RACE DEBRIEF

    After all the debate in the opening three races, and now that the score reads 2-2 in the winning stakes for Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen, can it be said that the Red Bull RB18 is the fastest F1 car of 2022? I like the fact that there is still no definite answer. That tells you just how good the start of F1’s second turbo-hybrid formula has been so far.

    Yes, there are signs that the blue, red and yellow car is finding plenty of pace, and after the Milton Keynes team’s first one-two since Malaysia 2016 on a perfect weekend when Max scooped the first 2022 Sprint, the Emilia Romagna GP and set fastest lap, he slashed his 46-point deficit to Charles to 27. By any standard, that was mighty work, rendered all the sweeter because Maranello is just up the road, and Imola’s autodromo is named after Enzo and Dino Ferrari.

    TECH TUESDAY: A look at Red Bull and Mercedes' Imola upgrades as the development race kicks off

    But I tend to agree with both Max and Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto. After taking that dramatic 22nd win, the world champion said that since every track poses different conditions and creates different situations, it’s still very difficult to say one way or the other which car is quicker.

    Charles narrowly lost out on pole for the Sprint Race, but he swept comfortably into the lead at the start and stayed there until his right-front soft compound Pirelli tyre began graining and losing its edge. Max, who may have been leaning back to see what was going to happen, then closed in and slipped ahead on the 20th of the 21 laps. That was irksome for Ferrari.

    But under the new eight-down-to-one points-scoring system from first to eighth places, he only surrendered one point of his advantage. Thus, overnight he was still a healthy 45 ahead. And Ferrari could see that by pushing just a little bit too hard early on to establish a gap – something thwarted by the Safety Car deployment – and then to open another when racing resumed, Charles had ever so slightly over-taxed the softest-compound Pirellis.

    GettyImages-1393358325(1).jpg
    A slow start from Charles Leclerc meant that he could never get close to challenging Max Verstappen in Imola

    Where things went wrong for Ferrari was when Max led easily at the start of the Grand Prix, but Charles lost places to both Sergio Perez in the other Red Bull, and Lando Norris’s McLaren. By the time he’d passed the latter, Max was away and Checo was in no mood to let Leclerc by.

    Ferrari’s decision to pit Charles a second time, for softs, on the 49th lap, kept Red Bull under pressure and obliged them to respond first with Checo, then with Max, so you’d hardly suggest that the blues were blowing the reds away. With a better start by Charles, we might have seen a closer race, so it’s still hard to draw hard and fast conclusions about respective vehicle speeds.

    That’s still all about the details, getting the new 18-inch tyres working to their optimum, and achieving good handling balance so that you can push hard enough to have the fastest car. Miami, the new street race coming up, remains for instance a largely unknown quantity, so nobody can yet be sure what might happen there. Perhaps Ferrari will dial their F1-75 in better, as they did in Australia.

    READ MORE: Tsunoda pleased to deliver strong run to P7 and rescue AlphaTauri's 'horrible' start to Imola weekend

    Of course, they were disappointed not to win at home, but they have a car (one of the most attractive F1 machines for a long time, in my opinion) that seems to have been comfortable on most of the tracks so far, so as Team Principal Mattia Binotto said, they just have to keep their heads up and accept the odd defeat. And this is not a time to take panic measures.

    The budget cap is definitely beginning to have its desired effect on the racing, because nobody can afford to rush into making modification at the drop of a hat, in response to a rival’s perceived advantage. Ferrari won’t do that, since they have to manage that development budget across the whole season, and who knows what might lie ahead by the time we get to Texas and Mexico? The days of the unlimited development spend have fast retreated in the rear-view.

    GettyImages-1393378909.jpg
    Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have not had the start to the season that would have wanted, but they will continue to fight back

    Speaking of which, of course, this brings us to Mercedes. Like Ferrari, they resisted any urge to bring new parts to Imola, partly because they are still into their intensive investigation of just why the W13 is such a tricky car to handle at the moment.

    Inevitably, there is already talk of Lewis quitting, unable to stand being beaten, blah, blah. Anyone who knows him well recognises his fierce warrior fighting spirit, so I don’t see that happening. But after the third race in which he has finished behind new team mate George Russell, you already hear murmurings about his motivation.

    But let’s have a proper look. In Bahrain they were third and fourth, Lewis ahead. In Saudi, they were fifth and 10th, George ahead but Lewis, crucially, running a different set-up which put everything on the nose and left him with precious little traction on a track where you need plenty. In Melbourne, George was luckier with the timing of the Safety Car and finished third; Lewis had run ahead of him but lost out having pitted before the intervention, and thus finished fourth.

    MUST-SEE: The top three finishers at Imola dissect Leclerc’s crash in the cooldown room

    None of that is intended as a slight to George. He did a fine job to level the qualifying score to 2-2 in Imola, then got a super start from the 11th slot on the faster left-hand side of the grid to jump up to an excellent sixth at the end of the opening lap, partly also thanks to the second corner melee.

    Then, after an attack was counter-balanced by Kevin Magnussen, George pulled off a mega overtake at the Variante Alta to move into fifth, which would become fourth later on despite huge pressure from his 2021 Tamburello collision partner Valtteri Bottas.

    1393527812
    Drivers starting on the left-hand side of the grid appeared to have a distinct advantage on Sunday

    If that showed the Mercs’ true performance level – which had been obscured in quali by the need for more than one lap to get the tyres up to temperature – Lewis’s race was a parable of all that can go wrong, even when the driver doesn’t make any error.

    FOM’s data team contains some very smart minds, and they calculated that the drivers on the left-hand side of the grid had, on average, a 0.161s advantage accelerating from 0-100 km/h, which helps explain some of the initial HAM/RUS discrepancy. George’s 0-100 km/h time was 3.55s, Lewis’s 3.69s. A small difference, you might argue, but significant, especially as starting 14th, Lewis then suffered in the fallout of the Turn 2 clash between Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz and Valtteri Bottas.

    READ MORE: Ricciardo apologises for Sainz crash at Imola as he opens up on ‘painful’ Emilia Romagna GP

    Later he either found himself in a DRS train (where all followers are stalemated behind a faster car) behind Yuki Tsunoda and Lance Stroll or, after Alpine’s unsafe release of Esteban Ocon had all but squeezed him into the pit wall and lost him further places, another DRS train behind Lance, Esteban, Alex Albon and Pierre Gasly. One can only imagine the frustration levels for all concerned.

    Beneath all this there were a couple of supplementary questions. The first concerns Charles’s apparent vulnerability at times to mistakes – remember Monaco last year? – when the chips are down. I liked the way that Mattia backed Charles’s feisty charge after Checo, even if the resultant spin over the kerbs at Variante Alta ultimately cost him and the team seven crucial points. And I like Charles’s Gilles Villeneuve-like refusal to quit. But might that become a factor as the season progresses?

    I think we already know the answer to the other supplementary question, which is whether Lewis is going to challenge for an eighth title this year. But the big thing there, after Toto Wolff apologised publicly to him for the car he was forced to drive, is how Mercedes will juggle their budget to catch up, without comprising their ability to develop the W13 further later in the season. Assuming that they can manage to close the gap.

    READ MORE: Wolff says Mercedes W13 is ‘not worthy of a world champion’ after Hamilton finishes 13th at Imola

    Since they have won a record eight consecutive constructors’ titles, I suspect they will, but the crucial thing remains – how soon they can do that?