Five talking points ahead of the 2024 Emilia-Romagna GP

12th May 2024
Damien Smith

From the celebrity glitz of Miami and the hustle of a street race, Formula 1 returns to a traditional, old-school European circuit this weekend for the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix at picturesque and classic Imola. Here’s a selection of the major themes as we reach the seventh of the record-breaking 24 rounds this year.


1. A welcome return to Imola

Last year, this race was cancelled at short notice following devastating floods in the region. That means F1’s latest return to Imola will mean as much to the local community as its unexpected comeback during the Covid era – and even more given the proximity of this race to the 30th anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna. The great Brazilian and Roland Ratzenberger, who also lost his life on that horrific weekend at Imola in 1994, will be an obvious focus this weekend – although for the drivers it’s the kind of uncomfortably emotional distraction they will push from their minds once practice starts on Friday. Sebastian Vettel is due to demonstrate the 1993 McLaren MP4/8 he owns in honour of Senna and is sure to make the car’s Ford Cosworth V8 sing. It promises to be a sight and sound to savour.


2. Norris hoping for the honeymoon effect

The hangovers will have worn off and as Lando Norris has already said, it’s time for McLaren to go back to work after the 24-year-old’s wonderful feelgood breakthrough victory in Miami. Now the question is, can he do it again?

Norris, McLaren and actually team-mate Oscar Piastri, who was unlucky in Miami, should be riding the crest of a wave as they tackle the narrow 3.05-mile circuit. But the team is under no illusion that it’s now a match for Red Bull, especially on precisely the kind of circuit that should highlight the world champion team’s downforce-laden superiority. As team chief Andrea Stella has admitted, the team needs at least another performance “step” from the one it has made with its latest technical upgrade package to feel it can live with Red Bull week in, week out.

On the other hand, Norris’s win was down to a lot more than a lucky break with the safety car. He had genuine speed in Miami, was the quickest car on track after Sergio Pérez pitted out of his way and built an impressive gap to Max Verstappen after the safety car interlude – although the world champion was dealing with some floor damage after smacking a bollard at the chicane.

The upshot is that Norris and McLaren now know Red Bull is at least beatable – simply because they’ve proved it. While F1 is clearly a sport dominated by pure physics and maths when it comes to the speed of a racing car, psychology is also a much harder to define key factor – and momentum counts. Norris and Piastri will hope to harness that ‘honeymoon effect’ and push for more silverware at Imola. Even if the team can’t beat Red Bull, it might be able to spoil Ferrari’s home race hopes – and significantly, already has almost double the amount of constructors’ points than its powertrain supplier Mercedes has accrued.


3. Questions linger over Verstappen’s future

The chances are Verstappen will bounce back this weekend, just as he did at Suzuka after his retirement disappointment in Australia a few rounds ago. But whatever the state of play on track, the chatter about the triple world champion’s future won’t go away. For all of its current technical superiority, there’s an increasing sense of a great racing empire in a strange state of fragility, especially in the wake of Adrian Newey’s impending departure from a team he and Christian Horner built between them.

The key is 2026 and the next big rules reset. The word is Red Bull’s new and defiantly independent powertrain facility in Milton Keynes is behind where it should be on the next-generation engine. If that is the case, and Verstappen and his father lack the faith to believe in Horner’s reassurances, the prospect of the Dutchman moving to Mercedes could be all too real. Yes, the Brackley-based team is mired in the midfield right now without an obvious route back to the sharp end – but this isn’t about current performance. If Toto Wolff can convince the Verstappens Mercedes is on the right track this time – and its Brixworth powertrain division has the numbers to back it up – this season might have another major twist in terms of who goes where.

As for Newey, he indicated in Miami that he’s in no rush to decide what comes next, suggesting a spot of travel might be just what he needs. But this is a driven man still motivated by the sport that inspired him as a young boy. It seems inconceivable that he’ll walk away from F1. A myriad number of factors are at play, of course, but on the face of it working with Ferrari, Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc appears the most enticing prospect, and as a genuine enthusiast as well as a clinical engineer Newey probably won’t be immune to the old magic lure of Maranello. Let’s see.


4. Can Ferrari give the tifosi a home win?

That’s always the dream in Italy. The answer probably relies on a Red Bull dropped ball, of course. On the plus side, while McLaren had the edge during the race in Miami, Ferrari will be optimistic it’s one-lap pace should serve it well at Imola, where overtaking is never easy. Last time F1 raced at Imola, in 2022, Leclerc tossed away championship points with an unforced error at the Variante Alta chicane, with Verstappen claiming a ‘grand slam’ of pole position, the win and fastest lap. He returns amid an intriguing intra-team duel with Carlos Sainz Jr, who since he learnt Hamilton will be taking his seat for 2025 has been inspired. Sainz’s future remains unclear and, already a race winner this year, motivation in front of the tifosi won’t be in question. The pair might end up fighting for the podium rather than victory (although you never know), but they are so equally matched it’s impossible to call. Which is just how we like it.


5. Tsunoda, the unsung hero of 2024

Daniel Ricciardo claimed a morale-boosting fourth in the sprint race in Miami, but in the grands prix proper it’s Yuki Tsunoda who has held the upper hand at the second Red Bull team known as RB this season. And it’s the Japanese who deserves credit as arguably the best of F1’s unsung heroes so far this term.

Points for teams in the bottom half of the constructors’ table are hard to come by – at least for now until a proposed change to the scoring system kicks in – and Tsunoda’s performances have proven mighty valuable to his team. In the seven rounds so far, Yuki has logged points three times, with a pair of seventh places in Australia and last time out in Miami as the highlights. Ricciardo’s best finish so far has been 12th. Not the sort of form that is going to convince Red Bull that the Australian should replace Pérez in the A-team for 2025. So should it consider Tsunoda?

On this evidence, it really should – although there’s also a sense he needs to keep up his strong form and prove he can be consistent to have any hope of a promotion. As it stands, Pérez appears to be doing enough for Horner and Helmut Marko to stick with the Mexican – although as we’ve said, a curveball from Verstappen could alter the picture dramatically for the world champion team. All of that is out of Tsunoda’s hands, of course. All he can do is what he is currently pulling off: comprehensively outscoring and outperforming his team-mate. Keeping it in the top 10 this weekend can be his only target right now.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images

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