In racing, rain is the great equalizer. Weather can be the factor that erases the performance gap between cars, and the time where driver skill (and bravery) can shine. When the weather turns sour, the race becomes a whole different ball game.
Think about the late Ayrton Senna, who almost won in an inferior Toleman in the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, or Sebastian Vettel who earned his first win in a Toro Rosso in 2008. It's those special instances where mixed conditions bring out the very best. It can also bring out the worst days in racing drivers.
This year's Formula One Emilia Romagna Grand Prix was a prime example of that kind of race weekend. Max Verstappen took his 2nd win of the season and led Red Bull's 1-2 finish ahead of McLaren's Lando Norris.
The weather played a key role for the first time this season. As expected, there were some who excelled in changing conditions, while others simply slid out of contention. That of course leaves us with plenty to talk about after 63 laps of racing action at Imola.
Sprint race – good or bad?
Since last year, F1 introduced sprint races where pit strategy is a non-factor. All battles are decided on the track. Drivers have to take part in qualifying to determine their grid spot, and their finishing positions on the sprint race then become their grid slots for the main Sunday race.
Imola is the first of three sprint races held this season. And somehow, instead of spicing things up, the sprint race looked more of a hindrance for those who excelled in the wet qualifying session, namely Kevin Magnussen in the Haas who qualified 4th but finished the sprint in 8th, Fernando Alonso who managed 5th in the Alpine but will start the GP in 9th and Sebastian Vettel in 9th but dropped to 13th.
While their impressive showing earned them a nice grid spot, I feel that they didn't quite reap the merit they duly deserved as their performances were undone by the 21-lap sprint race held in dry conditions. It may have provided a nice spectacle for fans as Verstappen and Leclerc battled for the win of the sprint, but the drivers I mentioned all dropped back into their usual places for the main race.
F1 is still DRS-dependent
Formula One shifted to ground-effect aerodynamics this year to promote closer racing and make overtaking easier. And indeed, the first three races saw plenty of back and forth overtaking, with, of course, the assistance of the drag reduction system or DRS. Some actually wondered (including yours truly) if the close racing provided by these new aerodynamic rules is enough to allow drivers to overtake without DRS assistance, and remove it altogether for the future. The race at Imola gave us the answer to that question.
For about 34 laps, the race ran with drivers not allowed to use DRS. Unfortunately, during that time, all we saw was a train of F1 cars following each other closely, but not close enough to make an overtaking move stick. Only when the DRS was enabled did we see successful overtaking moves again. Track layout could have played a factor, but unfortunately, the glaring takeaway from this weekend is that F1 still needs its DRS to improve the spectacle.
Ferrari falters on home turf
The Emilia Romagna Grand Prix is the first of two races this season held in Ferrari's home, Italy. With the way the Prancing Horse is performing this year, the Tifosi would want nothing more than a championship from Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz. But as the race weekend transpired, that pressure might have affected the Ferrari duo in a negative way.
Charles Leclerc, who showed dominant form in the past three races this season, showed a chink in his armor at Imola. While chasing Sergio Perez for P2 late in the race, the Monegasque got too aggressive on the kerb and spun his Ferrari. Luckily, he was able to limp back to the pits and recover to finish P6. What could have been a sure P3 for damage limitation, ended up with a disappointing 6th in front of the Ferrari home crowd.
On the other hand, Carlos Sainz, who just signed a fresh two-year deal with Ferrari, had another disastrous weekend. The Spaniard spun during wet qualifying and only managed 10th. After making up ground in the sprint race to start 4th, he got tangled up in the main race with Daniel Ricciardo's McLaren at turn 1 and ended up beached in the gravel, effectively ending his race on the very first lap. Sainz now had DNFs in the last two races, and quite simply, the smooth operator is having a very rough time.
McLaren (Norris) back in 2021 form
McLaren entered the 2022 season with the goal of taking the fight to Mercedes, Red Bull, and Ferrari. However, they started the season badly in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The season looked grim for the Woking squad, but recently, their performances have been on the up. After double points scoring in Australia, the race at Imola solidified the fact that McLaren has overcome their early-season issues. Safe to say, McLaren is back to their 2021 form as arguably, the third-best team on the grid.
The McLaren duo of Norris and Ricciardo qualified 3rd and 6th for the sprint race where they finished 5th and 6th. As mentioned, the lap 1 incident ruined the main race for Ricciardo. But for the other McLaren driver, Lando Norris, capitalized on Leclerc's late-race blunder to earn his first podium finish of the season. While they're not quite there yet to challenge for race wins, McLaren now looks like a genuine podium contender.
Russell and Hamilton's contrasting weekends
The last race at Melbourne saw Mercedes' reliability working well to keep them in the fight while they sort out the W13. However, this race weekend turned out differently (in a bad way) for the defending champs, especially for their star driver Lewis Hamilton: he was lapped by his 2021 title rival, Max Verstappen. Ouch. That had to hurt.
At quali, both were already feeling the pain as both George Russell and Lewis Hamilton failed to reach Q3, and the Mercedes duo only started 11th and 13th. In the sprint race, they were unable to gain places, and even Hamilton dropped to 14th. But the main race saw a stark contrast between the two Mercedes drivers, as Russell was able to finish 4th and Hamilton left in a disappointing 13th.
It seems as though Russell is able to extract more from the troubled W13 than the seven-time world champion, as the young Brit has finished in the top 5 in all the races so far this season. Part of that could be due to Russell being used to an unwieldy car from his days at Williams compared to Hamilton, who has driven far superior cars in the last 8 years.
Quite simply, Hamilton is being shown up by his new teammate, similar to what Daniel Ricciardo and Charles Leclerc did to Sebastian Vettel in 2014 and 2019. Your move, Sir Lewis.
Aston Martin's first points of the season
All Formula One teams have now scored points after Imola. That is after Aston Martin scored a double points finish with Sebastian Vettel finishing 8th and Lance Stroll in 10th. Both drivers had a competitive showing and it's the first time this season that the team had a genuine midfield pace to contend for points.
Two apiece for Verstappen and Leclerc
After Imola, the battle has become closer in both the constructors' and drivers' championships. Ferrari and Charles Leclerc are still leading, but they have to get their act together for the next races, especially with Red Bull and Max Verstappen showing that they're just as capable of getting the grand slam as Ferrari did in Melbourne.
As it stands, Leclerc and Verstappen now have two wins each and we could be in store for another duel between the two at the next race in Miami. It's a new track, and yet another puyat racing in store for Filipino F1 fans as the race will start locally at 3:30 AM. The race is on May 9, election day. Is anyone planning to watch before voting?
Emilia Romagna or San Marino?
Oh, and I almost forgot: should they just call it the San Marino Grand Prix, just like the old days?