Double trouble for Red Bull at Imola? Ferrari brings upgrade as McLaren chases another F1 win


An upgraded Ferrari; Lando Norris's impressive form; tributes for Senna; Antonelli rumours; and Bearman returns. Here's what to watch for at the 2024 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

Ferrari Chinese Grand prix 2024

Could Ferrari be next to run at the front?


Red Bull has had a stranglehold on Formula 1 for the past two seasons, but the Miami Grand Prix may have been the moment that we saw it loosen, as Lando Norris took a popular debut win in a McLaren that had the measure on Red Bull in the race.

Now Ferrari arrives at Imola with its own upgrade, designed to put the Scuderia on a level with the reigning champions — while McLaren believed a second successive win is achievable.

Buckle up, because we might really have a fight on our hands at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

Imola has provided its fair share of wheel-to-wheel action in the past, as drivers are forced to take risks to move up the field on the narrow, twisting track. Qualifying well carries extra importance as a result, and the first key battle will be for the front row on Saturday.

Both Verstappen and Norris have run well on the North Italian circuit, but there’s no doubt who the majority of fans will be cheering on, given that Ferrari’s Maranelo factiry lies just 55 miles from the start line.

Further back in the pack, doubt continues to cloud Logan Sargeant‘s second F1 season, after Williams applied for Mercedes junior Kimi Antonelli to be given a superlicence ewarly, before his 18th birthday in August. He completed his first F1 tests at Imola last month. Will the Italian make his F1 debut in 2024?

Just as significant as the race will be the tributes to two drivers who never walked away from the circuit 30 years ago. Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger will be commemorated during the weekend.

Here’s everything to watch out for in Imola.


Ferrari is bringing “significant” upgrades

Ferrari Fiorano test

Ferrari tested new wheel guards as well as new upgrades at Fiorano

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Ferrari believes it can challenge for victory alongside Red Bull and McLaren this weekend, as the Italian outfit arrives at its home grand prix with a significantly upgraded SF-24.

Both Leclerc and Sainz took the the Fiorano Circuit in Maranello last week in a 124-mile filming day to test the changes, which are based around a new philosophy toward the sidepod and engine cover bodywork. Redesigned sidepods with a new overbite inlet arrangement — which mirror Red Bull’s RB20 — alongside a new floor, a reimagined vertical bypass duct and an extended outboard wing mirror stalk, all aim to improve the car’s aerodynamic profile and overall balance.

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This falls in line with the team’s original philosophy for this year’s car, which was to make it more drivable and consistent so that both drivers would have the confidence to push no matter the circuit they were on. This has already allowed Sainz to pick up an impressive victory in Australia, while Leclerc has finished no lower than fourth through the first six races of the season.

By introducing the new changes all at once instead of progressively, Ferrari aims to make a significant leap in performance this weekend, possibly putting its SF-24 in line with Red Bull’s RB20 as well as McLaren’s MCL38. Ultimately, if the upgrades prove effective, this could put the Scuderia on a path to success for the foreseeable future — and what better place to kick off a potential title challenge than on home turf?

“Two of our competitors brought parts [in Miami], and it was not a game-changer at the end of the day,” said team principal Fred Vasseur, who attempted to manage expectations for the race weekend ahead. “I think we have a kind of some thought into the development of this current car and, when we are bringing something, it’s never a mega upgrade.

“It’s true that when you are in quali and you have four or five cars in one-tenth, if you bring one-tenth, it’s a game changer for the weekend. But a large part of the result is coming also from what we are doing with the drivers and the set-up of the car during the weekend, the management of the tyres.

“We don’t have to think only about upgrades and development. It’s also the job that we are doing on track.”


Lando pushing for another podium appearance…or better

Lando Norris 2024 Miami Grand Prix podium

He’s done it before. Can he go two better?

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For some, Lando Norris will arrive at this weekend’s race as the favourite. Even before Max Verstappen damaged the floor of his Red Bull in Miami by running over a bollard, Norris’s pace had been “insane” according to the Dutchman — making a debut victory likely even before the Briton caught a lucky break with a well-timed safety car. Unfortunately for Verstappen, and the rest of the grid, that same pace could be expected to return at Imola.

Since the circuit’s re-emergence on the F1 calendar in 2020, Norris has been made regular appearances atop the podium — despite the lack of performance underneath him. In 2021, he finished third behind Lewis Hamilton and Verstappen — besting both Ferraris and team-mate Daniel Ricciardo despite initially qualifying seventh. The following year, he replicated the same result from fifth on the grid in a car which just four races earlier had finished amongst the back-markers on pure pace.

Now behind the wheel of a true race-winning contender in 2024, Norris could be in position to take pole and a second consecutive race win on a circuit which ranks among his best. At such an early point in the campaign, could we be seeing the start of a possible title challenge? McLaren boss Zak Brown is apprehensive.

“I think we can take the fight to Ferrari,” he told Motor Sport in Monaco last weekend, where he was racing in the Historic Grand Prix. “I think we can take the fight to Red Bull on occasion, as we did in Miami. Oscar was very quick, I feel bad all the attention has gone to Lando – understandably but Oscar was running P2 not far behind [Max Verstappen] and the safety car didn’t work to his advantage so he lost out. We could have had two cars on the podium. It gives us reason to think we can win some more races this year.

“Imola is a strong race for us.”


Sebastian Vettel returns in tribute to Senna

Ayrton Senna MP4/8 McLaren

Senna’s final McLaren will roar again at Imola

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Four-time F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel will participate in a fitting tribute to Ayrton Senna this weekend: driving the Brazilian’s McLaren MP4/8 around the Imola circuit, 30 years on from his tragic accident.

