When Ferrari arrived in Imola, leading the championship on home ground for the first time since 2017, no less than a triumph in front of the Tifosi would satisfy the Scuderia.
The combination of the SF-75 and Charles Leclerc had been near-faultless through the first three rounds of the 2022 season, earning him a points tally more than double that of any other driver.
But Ferrari know all too well how strong starts to seasons can build up hopes and expectations which are dashed long before December. Leclerc’s former team mate Sebastian Vettel experienced that more than once in the recent past.
Leclerc, however, had hardly put a foot wrong over the opening races, demonstrating the consistency of a driver truly ready to fight for a world championship title. Especially against an opponent as formidable as Max Verstappen.
As the pair lined up together on Imola’s front row for the second time in 24 hours, a new kind of challenge for 2022 awaited them and their 18 rivals behind them – the prospect of a wet race start.
Verstappen had lost out to Leclerc off the line in the sprint race, poorly-synced gears the culprit. But when the lights went out on Sunday and the intermediates-shod field sprinted down to the Tamburello Chicane, Leclerc was the one who lost out.
Third-placed Sergio Perez and the McLaren of Lando Norris from fifth both cleared the first Ferrari by the time they carefully squeezed their brake pedals for the first corner. An even greater blow followed for the home team moments later.
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Carlos Sainz Jnr had lost the fourth place he’d recovered in Saturday’s sprint race and was trying to keep Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren at bay as the pair entered the chicane. The pair tangled.
“I think I got onto the kerb to try to give myself a little bit more space,” Ricciardo explained. “Obviously at some point, Carlos has to turn left to then make the right and we kind of just came in and obviously I collected his rear.”
“I originally thought I got hit into Carlos,” Ricciardo added, “but I think it was originally me getting into him, and then I got a bit more help after.” Valtteri Bottas was unable to avoid the slowing McLaren and punted it from behind.
For the second time in two races, Sainz was now stuck in a gravel trap facing the wrong way, his race over almost as soon as it had begun. The frustration of losing yet more ground to Verstappen and his team mate in the championship only building. Although the stewards chose not to apportion blame, Ricciardo later expressed his regrets to the Ferrari driver after the race.
“The first thing that he did was come to the Ferrari box and apologised to me, where the whole mechanics were here with me, and we all thanked him for the gesture,” said Sainz. “So that’s why there’s no hard feelings with Daniel, because what happened to him could happen to anyone out there today. But unfortunately it had to happen to me.”
The chain reaction which followed claimed other drivers. Bottas suffered minor front wing damage against the McLaren while Mick Schumacher clambered over the kerb to avoid the Ferrari and had a spin of his own, his rear-left wheel dealing the side of Fernando Alonso’s Alpine a glancing blow.
After four laps behind the Safety Car, the race resumed at the start of lap five. Verstappen led team mate Perez away from Norris and Leclerc, with Kevin Magnussen fifth and George Russell sixth after gaining five places on the opening lap in his Mercedes.
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Behind, Alonso was about to learn that Schumacher’s spinning Haas had breached his hull more critically than it had first appeared. As Lewis Hamilton pulled alongside to pass him at the start of lap six, the damaged bodywork on the Alpine was ripped apart by the forces of the air on the car passing through it at close to 300 kph, leaving a large crater in the side of Alonso’s car which forced him to pull into the pits and become the race’s second retirement.
The Red Bulls pulled away from Norris in third until Leclerc successfully slipstreamed by the McLaren on lap eight. Once by, Leclerc began to slowly chip away at the gap to Perez ahead, while Verstappen lapped quicker than the pair of them.
With no rain having fallen over the circuit since around an hour before the race and no showers expected in the immediate future, some drivers’ thoughts turned to dry-weather tyres. Having passed Magnussen for fifth on lap 12, Russell was soon lobbying Mercedes to consider a move onto slicks.
“I don’t think it’s far off, to be honest,” told race engineer Riccardo Musconi. However, his wish would go unfulfilled, as Mercedes did not want to pit Russell only for him to rejoin behind the pack still on intermediate tyres.
But such a concern did not bother McLaren as Ricciardo was now down in last place. As such, they chose to take the plunge and pull him in at the end of the 16th lap.
“We boxed Daniel early on the mediums,” team principal Andreas Seidl later explained, “because there was nothing left to lose when you run at the back of the field with a damaged car.”
Fresh out of the pits on cold, slick, medium compound tyres, Ricciardo began touring the circuit quicker than race leader Verstappen. That was enough for the rest of the field, who quickly followed suit by diving into the narrow pit lane.
With Verstappen holding a six-second buffer out front, Red Bull opted to bring Perez in first to try and avoid a potential undercut by Ferrari. As Perez tiptoed around the circuit trying to bring his tyres up to temperature, Verstappen and Leclerc both came in to move to slicks. Leclerc emerged still between the two Red Bulls, and it seemed Ferrari had gained vital ground against their rivals.
But Ferrari’s hopes they might keep the place were soon dashed. As Leclerc exited Tamburello, Perez used his much warmer tyres to drive alongside and by him by the time they reached the Villeneuve chicane. Leclerc did not relent in his pursuit and was tucked up behind the Red Bull along the main straight on multiple occasions, but with race control opting not to activate DRS on the still semi-damp surface until lap 34, Perez was able to repel any attacks from the Ferrari.
The closest Leclerc came to the Red Bull was on lap 28, when a mistake from Perez at the Variante Alta saw him scuttle across the inside of the corner, fortunate not to lose control over the wet grass. But despite the error, Leclerc was too far back to capitalise and Perez soon began to build up a small advantage once more.
