Cultured to cocksure: the two sides of F1 in Imola and Miami

These old and new F1 venues might be streets apart, but there’s a single-mindedness to how Max mastered the Emilia Romagna and Miami Grands Prix, says Mark Hughes

Start of the 2022 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola

Turn 1 at Imola and the Red Bull pair were into a quick lead, helped by grid positions one and three starting from the dry side of the track

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🇮🇹 2022 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix
🇺🇸 2022 Miami Grand Prix

The contrast between venues could hardly have been more extreme; the beautiful old park circuit of Imola,
a former public road set in a verdant Emilia Romagna valley, an ancient place in a region of culture pre-dating even the Roman Empire. Consigned to the sport’s past for 14 years, Covid brought Imola’s return as F1 sought survival and consolidation. Two weeks later the circus made its first appearance at Miami, an aggressively brash venue with a circuit fashioned from the car park of the huge Hard Rock Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins American football team. It’s probably the glitziest event in F1 history and was being staged by F1 itself, wearing the hats both of promoter and main event. This was F1 in expansionist mode, creating a new picture, pulling in new fans, presenting itself in a very different way in keeping with the Netflix era.

There’s room for both approaches, assures F1 boss Stefano Domenicali, but the adjacent positioning of these two events in the calendar made the past and the possible future look staggeringly different. The contrast was only made sharper by the moody weather which hovered over the Italian valley all weekend and the full-on Florida sunshine which bestowed its favours on a paddock-full of A- and B-list celebrities who wouldn’t have been seen near the muddy place in the Italian countryside.

Yet when the gloss was removed and it came down to actual racing, the two events were remarkably similar, fought out yet again – as in every race this season so far – by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. Verstappen was victorious both times, his team-mate Sergio Pérez providing a shield from the attacking Leclerc at Imola but in Miami the world champion had to find his way past his adversary and then rebuff his late attacks.

Ferrari of Charles Leclerc in the 2022 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

he Ferraris might have been on home soil but Charles Leclerc couldn’t make the partisan support count

Looking first at Imola, the rain played its part in one of the most decisive moments of the weekend when Carlos Sainz crashed his Ferrari at Rivazza 2 during Friday qualifying for the Sprint race (Imola being one of three events this year which will run to this format).

The track was dry on-line but the kerbs still wet. Running over some rainwater gathered in the kerb’s serrations on the exit of Rivazza 1 with his right-rear, the tyre was still wet as he turned into the Rivazza 2 and the impact with the banking was hard. Crashing out of qualifying left him starting the Sprint event 10th.

“The Scuderia’s hopes in its home race rested with Leclerc”

Team-mate Leclerc locked up in the damp final moments of Q3 at Acqua Minerale and in that moment lost pole to Verstappen. Nonetheless, Leclerc led all but the last lap and a bit of the Sprint but his soft tyres were taking more of a hammering than those fitted on the Red Bull – enabling Verstappen to pass for the Saturday Sprint victory, putting him on pole for the main event, with regular adversary Leclerc alongside. Sainz recovered to fourth, one behind Red Bull’s Pérez. The two McLarens were fifth and sixth.

A huge rainstorm a couple of hours before the start on Sunday, followed by a wet F2 race, meant that the grip on the pole side of the grid – on the racing line and where the F2 cars had therefore run – was vastly greater than on the even-numbered side. Both Ferraris were on the even-numbered side, both Red Bulls on the odd-numbered. Which was how Red Bull was running 1-2 within seconds of the start, Verstappen leading from Pérez with Leclerc back in fourth delayed for a few laps in his chase of the Red Bulls by the fast-starting McLaren of Lando Norris as they all negotiated the tricky damp circuit on intermediate tyres.

Sainz was punted into the Villeneuve chicane gravel by Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren on the first lap so the Scuderia’s hopes at its home race rested solely on Leclerc’s shoulders. Once past Norris, he attacked Pérez relentlessly but with a dry line going down and it still being damp off-line, passing the defensive Mexican proved impossible and Verstappen eased out a handy lead. As the track dried Red Bull brought Pérez in for his slicks as soon as he’d cleared the fifth-placed Mercedes of George Russell, Ferrari responding a lap later with Leclerc and so the order remained the same, Verstappen now leading on his slicks and set to go to the end.

Max Verstappen celebrates 2022 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix victory

Max Verstappen’s victory at Imola was the 22nd of his F1 career and his second Emilia Romagna win on the trot

Leclerc relaunched his attack on Pérez but eventually his front tyres began graining, just as they had in the Sprint. No longer with a pace advantage over the Red Bull and with a big gap back to the fourth-place Norris, Ferrari brought Leclerc in for fresh tyres with 10 laps to go, triggering Pérez in for the same. In this way Ferrari had reset the tyre equation for Leclerc and the undercut had brought him right back on the Red Bull’s tail. He launched a full-scale attack, determined not to settle for an easy third when second was within reach. In trying to ensure he was at the DRS detection point into Rivazza, he took a lot of kerb into the preceding Variante Alta chicane – too much, as the Ferrari spun and whacked the barriers with its front wing, necessitating a pitstop and the loss of many positions. So the Red Bull 1-2 was secured, with Norris a distant third, clear of Russell’s Mercedes which, with a front wing not adjusted for slick tyres, was carrying a lot of understeer and under late attack from Valtteri Bottas’ Alfa Romeo.

It was maximum points for Verstappen, with the sprint and grand prix victories plus the point for fastest lap. Despite Leclerc’s lowly sixth-place finish he still led the championship courtesy of Verstappen’s two retirements from the previous three races.

