The fans that braved the wet and chilly conditions at Imola on Friday were rewarded with a thriller of a qualifying session that saw Max Verstappen snatch his first pole position of the season. Here are five things we learned from practice and qualifying…
1. Verstappen gets title charge back on track
Verstappen arrived at Imola on the back of a DNF – his second of the season – and was keen to hit the reset button on his title challenge. He was confident when we spoke in the morning that Red Bull were on top of their reliability issues and hopeful they could be in the fight this weekend.
And while Ferrari appeared to have the edge on pure pace in practice, it was Verstappen who got the job done when it mattered in qualifying, the reigning world champion judging his strategy perfectly to get two timed laps – the second of which was comfortably good enough for pole – before the rain came.
READ MORE: ‘That’s what we like’ – Verstappen pleased to take pole in ‘hectic, long qualifying’
He’s wary of the threat Ferrari will pose in the F1 Sprint and Grand Prix, but he’s in a great position on a track where overtaking isn’t easy. There’s also second practice on Saturday morning, where the conditions are expected to be the warmest and driest they’ve been all weekend, with that good weather set to continue for the rest of the weekend.
If Red Bull’s race runs prove to be competitive, Verstappen will be in good shape to score big in the Sprint – where eight points are now on offer for the winner – and the Grand Prix and help slash Charles Leclerc’s lead.
2. Ferrari endure mixed emotions on home soil
Ferrari were the class of the field in practice at Imola, to the delight of the loyal tifosi who packed the grandstands around the picturesque Italian track, and looked to have the pace to get both cars on the front row in the first segment of qualifying.
But there was frustration in Q2 when Carlos Sainz lost the car when he said he “wasn’t pushing really that hard at all” and ended up in the barrier. That ultimately left him P10 and his team with a lot of work to do overnight to rebuild his F1-75.
READ MORE: Leclerc left frustrated after missing out on Imola pole by 0.8s
Ferrari retained hope of pole, though, through Leclerc. The championship leader had been quick, but erratic, on Friday. He spun four times in practice as he pushed for performance in tricky conditions – but arrived in Q3 as favourite for pole.
He was topped the charts by just 0.02s after the first runs, but admitted he made the “wrong decision” by backing off rather than going for a second lap straight away, like Verstappen.
But P2 nonetheless is a strong starting position – he’s been first or second in Q3 in every session this year – and will fancy his chances in what are predicted to be drier conditions on Saturday for F1 Sprint.
3. McLaren excel in tricky conditions
It would be fair to say Lando Norris was more than a little surprised to finish third in qualifying, having caused his McLaren team some stress when he ran off track late on in Q3.
But the papaya cars looked strong all day on Friday at Imola, the mixed conditions proving to be something of a leveller and masking some of the deficits that have held McLaren back so far this season.
READ MORE: Norris says ‘it’s a shame’ qualifying ended in the gravel after bagging top 3 start for Sprint
Daniel Ricciardo continued his upward trajectory as he made it two McLarens inside the top six – and he reckons he could have been even further up had the red flag not prevented a second run.
Our data shows McLaren were the third quickest overall in qualifying, around two tenths quicker than Alpine, in what was their strongest Saturday performance of the year. Repeating the feat in race trim will be tricky, but confidence is growing inside the team – and there is still one hour of practice to work on long runs.
4. Mercedes’ pain gets worse in Italy
This was Mercedes’ most chastening performance of a challenging 2022 season. In a wet practice, they were a staggering five seconds off the leading pace.
And things got worse in qualifying, with the reigning world champions failing to reach Q3 with either car for the first time since the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix, ending an extraordinary streak of 187 Grands Prix.
READ MORE: ‘Each weekend’s a rescue’ says Hamilton after both Mercedes miss out on Q3 at Imola
Even if the rain hadn’t come just after a red flag in Q2, both Lewis Hamilton and George Russell would have faced a fight to get into the final part of qualifying. Hamilton only made it out of Q1 by 0.004s.
Hamilton was seen having an animated conversation with Mercedes boss Toto Wolff after his early qualifying exit. He told me he did not “want to share” the context of that conversation but did say “we underperformed as a team today”.
When I asked if he still had a chance to rescue something this weekend, he replied “we will just keep working hard – each weekend is a rescue, so…”
5. Magnussen in the hunt for big weekend
Haas needed a strong start at Imola after a difficult weekend in Australia, and they got just that, with both Kevin Magnussen and Mick Schumacher oozing confidence in the car on their way to fourth and fifth respectively in practice.
They continued that fine form into qualifying, with Magnussen brilliantly escaping from the gravel early in Q3. And then the Dane, who has made Q3 three times in four attempts this year, produced a stunner of a lap to finish fourth, the best qualifying performance in Haas’s history.
READ MORE: ‘You can win from P4!’ says Magnussen, as he secures Haas’s best ever qualifying at Imola
It remains unclear whether the American team will have the same performance in dry conditions, but Magnussen has been driving on another level since his shock recall to replace Nikita Mazepin for this season – and is consistently extracting the most out of VF-22.
Mick Schumacher is in a decent position in P12 – and has the pace for points. A strong result in the F1 Sprint and Grand Prix is looking like a good bet.
Qualifying Highlights: Emilia Romagna Grand Prix