By this time, the whole field had gone from intermediates at the start of the race to medium tyres. The prospect of running just over two-thirds of the race on the mediums may have seemed a tall order, but with no rain forecast for the remaining distance and the time lost by putting at Imola the highest of any venue in the championship, there was every incentive to make the mediums run until the end.
“Plan D – how does it look?,” Leclerc asked late on, probing for some creative solution to getting past Perez. “Not good,” replied race engineer Xavier Marcos Padros. “Stay out until the end.”
And stay out they did, ticking off the laps behind the Red Bulls until lap 49, when Perez caught up to a gaggle of lapped car that included Lance Stroll in tenth down to Hamilton’s Mercedes in 14th. Sitting just under 28 seconds ahead of Norris in fourth, Ferrari sensed a low-risk opportunity to try something different in the hope it may allow them to break the stalemate.
“We believed that there was no opportunity for us to attack and overtake Perez with those tyres anymore, so we did the pit stops to hope at least that they would have stopped as well, which was the case,” Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto later explained. “So they were both on new tyres resetting the race with 15 laps to go on soft tyres.”
The plan initially looked like it had not worked when Leclerc resumed behind the McLaren of Norris. However, Leclerc was quickly able to take advantage of his new softs to breeze by Norris on the following lap. Red Bull responded by bringing in Perez, then pitting race leader Verstappen for good measure.
Leclerc’s deficit to Perez had been around three seconds but had now been reduced to under a second. With the benefit of DRS at last, Leclerc once again began to pressure the Red Bull, sprinting to the finish on the soft tyres.
In order to trigger DRS, Leclerc needed to be as close as possible to Perez after the Variante Alta chicane, the activation point having been moved towards the exit of the slow sequence this year. But on lap 53 the Ferrari arrived at the chicane too quickly.
Leclerc clattered over the entry kerb, unsettling his Ferrari, which looped around 180 degrees, sending him into the outside tyre barrier with the lightest of touches. It was the first clear mistake of the championship leader’s 2022 season so far.
“I don’t think I was taking particularly more risk,” Leclerc explained after the race. “I felt like it was probably one of the corners where Checo was a bit less competitive than me. And obviously on that lap, I knew that there was an opportunity, so I tried to push a bit more and it was too much.”
Somehow, Leclerc avoided ending his race in the tyre barrier, but he had only severely compromised his chances. As he recovered back onto the track, he had already lost third to Norris before coming into the pits to replace his ruined tyres and damaged front wing. When he came back out, he was down in ninth place.
Verstappen’s lead, once comfortable, now seemed entirely unassailable, with Perez now clear to cruise home and secure his best finish of the season so far. Now the pressure was on Leclerc to recover as many of the points he had thrown away, before the chequered flag appeared.
He picked up three places in short order: Magnussen offered little resistance and Vettel was dispatched a few laps later. Finally Leclerc worked his way past Yuki Tsunoda, who was enjoying easily his best outing of the season so far. That put the Ferrari in sixth, but the gap to Valtteri Bottas ahead proved insurmountable with the remaining laps left.
For Verstappen, coming off the back of his second retirement of the first three races of the season, answering Leclerc’s dominant Australian Grand Prix victory with an equally emphatic triumph in Ferrari’s back garden was the perfect way to put himself back in pursuit of Leclerc in the drivers’ championship. He completed the 63rd lap to seal a maximum 34 points from the weekend, having taken the bonus point for fastest lap as well as the eight points from Saturday’s sprint race.
“The start of the season in general wasn’t amazing,” Verstappen said, “so we needed a good weekend.
“I didn’t expect it to be like this, but of course, when you have a weekend like this, that’s incredible.”
Perez came across the line 16 seconds later to secure Red Bull’s first one-two finish since the 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix, delighted to alongside his team mate on Sunday after qualifying only seventh on Friday.
“It was pretty challenging out there,” said Perez. “It was so easy today to make a mistake. So to come away with a one-two today, it’s a great team result.”
Lando Norris had once again picked up a striking result few expected before the weekend with a mature driver which benefited from the mistakes and mishaps of others. He secured McLaren’s first podium of the season, further indicating their poor early-season performance was a thing of the past.
“From where we were, what, three weeks ago, four weeks ago – a month – in Bahrain to be on a podium, I genuinely didn’t think we would be on the podium all year after Bahrain,” admitted Norris. “So it’s quite a shock.”
Shocked too were likely Mercedes, as Russell had somehow brought his car home in fourth. This was despite a problem with his front wing flap adjuster which prevented the team changing him to a dry-weather setting when he made his pit stop.
Russell had held off a hard late charge from the man who previously held his seat, Valtteri Bottas, who had overcome a pit stop problem of his own. His right-front wheel was briefly cross-threaded and around 10 seconds were lost while Alfa Romeo corrected it.
But down in sixth place, Leclerc came home bitterly disappointed in himself. “I’m sorry, for all of you guys,” he sighed.
It was far from the first time that Leclerc had made a costly mistake behind the wheel of a Ferrari, but it was the first unforced error he had allowed to slip through in the season where he was unquestionably in the hunt for a championship title. Knowing how far there still is to go in this year’s longest-ever season, and how relentless Verstappen will be in his defence of his title, Leclerc is determined that this will be the only such mistake he will make in 2022.
“I actually have been a bit lucky, because I’ve only lost seven points again to what I could have scored. But it’s seven points that could be valuable at the end of the season and every points counts when you are driving for the title, so it won’t happen again.”
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