The MP4/8, used by Senna in the 1993 season, was bought by the German following his retirement in 2022 and ranks among his favourite F1 cars of all-time. Despite proving to be a distant second-best to the power and technology used in Williams‘ FW15C — which would later be driven to world title success by Alain Prost — Senna drove it to five memorable race victories in his final season for McLaren and finished second in the drivers’ championship.

His most impressive performance at the wheel of the MP4/8 arguably came at Donington — home to the 1993 European Grand Prix — where the Brazilian climbed from fifth to first on a rain-soaked opening lap and later reached the chequered flag 83sec before anyone else.

“Ayrton Senna was not only a driver who I valued highly for being one of the best racing has ever seen, but also a man of great compassion,” said Vettel. “It’s been 30 years since his accident and I would like to pay tribute to Ayrton.”


Antonelli rumours

Kimi Antonelli

Could Kimi Antonelli be a new addition to the grid by seasons-end?

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Confusion has continued to surround the career of Mercedes junior Kimi Antonelli, who has been heavily linked to an F1 seat in several forms.

The young Italian is on the shortlist as Lewis Hamilton’s replacement at Mercedes for 2025, despite only just starting his debut F2 season this year. But over the Miami GP weekend and following an impressive F1 test at Imola, rumours began to suggest that Antonelli could make his F1 debut this season for Williams in place of a struggling Logan Sargeant.

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The Italian’s manager and Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff later denied the rumours, but then the FIA later confirmed it had received a request to grant the 17-year-old Antonelli a “special dispensation” to receive an F1 super licence before he turned 18 — suggesting that Mercedes want him in an F1 car sooner rather than later.

The super licence rule, which requires drivers to accumulate 40 points from performances in other series and be a minimum of 18 years old before joining F1, was brought in shortly after a 17-year-old Verstappen made his debut in 2015. The Dutchman himself believes that the rule “doesn’t stop what it’s meant for”, which is ensuring a benchmark level of talent in those wanting to race in F1.

“It’s not specifically about him, but this can stop some talents from getting into Formula 1 quickly because they have to accumulate those 40 points first,” said the Dutchman. “I’m not a big fan of it, of this entire system. The FIA thinks it’s good, but I’d rather not have it. If someone is 17 or 18 years old and has maybe 20 points, but if he is very fast, why can’t he get into Formula 1 then?”

There’s no further evidence to suggest that Antonelli will make his F1 debut this weekend, but the rumours have likely put extra stress on the shoulders of Sargeant, who will need to perform in Imola and beyond should he want any chance of hanging on to his F1 seat.


Oliver Bearman returns in FP1 appearance for Haas 

Oliver Bearman Imola Haas Fp1

Bearman will take the place of … during FP1 in Imola


Following the confirmed exit of Nico Hülkenberg from Haas at the end of the 2024 season, as the German heads to Sauber ahead of its Audi takeover in 2026, it’s been widely suggested that Oliver Bearman will be the man to replace him. The Ferrari junior is set to compete in six FP1 sessions for Haas across the 2024 campaign — his first coming at Imola.

Bearman has arguably already proven himself worthy on an F1 promotion after a wondrous performance in place of Carlos Sainz — who was sidelined after an appendectomy — at the Saudi Arabian GP, where he finished a brilliant seventh. But with many open seats still unclaimed for 2025, the young Briton could have plenty of competition in securing a place on next year’s F1 grid.

“Yes, of course I see it as my chance,” said Bearman. “But just because there is a seat free doesn’t mean I’m entitled to it. I still have to go out there and earn it through good performances in F2, but even more so the six FPs that I’m doing.

“I have to perform well and show that I’m ready to win.”

As a reserve driver for both Ferrari and Haas, Bearman’s next race appearance could also come sooner than expected, with Kevin Magnussen currently two points away from a race ban. Should the Dane cause a collision or be deemed to be driving dangerously over the Emilia Romagna GP weekend, it’s probable that Bearman would take his place in Monaco — providing another significant opportunity to enhance his F1 chances.


Verstappen set to compete in double race weekend

Max Verstappen Imola

Can Verstappen complete a virtual double in Imola?

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It’s common knowledge that competing in any F1 grand prix requires incredible levels of preparation, commitment and concentration — unless you’re Max Verstappen it seems.

This weekend, alongside racing at Imola with Red Bull in search of his fifth F1 race win of the season, the Dutchman will also be competing in the virtual 24 Hours of Nürburgring — an event he won in 2021 — with his own sim team, Team Redline. He’ll be one of four drivers behind the wheel, with each completing alternating stints throughout the endurance event, although it’s still unclear how much time Verstappen will actually spend in the hot-seat.

“It’s a 24-hour race and I think there are four of us on the car. But of course, I don’t have a lot of time, Saturday night and Sunday morning,” he explained. “[I have] between two and four hours, if I’m going to do it. It depends a bit, how it works out with the times.”

Verstappen recently took special delivery of a new simulation rig that will travel with him to all the European F1 GP in 2024, but gaming at race weekends is far from a new phenomenon. At the 2021 United States Grand Prix, Verstappen was famously spotted playing FIFA’s Ultimate Team video game until the early hours of Sunday morning, before then travelling to the circuit where he secured a key race victory over title-rival Lewis Hamilton.

“I do it all the time,” said Verstappen. “I’ve also been gaming the last few races. None of that matters very much. But people don’t talk about that because I haven’t brought that up. This time I have.

“[If something goes wrong on Sunday] they’ll say so. It doesn’t matter to me anyway. Look, as I just said, I think I’m professional enough that I know what can and can’t be done. If you don’t go to bed and you don’t sleep, it won’t be good for your race on Sunday. But I think with so many years of experience I do know what to do.

“It’s in my free time and I think I’m professional enough to see for myself what’s OK and what’s not OK.”