F1 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix
Sunday April 24, 14:00
Sky Sports F1
Three races into the F1 season, we make our first European stop this weekend and it's Ferrari who lead the way in both the Drivers and Constructors Championships thanks in large part to an excellent start from Charles Leclerc.
Two pole positions, two wins, a second-place finish and three fastest laps have resulted in the Monegasque driver amassing 71 from a possible 78 points, and it puts him in a very strong position early on.
Both Leclerc and Ferrari are delivering on the track as they've emerged as early frontrunners, with Red Bull and Max Verstappen continuing to struggle with reliability issues while there is still a significant gap for the chasing pack to bridge.
Leclerc finished a touch over 20 seconds ahead of nearest rival Sergio Perez in Australia last time out, and had it not been for further safety car involvement, the gap would have been even bigger.
Ferrari's Imola advantage, consistency key
It looks as though the Ferrari F1-75 is not only fast, but it's importantly reliable too and has delivered on multiple circuits with differing characteristics to show its adaptability to produce results in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Australia, and so there is no reason to believe that it won't do so again at Imola.
With a frustrated Carlos Sainz looking to prove a point too after his nightmare weekend in Melbourne was cut short, the Spaniard will be itching to put on a display in front of the Italian fans and show that he's more than capable of setting the pace alongside Leclerc as he also celebrates penning a new deal with the team this week.
That frustration will be shared by Verstappen too though given his disappointment last time out, and with his hopes of defending his crown taking some significant early blows, he'll know that they must respond this weekend and can ill-afford any further setbacks.
The Dutchman was the winner here in a thrilling race in 2021, and while the weather could play a part again as we look forward to the first Sprint weekend of the season, both Red Bull drivers will initially just be desperate to finish the race, and then to also keep as close to Ferrari's pairing as possible.
Ferrari hold an advantage overall, but particularly in low-speed corners and in acceleration out of them. For Red Bull, they've made up ground in straight-line speed. While the first sector at Imola could play into the hands of the latter with long, fast-paced straights, the second and third sectors are arguably more suited to Ferrari given their characteristics, and so the Scuderia will be hoping to build up a tangible advantage over their rivals.
With that in mind, coupled with his performances in the first three races, Leclerc to win the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix and to clock the fastest lap at 5.59/2 is an appealing option.
A pre-qualifying special that catches the eye is both Verstappen and Leclerc to finish on the podium and for Sainz and Perez to finish in the top 6 at 3.613/5. While the expectation is that Verstappen's reliability issues will be fixed, in case they haven't been solved, Leclerc on the podium with Sainz to get a top six finish and Perez securing a points finish at 2.26/5 is one of two top tips this weekend.
Mercedes to improve, midfield tightly contested
An ongoing question ahead of every race weekend in the early part of the season will be whether Mercedes have done enough development work to fix their problems to get closer to the front of the grid.
George Russell and Lewis Hamilton have done an excellent job of picking up points despite the troubles they've encountered thus far, with Mercedes sitting second in the Constructors standings.
Despite cost-cap limitations to consider, they'll be confident of making key changes to close that gap as the weeks go on, and so it will be fascinating to see just how much progress is made when they hit the track at Imola.
Both Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes to all finish in the points is available at 2.56/4 and that looks to be another smart option based on their performances thus far, provided they avoid any drama and make the chequered flag.
Elsewhere, Alpine look a threat to disrupt what many expect to be the eventual hierarchy with Esteban Ocon showing consistency and Fernando Alonso setting a good pace, and while Lando Norris was quick to downplay McLaren's improvement in Australia, they'll be buoyed by their performance and will be eager to try to move towards the front of the midfield.
Add to that mix AlphaTauri, Alfa Romeo and Haas all looking to compete and push on, there promises to be plenty more exciting action this weekend starting on Saturday with the Sprint, and then the race itself on Sunday.