Lewis Hamilton overtakes Pierre Gasly in front of packed stands at the 2022 Miami Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton might be as famous as the glitterati who paraded the Miami grid but this was no five-star performance

The Miami International Autodrome circuit was shaped within the vast car parking areas of the Hard Rock Stadium, 24,000 tons of Tarmac in a layout of long straights and slow corners. Its surface presented some unusual challenges, with a very rapid ramp-up of grip on-line but a drastic lack of it off-line. It also made for low tyre degradation in the race despite track temperatures up to 50°C.

Verstappen’s Friday was virtually written off – excess gearbox temperatures curtailing his running in the first practice, the incorrect fitment of a hydraulic line as the gearbox was changed taking him out of the second session. The necessarily hurried preparation meant he wasn’t quite as tuned into his car as the Ferrari drivers into qualifying – though Sainz had been in the wars again with a heavy off on Friday as the Ferrari’s right-rear strayed into the gripless zone around Turn 13 and deposited him heavily into the Turn 14 barriers.

School bus drives on bridge over F1 cars at the 2022 Miami Grand Prix

In case you had any doubts where the race was being held…

Verstappen was in the fight for pole with the two Ferraris but overdid things into Turn 6 on his final lap and ran wide. Sainz was on course to take it until the final corner when he was unable to get the power down as well as Leclerc had managed – and so it was that Leclerc took his fourth pole in five races and Ferrari locked out the front row. The Red Bulls of Verstappen and Pérez filled row two.

How could Ferrari lose from there? Through a perfect Verstappen performance, a shortfall of straight-line speed and – just as at Imola – a propensity to be harder on its front tyres than the Red Bull.

From the grippier side of the track again, Verstappen was almost immediately past Sainz and in position behind Leclerc, but the Ferrari initially pulled away at the front. It fires up its tyres quicker than the Red Bull but after around five laps Verstappen’s rubber was in the window and he began hauling the Ferrari in. The RB18 began the season around 10kg heavier than the Ferrari but a steady trickle of lighter parts had that deficit reduced a little at Imola and a little more here. It was notable that for the first time all season the Ferrari was not out-accelerating the Red Bull out of the turns, but the RB18 retained its significant end-of-straight speed advantage.

Pharrell Williams and Serena Williams at the 2022 Miami Grand Prix

Because I’m happy: the Williamses Pharrell and Serena at Miami… maybe to support Williams?

Leclerc’s front-right tyre was showing signs of stress quite early and going into the ninth lap he was a little slow through the final turn, giving Verstappen a nice DRS run on him down the pitstraight. As he aimed for the inside-right Leclerc stayed hard left, convinced that there wouldn’t be enough grip off line for Verstappen to make the move work. But there was – it had steadily built up over the weekend and Verstappen was through and pulling away. Sainz remained close behind Leclerc but would soon have his hands full as Pérez came on ever-stronger behind.

Verstappen was able to pull out a big enough gap that he was well out of Leclerc’s undercut zone and he stayed put for an extra couple of laps after the Ferrari pitted, rejoining still 8sec ahead. Pérez had briefly suffered a severe power loss when a sensor failed on his power unit. A quick reset brought things back to life but it had cost him around 5sec immediately and the lower power of the new setting cost some more. Had it not been for that he would likely have been able to pass Sainz in the pits, because the Ferrari was delayed 3sec with a sticking wheel. As it was, Sainz retained the place but a sore neck from his Friday crash was causing increasing discomfort and he was in for a tough final stint as Pérez came back at him.

Max Verstappen leads Charles LEclerc in the 2022 Miami Grand Prix

Verstappen cruising to a second consecutive win

Everything seemed set for an easy Verstappen victory until a late safety car for a Lando Norris/Pierre Gasly collision reset the race. Verstappen was already past the pit entry road when the virtual safety car period switched to a full safety car. Ferrari could have pitted Leclerc for new tyres at this point but chose not to because the only fresh set of tyres left were hard compounds – which had proven problematical for the first 20-odd laps, but which were fine when worn – as the existing set of Leclerc’s car now were.

Now sitting right on Verstappen’s tail thanks to the safety car, Leclerc reckoned the faster warm up of the Ferrari’s tyres might just give him a chance of stealing this victory from Verstappen.

Just as in his Imola chase of Pérez, here Leclerc gave it his all in attacking Verstappen once the safety car had pulled off. The Red Bull was vulnerable for the first couple of laps as its tyres took a while to come in – but priceless in defence was that very strong end-of-straight speed. With DRS not available for the first two laps, Leclerc was never quite able to get level in the braking areas. Once DRS was enabled, Verstappen’s tyres were up to temperature and he was able to begin easing clear once more on his way to victory number three from five.

Red Bull of Max Verstappen art the 2022 Miami Grand Prix

Miami brought another win for Verstappen but he still trails Leclerc in the standings by 19 points

The focus was then whether Pérez – who had pitted under the safety car for the fresh mediums which were in his garage – could do anything about Sainz, now really troubled by his tiring neck. Sainz was perfect in defence and retained the final podium place.

Just as in Australia, the safety car had fallen fortuitously for Russell, giving him a distant fifth place in the Mercedes at the expense of team-mate Lewis Hamilton who would otherwise have been comfortably ahead. Having failed to make it out of Q2 in the still-troubled W13, Russell’s choice of the hard-compound tyre on which to start had enabled him to stay out long enough to pit for free when the safety car came, putting him on fresh mediums right on the tail of Hamilton. He passed – out of track limits, gave the place back, then passed again. But prior to the safety car they’d both been behind Bottas’ Alfa, which was very suited to the slow corners of the track and had qualified fifth. Shortly after the restart Bottas had run wide at the final turn, allowing both Mercs to pounce. Before the safety car, Bottas had the pace to keep Hamilton out of DRS reach.

Max Verstappen caught up in streamers on the podium at the 2022 Miami Grand Prix

That’s three out of five now for the Dutchman; he’s looking every bit the No1