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Analysis
Formula 1 Emilia Romagna GP

10 things we learned at the 2024 F1 Imola Grand Prix

Max Verstappen transformed a tough weekend for Red Bull in Italy to score victory, though the race was spared from being totally boring thanks to a late Lando Norris charge. Here's 10 things we learned at the 2024 Formula 1 Imola Grand Prix

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, celebrates on arrival in Parc Ferme

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Formula 1 headed back to Imola after the 2023 Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix was cancelled due to flooding in the Italian region. This time, the sporting contest went ahead in sunshine throughout.

The race was awfully dull, until Max Verstappen’s struggles aboard his Red Bull and Lando Norris’s hard tyre brilliance in his McLaren combined to produce a thrilling late coda. That again enlivened a lead battle predicted to be turgid throughout 2024.

PLUS: The steering wheel switches that allowed Norris to challenge Verstappen at Imola

Elsewhere, there was plenty of intriguing news, plus added on- and off-track interest to delve into. Here we present in our pick of what we learned at Imola last weekend.

Norris livened up a dull race with his late race charge at Imola

Norris livened up a dull race with his late race charge at Imola

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

1. Lead battle is more exciting than previously feared, but it’s still relative

“It's good news for me, good news for F1, good news for the championship. You have three teams in seven seconds after 70 laps.”

Ferrari boss Fred Vasseur there, imagining the Imola race was 10% longer than it really was – plus Charles Leclerc was actually eight seconds behind the winner. Maths aside, Vasseur’s point is how close the top three drivers from three different teams ending up being on Sunday – a day where Verstappen shone for Red Bull and Norris and Leclerc did likewise for McLaren and Ferrari.

Given this season is already statistically more interesting than last with two non-Red Bull wins, there’s a case to be made that perhaps F1 observers – including Autosport – were too hasty in declaring the 2024 campaign a write-off after Bahrain testing and race one there. But, given Red Bull recovered from its awful practice showings to take pole and win here, probably best to wait until there’s at least one more different winner, which could come as soon as someone heads Verstappen in Monaco qualifying this Saturday…

Plus, Red Bull had to get something wrong – in this case its hard tyre practice preparations and resulting set-up – for the ending of that race to be so captivating, as good as Norris was. But the fact Verstappen only got pole from his Nico Hulkenberg-tow gain shows, again, that if pressure can be applied in a battle that is “less than one tenth a lap”, per Vasseur, Red Bull is vulnerable.

Verstappen loves Imola, but the track isn't producing thrillers

Verstappen loves Imola, but the track isn't producing thrillers

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

2. Imola needs all the help it can get to produce a better racing spectacle

Verstappen would it like if "we had 24 of those on the calendar" as the track "is unbelievable" when "we go to a lot of tracks that don’t really excite me". He’s not alone in loving it – the setting beautiful, the history evocative, the food delicious. But there’s no getting away from how without the final 15 laps, that race was truly awful.

Imola is narrow – this hasn’t changed over the generations. At least its bringing back of gravel traps for 2024 made the test even more brilliantly brutal for the drivers. But overtaking is always hard here. Even on a day were there was more than double the amount of passes compared to the 2022 event (29 vs 13), it was still a very hard watch.

The lack of fight through the race’s first half, as Verstappen edged away from Norris on the mediums, can be blamed on the decision to bring Pirelli’s softest tyres compared to the 2022 range here. This just aids Red Bull’s in-race tyre degradation strength and it was on the harder compounds where things were much closer before Norris’s brilliance in retaining tyre life and temperature could be brought to bear and Verstappen’s lead disappeared.

The DRS zone was also shorter compared to 2022 by 100m. The higher number of overtakes can be attributed to the softer tyres when considering the rubber life offset passes that played out late on. Think here how Aston Martin explained Lance Stroll’s straightline moan at Suzuka as actually concerning how “different tyre conditions [mean] the acceleration out of the corners is a different one”, per team boss Mike Krack.

