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As the rain hammered down on the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari this morning, there was a hint of trepidation about championship leader Charles Leclerc.
The first F1 sprint of the season leaves only one session to perfect a set-up amid an unpredictable forecast for Sunday’s race.
“Rain hasn’t been one of our strengths in the last few years,” said Leclerc, the winner of two of the first three races.
“We need to make sure that we start the weekend on the right foot and that we develop the car well for the conditions.”
Qualifying takes place this evening ahead of tomorrow’s sprint, which will decide the grid for Sunday, and has been juiced up to dish out points to the top eight after a rather stale introduction to the sport last season.
Max Verstappen this morning described himself as “not a fan” of the new format, with many drivers unimpressed by the overall new weekend set-up for 2022 and open to continual experimentation.
But Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, fresh off signing a new two-year deal, said: “We are discussing with F1 and the FIA about how to spice up the sprint weekends and there’s good potential.”
Nonetheless, F1 can be optimistic of stretching an entertaining start to the season into a fourth race in a row at Imola, one of Europe’s fastest circuits.
Imola seems to be a magnet for the forecast conditions, and safety cars have been regular occurrences since F1’s return there in 2020. In just three races this season, four safety cars and two virtual safety cars have been instrumental to delivering great entertainment.
Leclerc, who had his watch stolen while posing for photographs with fans on Monday, otherwise turns up in high spirits and a 34-point lead over second-placed George Russell.
While the rain could provide Mercedes with some hope — both Lewis Hamilton and Russell are good in the wet — their performance in comparison to Ferrari and Red Bull shows little sign of abating.
But Russell said this morning: “I think it’s been a reasonable start [to the season] with the package we’ve got, but we know we won’t maintain this position unless we find more performance.
“There’s nothing substantial that’s going to make a drastic difference this weekend. We’re constantly trying new bits and pieces, but in terms of an overall result we are just too far behind.
“We are going to continue to close this gap, but I think it’s too early in the season to make that deficit closer. So we’re going to just keep going out there this weekend and see it as another opportunity, because it’s going to be mixed conditions and we need to make the most of that.”
Verstappen is also a dab-hand in the wet, and Red Bull are best-placed to upset Ferrari. The defending champion will want to make a statement after having two seemingly-assured podium finishes wiped out by retirements.
It would also be foolish to rule out a potential surge from Alpine or Italy-based AlphaTauri.
Certainly, F1 this year has thrown up plenty of surprises and entertainment in only a few short weeks — and this weekend appears set to only increase the drama as the sport returns to some sodden European soil.