F1 already in the last-chance saloon to prevent a Red Bull runaway as Mercedes cling to Imola hope

F1 already in the last-chance saloon to prevent a Red Bull runaway as Mercedes cling to Imola hope

Imola has long been dangled as some sort of panacea for Red Bull’s rivals in a thoroughly one-sided Formula One season.

It is there, at the next race on the F1 calendar — the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix — where the biggest upgrades will be unveiled by those teams desperately hoping to close the gap on the runaway leaders.

Mercedes have held back all upgrades this season, after admitting that they had taken entirely the wrong path with their car for more than a year. At Imola, they will unveil them all in one go.

The hope for the sake of a more entertaining championship is that somehow Mercedes, Ferrari and even Aston Martin, who have been the surprise package of the season so far, have found a silver bullet to make a significant improvement.

Among the Mercedes changes are a new sidepod, floor and front suspension, but after making initially promising noises about the potentially improved pace, there has more recently been a reality check.

In Miami, both Lewis Hamilton and George Russell were about a second a lap slower than the Red Bulls. It seems unlikely that Mercedes have come up with something that Red Bull technical director Adrian Newey has not thought of to somehow put them on level terms.

Of Mercedes’ Imola hopes, team principal Toto Wolff said: “I have never in my 15 years in F1 seen a silver bullet being introduced, where suddenly you unlock half-a-second of performance, so I very much doubt that this is going to happen here.”

Wolff likened the upgrades to “large surgery” to a “poisonous car”, while Hamilton and Russell both described the W14’s facelift as a step into the unknown. For them, the priority is to be able to finally understand the car.

Ferrari have overhauled their sidepods and rear suspension after struggling in Miami when tipped to be the best of the rest behind the Red Bulls.

In the aftermath, Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz effectively waved goodbye to any challenge to the top team.

“There will be changes to the car [at Imola], but honestly I think the difference to Red Bull is too big to recover this year,” he said. “But I trust the team and I know that important changes are coming. That’s why we have to stay motivated and focused.”

Aston Martin are currently the closest challengers, plus have 60 to 70 per cent more wind tunnel usage than Red Bull — a knock-on effect of their lowly position in last year’s championship, as well as Red Bull’s limited usage for their cost-cap breach.

Going into Miami, the hope was that Sergio Perez could at least turn the championship into a two-horse race.

The Mexican, who struggled all weekend, managed to take pole position, but was passed with consummate ease by team-mate Max Verstappen, despite the Dutchman starting the race in ninth place.