RACE DEBRIEF

    Italy lives and breathes Ferrari. The people expect – no, demand – success from the Prancing Horse. But they have been left wanting for more than a decade as the Italian team failed to deliver a car capable of delivering a sustained title challenge.

    But there is a glimmer of hope this year, as Formula 1 heads back to Imola for the third time in as many years with Ferrari leading the constructors’ championship and their protégé Charles Leclerc commanding the drivers’ standings.

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    Walking around the little town of Imola, which sits just a few minutes’ walk from the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari – named after the company’s late founder and his son, who died of muscular dystrophy, aged 24 – you can feel the belief is back.

    The tifosi always hoped Ferrari could return to winning ways, but they have been swallowing a dose of reality in recent times as Mercedes dominated the hybrid turbo era.

    But this year, Ferrari seem like they’ve got it right. They turned their attention to the 2022 car, built to revolutionary new rules, early in 2021 – effectively conceding performance in last year’s campaign.

    And they made the most of extra wind tunnel time, granted to them for the woeful run to sixth in 2020, to deliver an eye-catchingly detailed and refined racing car that was fast out of the box. It’s reliable too, allowing them to score heavily, while their immediate rivals’ form was erratic.

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    Last year's Ferrari did well here - but can this year's continue its winning ways?

    They lead Mercedes by 39 points in the constructors’ championship, while Leclerc heads George Russell by 34 – a bigger margin than anyone enjoyed at any point last season.

    The Ferrari hype train has well and truly left the station, and this has resulted in huge interest from fans unable to attend the last two runnings of the event because of Covid-19. Sunday is already a 62,000 sell-out.

    Already on Thursday, fans were outside the Imola gates craning their necks to see the two drivers carrying their hopes – Leclerc and Carlos Sainz. And they were buoyed by the news this morning that Ferrari had rewarded Sainz with a fresh deal that will extend his time in red until at least the end of 2024.

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    Ferrari were reasonable at Imola over the last couple of years, getting both cars home in the points in each race. Leclerc finished fifth and fourth respectively in 2020 and 2021, with Sainz seventh and fifth. They will be expecting far more this time around, having won two of the first three races, with Leclerc having finished inside the top two at every race so far this year.

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    Leclerc should have plenty of support this weekend

    They will say that Red Bull are favourites – and while they have a very fast car, the RB18 has shown itself to be unreliable so far, with three mechanical retirements between the two drivers in the opening three races. Ferrari, meanwhile, have been near bulletproof, with steering wheel issues for Sainz in both qualifying and the race last time out in Australia the only major blot on their 2022 copybook. It is they who are the ones to beat.

    The circuit should suit the F1-75, which will feature no major upgrades this weekend but has a class-leading power unit that packs plenty of grunt. Leclerc is favourite to continue his fine run, which includes a 14-race finishing streak, tying the longest active streak with Lando Norris.

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    Sainz, meanwhile, will be keen to ride the wave of his new deal and put his Melbourne mistake behind him with a podium-deserving drive, replicating the kind of form he comfortably found in the opening two races of the year.

    It won’t be straightforward, though.

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    Sainz will be looking to bounce back from a DNF last time out in Melbourne

    The weekend format in Imola – which this year renewed its deal with F1 to host a race until 2025 – will be different for the third consecutive year. In 2020, F1 trialled a two-day weekend at the venue. Last year was a standard weekend – and this time around, it’ll host the first F1 Sprint of the campaign, meaning qualifying shifts to Friday to make way for the Sprint on Saturday.

    The weather forecast, though constantly changing, suggests there’ll be showers at some point, too. As it stands, qualifying day will be wet, with Saturday dry and sunny before the threat of rain returns for Sunday.

    READ MORE: What is the weather forecast for the 2022 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix and Sprint?

    Last year’s race was rain-hit and it delivered a thriller of a Grand Prix, with Max Verstappen winning and Lewis Hamilton fighting back from an off-track excursion to rescue second.

    The tifosi will be hoping for more of the same this year – though this time with the red cars coming out on top.