Ferrari will be expected to deliver at Imola as the Tifosi return for the first time since 2006.
Formula 1 heads to the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, for the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix, with Ferrari leading the way in both championships.
Charles Leclerc has a 34-point cushion after victories in Bahrain and Australia and second place in Saudi Arabia.
The scarlet cars have also amassed a combined 104 points from the opening three races of 2022, as the cars from Maranello have been the class act of the field thus far.
This weekend will see the first of three sprint races for 2022, after the trial runs of 2021.
And if that is not enough to whet your appetite, rain is forecast for Friday afternoon.
Despite his championship lead, Leclerc won’t be resting on his laurels though, as the Tifosi will now demand victory on home turf, something they haven’t witnessed in Italy since the 24-year-old won at Monza in 2019.
Ferrari hasn’t won at Imola since Michael Schumacher was victorious in 2006, although the circuit did drop off the calendar after that season’s grand prix.
And Ferrari will be favourites in 2022 as F1 travels to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy for the third year in a row, following the circuit’s return in 2020.
No longer holding the “San Marino Grand Prix”, Imola hosts the third running of the Gran Premio del Made in Italy e dell’ Emilia-Romagna.
Or you can call it the Imola Grand Prix if that’s easier!
The circuit, which first held an F1 race in 1980, will appear on the calendar for the 29th time, although it has undergone some transformations since then.
Of course, the most notable changes came following the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, where Roland Ratzenberger and triple world champion, Ayrton Senna, both lost their lives in accidents at the circuit.
The circuit has retained corners such as Piratella, Acque Minerali and the Rivazza’s which, according to Williams Head of Vehicle Performance, Dave Robson, “are all as demanding as they ever were.”
Charles Leclerc aiming to dazzle again
Leclerc has a commanding position at the top of the driver’s standings and will be aiming to back up his dominant victory in Australia by rising to the occasion this weekend.
The four-time grand prix winner has shown that he is a personality capable of rising to the occasion.
His maiden win at Spa came the day after the loss of his friend Anthoine Hubert and his second came seven days later, under intense pressure from the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Bottas, in front of a home crowd at Monza.
Leclerc kicked his 2022 campaign off by winning a tussle with Max Verstappen in Bahrain and then delivered his first “Grand Slam” in Melbourne.
Leclerc goes into the weekend as favourite for victory on Sunday, having dropped only seven points from the available 78.
The three circuits visited so far have offered different challenges in both car setup and driving style, with Ferrari in contention for victory at all three.
The F1-75 has appeared driver friendly and, most importantly, rapid.
A confident Leclerc and harmonious Ferrari is already looking like a formidable proposition for any other team and driver combination.
One driver hoping that Leclerc does not have things all his own way at Ferrari’s first home event of the season is Carlos Sainz.
The Spaniard has been there or thereabouts on qualifying pace against Leclerc, though he has yet to out-qualify his team-mate.
This speaks to Leclerc’s innate ability to deliver when it matters most.
Sainz has his own reasons to respond in Imola, after his Australia weekend unravelled dramatically, concluding with the number 55 Ferrari beached in the gravel trap.
There has been a lot of talk since the chequered flag in Albert Park about the 27-year-old falling into a “number two” position within the team.
A victory, or at least beating Leclerc, would go a little way to allaying those rumours.
Sainz will understand the task ahead of him, but will also be desperate to deliver his first career win this weekend.
The longer that maiden win takes to arrive, the further away any title bid will drift.
Red Bull chances hinge on reliability
It has been feast or famine for Max Verstappen in 2022.
After a fuel pump problem caused a DNF in Bahrain, the world champion bounced back with triumph in Jeddah, before another fuel system related issue curtailed his Australian grand prix, although he was likely not going to catch Leclerc.
Still though, that is already an awful lot of points down the drain for the Dutchman.
Sergio Perez leads his team mate by five points following his podium finish in Melbourne.
Significantly, the Mexican has more at home in the RB18, having scored his first pole in Jeddah and generally been closer to matching Verstappen’s pace.
There is no doubt that the Red Bull package can compete with the Ferrari, based on pure performance.
The massive achilleas for the Milton Keynes team has been reliability. They have just a 50% finishing record in 2022, whereas rivals Mercedes have got both cars to the flag at all three rounds, the only team to have achieved this.
If Red Bull can keep both cars functioning until the flag falls on Sunday, they have a very good chance of making it back-to-back wins at Imola.
Of course, the best bet for that would be Verstappen, but do not forget that Perez beat his team leader in qualifying in 2021 and has already done so this season.
All that said, to finish first, first you must finish.
Mercedes, McLaren or Alpine to challenge?
In Australia there was a group of three, fairly closely matched, teams trailing the lead pair of Ferrari and Red Bull.
Mercedes, McLaren and Alpine were all squabbling over being the best of the rest.
