Formula 1: Lights Out - What to look for in Emilia Romagna GP
The Formula 1 circus heads to Europe for the first time this year as they make the first of two trips to Italy for round four of the 2022 season, the Emilia Romagna GP at Imola.
Located just an hour from Ferrari's Maranello factory, last year's Emilia Romagna race was a dramatic affair as drivers struggled with wet conditions in the early stages of the race, before a huge collision between George Russell and Valtteri Bottas resulted in a red flag.
Max Verstappen was the eventual winner, but Charles Leclerc, who spun on the formation lap last year before taking fourth in the race, is 2.75 favourite to take all 25 points this weekend.
Sprint race shake-up
The Emilia Romagna Grand Prix is the first of three sprint weekends planned for the 2022 calendar and there have been a few changes to the format after last season's trial run.
Qualifying will still take place on Friday afternoon after just one hour of practice running earlier in the day, with a second practice session on Saturday morning being followed by a 100km sprint race to determine the final grid order for Sunday's feature race - with Leclerc 2.25 to win the sprint race and Verstappen 1.80.
This year's sprint venues are perhaps the biggest talking points. Interlagos has retained its position after serving up the most thrilling of the sprint races last year as Lewis Hamilton battled through the field, but Silverstone and Monza have been dropped in favour of Imola and the Red Bull Ring in Austria.
The points on offer have also been increased in an attempt to encourage more adventurous racing, with eight points - up from three - on offer for the winner and the points extending down to eighth place rather than just the top three.
Finally, the official pole position will now be awarded to the fastest qualifier in Friday's session rather than the winner of the sprint. However, the winner of the sprint will still start Sunday's Grand Prix from the front of the grid, so this change is purely for the record books.
Rain on the radar
The first three races of the new season have seen scorching temperatures and not even the merest hint of rain - hardly surprising given the venues - but this weekend is expected to give fans their first taste of the new Formula 1 cars in the wet.
Heavy rain before the race caused havoc at Imola last year, with Fernando Alonso hitting the wall on the way to the grid, Sebastian Vettel overheating his brakes and Leclerc spinning his Ferrari all before the lights went out.
This weekend's weather is expected to be at its worst for Friday's practice and qualifying sessions, while both Saturday and Sunday are forecast largely dry but with a small chance of rain muddying the waters for engineers and strategists alike.
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Ferrari favourites to taste home success
Leclerc became the first Ferrari driver to win in Italy since Fernando Alonso in 2010 when he took the chequered flag at Monza in 2019 and more home-soil success could be on the cards for the Prancing Horse this year.
The Emilia Romagna event is the first of two scheduled pit-stops in Ferrari's homeland this season and the layout at Imola makes it their biggest chance of extending their championship lead.
Imola is a high-downforce track with relatively short straights and, on the surface at least, looks to heavily favour Ferrari.
The high-speed first sector, which contains the only DRS zone of the circuit, could favour the power-focused Red Bull, but sectors two and three are punctuated by slow corners and should tip the scales in Ferrari's favour, with a double-podium finish for the home side priced at 2.20.
However, the second trip to Italy in September could see Ferrari face much stiffer competition at Monza, which is aptly nicknamed the Temple of Speed and hugely favours power-focused setups.
Reliability trumps pace
This week Toto Wolff said "I'd probably say that the odds are 20/80" with regards to Mercedes winning a record eighth World Constructors Championship, but there is no doubt their chances would be much slimmer were it not for the reliability issues that are plaguing Red Bull.
Red Bull have suffered three retirements in as many races and, while they have a clear pace advantage over the Mercedes, these DNFs mean they sit ten points adrift of the Silver Arrows in the Constructors' Championship, with Verstappen behind both Mercedes drivers in the Drivers' Championship.
Mercedes, meanwhile, are almost a second off the pace - a lifetime in the world of F1 - but are the only constructor to have both cars finish all three races this season and that reliability is keeping them in the hunt.
They have as many podiums as Red Bull despite the huge pace deficit and have had both drivers finish in the points in every race so far.
Wolff and company still find themselves 17.00 outsiders and a hefty 39 points adrift of the super-quick and relatively reliable Ferrari (7.00), but with their history of mid-season development you certainly would not want to write them off.
On the subject of upgrades, there are no new packages expected for Mercedes this weekend as they continue to try and understand the issues affecting them.
However, once they do get on top of this ongoing problem it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Brackley-based team make some huge leaps forward.
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