Charles Leclerc is in for a momentous weekend if Ferrari’s early season form holds firm in the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix with the team’s tifosi ready to turn Imola into a sea of red.
Ferrari fans could well have double cause for celebration with Sunday’s race accompanied by the first of this year’s three beefed-up sprints.
The winner of Saturday’s 100km dash around the bumpy old school circuit will earn eight points compared to only three in last year’s trials.
The outcome of the sprint defines the grid for the main race, while in a change the honour of pole position now goes to the driver who tops Friday qualifying for the speed event.
Leclerc is riding the crest of a wave after joining the select group of drivers to achieve F1’s ‘Grand Slam’ – pole, win, fastest lap and lead throughout in Australia.
His Melbourne masterclass, after a win in the Bahrain season-opener and second in Saudi Arabia, has netted 71 of the 78 points available.
George Russell, settling in nicely at Mercedes, is 34 points adrift in second with his seven-time champion teammate Lewis Hamilton a further five points back.
The constructors world champions cancelled Easter as they frantically searched for the answer to their car’s deficiencies before it is too late.
“We know we haven’t got the pace of the Ferrari and Red Bull right now, but we’re working hard to reduce their advantage,” said team principal Toto Wolff on Wednesday.
“There’s been a lot of hard work over the Easter weekend in the factory to bring improvements to the car and get it ready to head to the next race, and that shows the team’s dedication to turning the situation around.”
Verstappen 46 points adrift
Red Bull have also been burning the midnight oil with world champion Max Verstappen suffering two retirements either side of his success in Saudi, and Sergio Perez also going out in Bahrain.
“Unacceptable” said the Dutchman after seeing a likely 18 points disappear in a puff of his broken-down car’s smoke in Melbourne last time out.
As a result, he is hoping for a more “straightforward” weekend at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari circuit, he told F1.com, as he seeks to eat into Leclerc’s already sizeable 46-point lead.
“This is obviously the first sprint race of the year so it’s important to make the most of the first practice session so we have a good understanding of where the set up needs to be for qualifying on Friday,” he said.
While their main rivals play catch up Ferrari have produced a machine from Maranello that is fast, reliable, and ahead of the fourth race of 2022 a true championship contender.
“I think we worked hard and put a lot of priority on 2022. I knew the team was a great team and we improved ourselves compared to the past seasons,” Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto said in the run up to the first European leg of the calendar.
Behind the big three teams McLaren will be encouraged by both Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo finishing in the top six in Melbourne.
It was a case of what might have been for Fernando Alonso and Alpine in Australia. The two-time champion showed bags of speed in qualifying only to be undone by a hydraulics issue, and in the race was targeting a podium only for ill luck to leave him last.
After last year’s chaos in the rain, the Imola marshalls at least will be heartened by the forecast of a dry weekend although it may be a wet sprint qualifying on Friday.
Leclerc meanwhile, who had a luxury watch stolen from his wrist when out in Viareggio on Monday, knows that irrespective of where he finishes he will still be championship leader when he leaves Imola on Sunday night.
That is quite a turnaround from 2020 and Ferrari’s worst season in 40 years.