- Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen expected to go wheel to wheel at Imola this weekend
- Mercedes top the times in Friday free practice sessions
- Verstappen hits mechanical troubles and finishes down the order
If the Bahrain Grand Prix three weeks ago is anything to go by, this year’s F1 season looks set to be a Lewis Hamilton versus Max Verstappen fight, and while Hamilton won the first battle, the smart money is still on Verstappen to win the war.
The evidence in Bahrain pointed towards the Dutchman’s Red Bull car being the class of the field, but smart tactical driving from the British seven-time champion meant he won the race, despite a late overtaking attempt from his significantly younger rival.
F1 moves to Imola this weekend for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, one of the all-time classic venues that reappeared on the calendar late last year, and is back for a second successive season.
It’s a contrast to Bahrain in that the track is narrow and rather old-school with gravel traps and short run-off areas around the outside of the track, in comparison to the Middle Eastern circuit, which has acres of space for cars to go off the road.
Imola’s many gravel traps were well used in Friday practice, with Nikita Mazepin and Charles Leclerc among drivers to suffer off-track moments, both ending up in the wall and with damaged cars. Red Bull’s Sergio Perez and Alpine’s Esteban Ocon collided in the first session too, as Imola tested the drivers.
Crucially for the championship battle, it was Mercedes who topped the times in both practice sessions, with Hamilton’s Finnish teammate Valtteri Bottas setting the pace throughout the day.
Bottas was just one hundredth of a second faster than Hamilton, and both Mercedes drivers appeared happier with their car compared to the season opener. The three week gap between races may have given Mercedes time to improve their tricky but fast car, though as mentioned above, Bahrain and Imola are very different circuits.
Verstappen had a difficult day, and could only manage five laps in the second session after a mechanical issue, though had a more productive morning session when he was third fastest, just over half a tenth of a second away from the fastest time.
Instead of Red Bull leading the chase in the afternoon, it was actually their sister team Alpha Tauri that was next up, with Frenchman Pierre Gasly third fastest and within a tenth of a second of the pace.
Imola is the local circuit for Ferrari, and the red cars put in a decent performance with Spaniard Carlos Sainz fourth fastest ahead of his Monegasque teammate Charles Leclerc, despite the latter’s crash with five minutes remaining. Leclerc had actually set the fastest time of the session beforehand, but that time was deleted after Leclerc exceeded track limits, meaning he used more than the permitted amount of track.
Perez saved some face for Red Bull with the sixth fastest time of the day, though Verstappen’s suspected driveshaft failure meant that his true pace remains to be seen.
Qualifying will be all-important as the Imola circuit is notoriously difficult to overtake on. Therefore Red Bull will need to address the issue with Verstappen and make sure he gets plenty of track action in Saturday morning’s final free practice session, before qualifying gets underway at 1pm UK time, to ensure his whole race weekend isn’t compromised.
British viewers can follow all the action live on the Sky Sports F1 channel, while highlights of qualifying and the race can be seen on Channel 4.
Richard Randle is a motorsport PR professional working with the UK’s top racing circuits and the UK’s premier single-seater category, the BRDC British F3 Championship.