F1’s artificial overtaking aids giveth and they taketh. But, given the 2005 and 2006 tense Imola thrillers, a closer race-long battle at the front would’ve trumped a spectacle with late overtakes down the order. Add that to what was a truly absorbing qualifying session and Imola’s place as an all-round spectacle would be more assured, especially with new venues actually appearing at this event, as we’ll come to see…

Perez isn't doing much to convince he deserves another Red Bull deal

Perez isn't doing much to convince he deserves another Red Bull deal

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

3. Perez is still giving Red Bull a big 2025 headache

After Perez produced yet another underwhelming display in F1’s best car, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner insisted "it’s just a blip" at Imola. He then said "he’s always gone well at Monaco, so we’ll see", which bafflingly ignores Perez biffing the RB19 into the Ste Devote barriers in Q1 last year, even around his 2016 Monaco podium and 2022 win.

PLUS: Imola Grand Prix driver ratings

Perez is just too inconsistent for a top team. His Imola gaffes – FP3 crash, Q2 exit, Rivazza off and resulting floor damage – in a way made the team’s consistent driver’s work harder. Verstappen arrived in qualifying with no soft tyre simulation effort in FP3 with all Red Bull’s overnight set-up work to consider.

There were suggestions in the Imola paddock that Red Bull is now leaning towards retaining Perez for 2025. But, given the field appears to be closing up, that will cost it points and potentially a constructors’ title, a la 2021. Perhaps, it should wait even longer before making its decision.

Ferrari's major upgrade package didn't put it in the fight as expected, with a possible power deployment issues exposed

Ferrari's major upgrade package didn't put it in the fight as expected, with a possible power deployment issues exposed

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

4. Ferrari might have a power problem

After qualifying 0.224s off pole when Verstappen gained 0.266s with his startline-to-Tamburello tow, Leclerc said “in the past few [events] we have had the most margin for improvement in the first sector during qualifying”. This suggested further tyre preparation problems along the lines of what he’d struggled with in the early part of the year. But, post-race, Leclerc had another explanation.

“For some reason,” said Leclerc, fresh from Ferrari’s first F1 Imola podium visit since 2006. “We had a slightly different power strategy compared to McLaren and Red Bull, and we lost everything on the run down to Turn 2. Max, on top of that, had the slipstream.”

Vasseur was asked about his charge’s comments and claimed: “It was true, but for different reasons, mainly because [Verstappen] had a mega slipstream from the start-and-finish line to Turn 1. But it's true that he had a better speed until Turn 1 on the quali lap, that we need to change our approach, to do [things] differently.”

He also reckoned “if we do 1-2 in quali, we do 1-2 in the race”.

Leclerc definitely starts his final Q3 lap nearly 4mph down on Verstappen’s top speed, with the Red Bull already being boosted by Hulkenberg ahead. But, Leclerc never gets to the 207mph top speeds reached by the McLaren cars by 2mph.

Vasseur’s rather obscure comments therefore suggest this situation merits additional scrutiny and it’s interesting that Leclerc has offered it into F1’s hive mind willingly. But, at least at Monaco if there is any qualifying power deployment deficit for the red cars it’ll be masked by the unique street track setting.

Aston Martin's updates haven't allowed the team to take a step forward

Aston Martin's updates haven't allowed the team to take a step forward

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

5. Aston’s upgrades not enough to get back in the lead fight

Red Bull and Ferrari’s Imola upgrades attracted the most attention last weekend and both teams appeared happy with their efforts. Mercedes, as we’ll get on to, was also optimistic. The same couldn’t be said of Aston Martin, which brought a new floor, plus front wing and diffuser updates.

But post-qualifying 13th as the team’s lead driver around Fernando Alonso’s various gravel trips, Stroll declared: "Just not the day or the weekend we were hoping for with the upgrades we brought, not competitive enough.

"I think everything was working, it's just not good enough, so we keep pushing. Other teams are looking competitive and we are not competitive enough at the moment. It feels the same as it felt all year. We brought some upgrades, they might have helped a bit but we need much more to catch those teams further up the grid."

"Downforce, balance [is missing, plus] some behavioural stuff that we have been dealing with all year. We have to keep bringing upgrades, keep putting downforce on the car and making it quicker, that is the name of the game in Formula 1."

