Ferrari fans to celebrate F1 homecoming
The massed ranks of Ferrari fans will be hoping to celebrate a triumphant homecoming at Imola this weekend after Charles Leclerc's early season domination raised expectations to the highest levels in years.
The Monegasque has taken 71 of a possible 78 points and Imola, a circuit named after team founder Enzo and son Dino, offers a scoring bonanza as the first sprint race of the campaign as well as first European round.
This year the winner of Saturday's 100km sprint will take eight points, which means Leclerc could collect a maximum 34 -- including a bonus for fastest lap -- instead of the previous best available 29.
The Ferrari driver's current lead over Mercedes' George Russell is also 34 points after three of a scheduled 23 races, meaning that even if Leclerc draws a blank he is sure to be still leading the standings after the weekend.
Leclerc has so far taken two pole positions and all three fastest laps.
The Ferrari 'tifosi' have not flocked to Imola with such sky-high expectation since seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher took a record seventh win there in 2006, his last season with the Italian team.
"It's difficult to think about the championship, but to be honest, we've got a very strong car, a very reliable car too," the 24-year-old said after winning in Australia.
"I hope it continues like this and if it does, then we probably have chances for the championship."
Ferrari also announced that Spaniard Carlos Sainz, who has also made a strong start to the season, will race for them until the end of the 2024 season at least.
Team boss Mattia Binotto has ruled out introducing significant upgrades for this race, given the hectic format with practice and qualifying on Friday, and Mercedes and Red Bull are thinking along the same lines.
Red Bull's reigning champion Max Verstappen won at Imola last year but has finished only one of the three races, with the team in a battle to make the car more reliable, and needs another victory.
"The team trackside and back at the factory in Milton Keynes are working incredibly hard, hopefully we'll have a straightforward weekend and that we score some good points as a team," said the Dutch youngster.
Lewis Hamilton was the 2020 winner for Mercedes but the seven-times world champion's team are struggling this time with a bouncing car.
"Imola is going to be a challenging event," said Mercedes' motorsport strategy director James Vowles, whose team are second overall despite their problems to resolve.
McLaren took a step forward in Australia after struggling in the Bahrain opener before recovering slightly in Saudi Arabia, and could also be contenders with Lando Norris, third last year, and Daniel Ricciardo.
Alpine will be testing a new floor upgrade and are on the up with Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon while Pierre Gasly is AlphaTauri's big hope in that team's home race.
Some statistics for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Italy's Imola circuit, round four of the Formula One season:
Lap distance: 4.909km. Total distance: 309.049km (63 laps)
2021 winner: Max Verstappen(Netherlands) Red Bull
2021 pole: Lewis Hamilton (Britain) Mercedes One minute 14.411 seconds
2021 fastest race lap: Hamilton, 1:16.702
Race lap record: Hamilton (Britain) Mercedes 1:15.484 (2020)
Start time: 1300GMT (1500 local)
The race, at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, is named after the surrounding region for the third time. It has previously been designated the Italian Grand Prix and San Marino Grand Prix.
This time it will be in the sprint format, with pole decided on Friday for a 100km race on Saturday that then defines the starting grid for Sunday.
Anti-clockwise Imola hosted the 1980 Italian Grand Prix and then from 1981 became home to the San Marino Grand Prix until 2006, when seven times world champion Michael Schumacher won for a record seventh time.
Sunday will be the 30th F1 world championship race held at the circuit.
Brazilian triple world champion Ayrton Senna and Austrian Roland Ratzenberger died in accidents over the 1994 race weekend.
The circuit is fast, bumpy and quite narrow, making overtaking tricky.
Hamilton (2020), Verstappen and Alpine's Fernando Alonso (Renault, 2005) are the only current drivers to have won at Imola.
In the 29 races to date at Imola, only nine have been won from pole. Another nine winners have come from second on the starting grid. No winner has started lower than fifth.
Hamilton has a record 103 career victories from 291 starts, the most recent being in Saudi Arabia last December.
Ferrari have won 240 races since 1950, McLaren 183, Mercedes 124, Williams 114 and Red Bull 76.
Ferrari's Charles Leclerc has won two of three races so far this season.
Hamilton has a record 103 career poles, most recently qualifying fastest in Saudi Arabia last year.
Leclerc has been on pole twice this year, with Red Bull's Sergio Perez taking the other.
Red Bull and Ferrari are the only teams to have got both cars into the final phase of qualifying at every race so far this season.
Leclerc has won the fastest lap bonus point in every race so far this year.
Leclerc is 34 points clear in the championship, a bigger margin than any driver enjoyed at any stage of last year's battle.
The Saturday Sprint now offers points for the top eight, instead of top three.