in a strong position in the points standings. And while rivals Red Bull are likely to be a close match on pace, their reliability is suspect.

As Formula 1 prepares to return to Imola for the third time in the last three years, here are the talking points for the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix.

Red Bull’s reliability troubles

Verstappen has retired from two of the first three races

Max Verstappen’s defense of his world championship crown has not gotten off to the strongest of starts, through no fault of his own. Despite winning the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Verstappen sits only sixth in the drivers’ championship, 46 points behind the man who he has been fighting with across all three rounds so far: Charles Leclerc.

There was little Verstappen could have done about the fuel system problems in his Red Bull which forced him out of two of the three races so far, both times from second place behind Leclerc. Were it not for the double retirement, the margin may sit around just ten points instead.

With Red Bull’s cars only seeing the checkered flag three times out of a possible of six, and further problems for junior team AlphaTauri, the newly-rebadged Red Bull Powertrains have the worst reliability rate of the four power unit manufacturers in this early part of the season. Not the ideal start to Red Bull’s tenure as operator of their Honda designed power units.

Despite the setbacks, Verstappen has shown Red Bull has pace to at least keep up with the Ferrari over the first three races. But while Christian Horner claims the team would much rather “fix a fast car” than speed up a more reliable one, he will know that both Red Bull and their champion driver cannot afford to continue losing so many points to Ferrari, even with so many breeds still to come later in the season.

Return of the sprint race

Like or loathe the sprint race format, Formula 1’s divisive new concept is back for 2022 after a three round trial last season convinced FOM that the commercial appeal is there for sprint races.

The sprint race format returns this weekend

This season, the 100km race on Saturday evening will be more impactful than it was last year, with far more points on offer than previously for the top eight finishers, rather than just the top three. But while F1 insists that the driver who finishes the traditional three-stage qualifying session quickest overall will be credited with ‘pole position’, it will still be whoever takes the checked flag first on Saturday who will earn the right to start from the front of the grid on Sunday.

But beyond setting the starting order for the grand prix, the sprint race will impact on the entire weekend schedule, with only a single one hour practice session on Friday morning before cars are locked into parc ferme conditions for qualifying and the rest of the weekend.

Teams therefore know getting their set-up right early will be critical. As Haas showed in Australia, missing your car’s optimal performance window on Friday could severely compromise your performance over the rest of the weekend.

Can Ferrari be stopped at home?

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Albert Park, 2022
Leclerc will leave Imola with the championship lead

After three rounds and with 71 points to his name, Ferrari and Leclerc are enjoying the strongest start to a season in Formula 1 since Nico Rosberg won the first four rounds of the 2016 season.

It has not been easy for Ferrari, with Verstappen and Red Bull nipping at their heels in Bahrain and then outpacing them in Saudi Arabia, but Leclerc’s dominating win in Australia firmly established Ferrari as the early team to beat. Now the Scuderia arrives back in their homeland for the first of two Italian rounds in 2022 and the expectation of the Tifosi will be greater than team principal Mattia Binotto, drivers Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jnr and many others in the team will have experienced before.

“We have earned some time with our families over Easter, but then we will get back to it, working on the next race, which being at Imola, takes on even greater importance,” said Binotto after their Australian Grand Prix triumph. “We can’t wait to be there and we’re looking forward to seeing the circuit packed with our fans to share this good start to the year.”

With Leclerc guaranteed to leave Imola with the championship lead whatever happens over the weekend and Sainz desperate for a strong result after throwing away any chance at points in Melbourne, both Ferrari drivers will be as motivated as it is possible for them to be heading into this weekend.

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How will upgrades affect the established order?

The rate of development for the 2022 season was always going to be exceedingly high, given that this is the debut season for such a radical different set of technical regulations. Three races down, there’s three weekends’ worth of data for all ten teams to analyze and all would have been hard at work on developing upgrades for their new cars since before the lights went out in Bahrain to start the season.

After two races in the Middle East and a third in Australia, the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix provides the best and most cost-effective opportunity for teams to introduce significant upgrades to their cars. Especially for Mercedes, AlphaTauri and Alfa Romeo, who each opted not to bring any kind of revised parts to Albert Park last time out.

Lewis Hamilton, in particular, was eager to push for upgrades to the Mercedes W13 for the upcoming weekend and not for them to arrive three or four races down the line. However, Toto Wolff has suggested Mercedes may not be so forthcoming with upgrades for this weekend as their priority is to understand what has gone wrong with their 2022 design, to do which they require some consistent data.

Prior to the season, some technical chiefs in the paddock predicted that the porpoising phenomenon that affects some cars far more noticeably than others would be solved some five or six races into the year. While that mark has not quite been reached just yet, Imola – as a conventional kind of circuit – will make for a useful measure of which teams are making genuine progress and who still have work to do in this early phase of the season.

Was McLaren’s Melbourne pace a flash in the pan?

Lando Norris, McLaren, Albert Park, 2022
Norris was pessimistic about McLaren’s Australian form

After a relatively dismal opening two round, McLaren appeared to have made major progress with their MCL36 in Australia by comfortably reaching Q3 with both cars before Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo secured fifth and sixth in the race.

Usually, such a turnaround would be reason for new-found optimism and improved morale, but Norris was at pains to downplay McLaren’s performance in Australia as evidence that they would now be fighting for points every weekend once more.

“I think what we’ve seen this weekend is just there are some tracks which suit the car and some which don’t,” explained Norris after Australia.

“The thing is, if we went back to Bahrain, we’d still be P13 in qualifying and we’d finish two laps down or whatever. The car’s exactly the same, which is the problem.”

With a combination of high speed straights and technical chicanes and 90 degree turns, Imola is not vastly different to Albert Park in terms of layout. But whether McLaren’s pace carries over from Australia to Italy remains to be seen.

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Are you going to the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix?

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