McLaren headed the battle in qualifying with Lando Norris in fourth, although Alpine would likely have had the trump card in Alonso, had he not suffered the hydraulics problem in qualifying, sending him crashing out of Q3.
Mercedes eventually bagged the position as best of the rest, with much stronger race pace, after both Hamilton and Russell leapt ahead of Norris at the start.
You would assume that world champions Mercedes will be best of the rest again but Alpine have a car that, when on song, has the potential to lead the midfield.
Whether you count Mercedes as part of the midfield, that is up to you.
McLaren have shown that they are ready to seize opportunities that fall there way, as Alpine’s weekend down under failed to deliver on the promise through practice and qualifying.
Don’t discount Alfa Romeo and Haas being stronger in Imola. The two Ferrari powered cars dropped back in the competitive order in Melbourne, although Alfa still scored an eighth place with Bottas.
Sprint races are back – how do they work and what has changed for 2022?
Imola will play host to the first sprint weekend of 2022.
The format was met with a mixed reception in 2021, after trials at Silverstone, Monza and Interlagos.
Friday’s first practice is the same, but is the only session ahead of Friday evening qualifying.
This session will set the starting order for the sprint race, which is contested over 100km, with no mandatory pit stop.
The idea is that drivers are competing flat-out, the whole distance.
At the end of 100km, the finishing order of the sprint decides the starting grid for Sunday’s race.
Two things have changed for 2022.
Firstly, points are awarded to the top eight drivers in the sprint, on an 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis, rather than 3-2-1 for the top 3 previously.
Secondly, the driver who sets the fastest qualifying time on Friday, will be awarded the “pole position” in the records.
Last year, the “pole position” was noted as the driver who won the sprint race.
Although the sprint format was not a conclusive success, it certainly did have an effect on how race day panned out.
At Silverstone, Hamilton failed to regain his lost advantage to Verstappen on the Saturday, after setting the fastest lap in Friday qualifying.
This led to the most intense opening lap for a long time, climaxing in a dramatic collision at Copse corner. Verstappen hit the barrier, Hamilton survived and won the race after serving a 10-second penalty.
In Italy, Valtteri Bottas won the sprint, as Hamilton fell back at the start. But the Finn would give up the pole as he had an engine penalty to serve, dropping him to the back.
This promoted Ricciardo’s McLaren to the front row. He out-dragged Verstappen to turn 1 and lead the race. This eventually put Hamilton and Verstappen wheel-to-wheel later in the race, following the pit-stops, resulting in another controversial and extraordinary tangle.
The final sprint of 2022 was in Brazil, where Hamilton again set the qualifying pace, before being disqualified for a technical infringement with the rear wing DRS flap.
The seven-time champion fought from last on the grid to fifth, in 24 laps of Sao Paulo. He would not even start there, serving a five-place grid drop for an extra internal combustion engine.
From 10th on the grid, Hamilton dismissed those in front until only Verstappen remained. They duelled multiple times, with both at one stage wildly off track, before Hamilton passed and scored a critical and utterly stunning victory.
While the sprint races themselves were somewhat uneventful, aside from Alonso’s first lap aggression, Gasly’s clumsiness and subsequent crash and the Hamilton fight back.
Considering that the race day following each sprint provided one of the many major talking points of the 2021 season, you can regard them as a success. After all, qualifying can be predictable but one error on race day can undo all that hard work, just as Lewis Hamilton about Monaco in 2015.
Williams’ Alexander Albon and Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu will be competing in a sprint weekend for the first time.
Anglo-Thai Albon said he is “looking forward to both the challenges and opportunities it will bring.”
Opportunities to overtake are likely to be hard to come by, given the narrow track and the consequences even the smallest error will have. Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly said: “It will be important to focus on qualifying on Friday.”
Will the weather interfere again?
Rain is forecast for the weekend and it might have an influence on the outcome, as it did in 2021.
The rain fell ahead of the start on Sunday, with the resulting switch to slicks catching out Hamilton as he chased Verstappen through lapped traffic.
The Mercedes slid off at Tosa and damaged his front-wing, before he carefully reversed out of trouble, losing several positions as a consequence.
His saving grace was the red flag for the carbon-fibre confetti show that was the breath-taking collision between Bottas and Russell, which allowed the remaining Mercedes to regain the lap he lost while in the pits for repairs, as he recovered to second place.
According to weather.com and BBC Weather, there is a chance of rain on Friday, which could disrupt qualifying, while the former suggests a chance of scattered thunderstorms on race day too.
Rain is always a lottery and can provides opportunity and danger in equal measure. There was artificial wet running in the Barcelona pre-season session, but the new-for-2022 machines have yet to be tried out in anger in the rain.
Where better to try them out than Imola, with some of the most challenging corners on the calendar?