Overweight Williams costing it 0.45s per lap

Overweight Williams costing it 0.45s per lap

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

6.Williams car overweight to the tune of 0.45s a lap

Williams boss James Vowles has made it something of art in fronting up to his squad’s historic weaknesses.

Last weekend, he revealed how a push to lighten the FW46’s chassis by 14kg meant it was actually around 15kg heavier overall. This isn’t just more bad maths, it’s due to other parts needing to be made differently and hurriedly as a result of the lightening efforts elsewhere in its creation. Williams did bring a lighter floor to this event that was only on Alex Albon’s car.

“The transformation we did between 2023 to '24 was that we took 14 kilos out of the chassis,” Vowles said. “For anyone in the business that knows those numbers, you'll realise that's an extraordinary feat and the team did very well in doing that.

“However, the car this year that we've been running is about four and a half tenths a lap slower, every lap, by the fact it is still overweight.”

Vowles also said he’d “muted” recently re-signed Albon over complaining about the problem in the media so far this season.

Key new aero staff will start at Mercedes this year rather than in 2025, but the team is still behind where it wants to be with this year's car

Key new aero staff will start at Mercedes this year rather than in 2025, but the team is still behind where it wants to be with this year's car

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

7. Mercedes has cold feet around aerodynamics department reshuffle

At Imola, Autosport revealed that Mercedes’ chief aerodynamicist Gioacchino Vino is leaving the Silver and Black Arrows team, but two high-profile signings from Ferrari – including its former chief designer Simone Resta – will now start at Mercedes in October and not 2025 as previously thought.

It was also learnt that the team’s car improvement plan is being likened too internally as “the problem of sleeping in a cold room with too small a duvet”.

This ties with how team boss Toto Wolff arrived at Imola having said “we have built a clear understanding of where we need to improve and shaped a clear path forward to tackle that, [but] it will be several races before we see this bear fruit” but Lewis Hamilton insisted “I wouldn't say it's depressing”.

“It's just a patience game,” Hamilton added of Mercedes’ trickling update efforts. More are expected for Canada but could be unleashed at Monaco if the parts can be produced fast enough.

Magnussen's defensive driving style could be stamped out by rules

Magnussen's defensive driving style could be stamped out by rules

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

8. Magnussen-rule for racing defence moves still being debated

F1 arrived at Imola with much attention focused on Kevin Magnussen being on the verge of a race ban – something that the Dane will be at risk of the remainder of the campaign. He did appear to be racing with this in mind at times last Sunday, after another typically brave, feisty start in his Haas.

The teams had been told the FIA is assessing whether to hand out drive-through penalties for repeated leaving-the-track-and-gaining-an-advantage offenders in defensive moves. But, after discussions with the teams at Imola, the governing body is going to continue to look at whether this should indeed become the automatic penalty, but it won’t be rushed into the sporting rules just yet.

Magnussen, for his part, argues that “the best thing would be for the FIA to tell us to give back positions” in such cases and “then the consequence for not doing that being harsh”.

Sainz remains a key player in 2025 driver market

Sainz remains a key player in 2025 driver market

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

9. Driver market dominoes set to fall - with some surprises

Although no more twists in the 2025 driver market were announced at Imola, our analysis of the situation reveals that some could be coming very soon and include a few surprises.

As well as Red Bull possibly retaining Perez, it has emerged that Haas owner Gene Haas isn’t sold on the idea of running an F1 rookie after the team’s tough 2021 season with two. This makes it less certain Ollie Bearman will earn an F1 graduation there, despite his latest impressive FP1 outing (following his sloppy Formula 2 practice crash).

Carlos Sainz apparently has until the end of May to decide if he wants to accept an offer from Audi, which would likely move to sign Esteban Ocon or Pierre Gasly from Alpine (which could now also be an option for Sainz) if he didn’t.

Plus, Valtteri Bottas is agitating for his F1 future – visiting Vowles in his Williams motorhome office on Saturday morning. Bottas later joked that he was just in there looking for coffee, but it’s a sign that he’s casting around with the understanding that his time at Sauber/Audi appears soon to be over unless the market twists yet again.

Thai PM visited Imola as push to host F1 in his country continues

Thai PM visited Imola as push to host F1 in his country continues

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

10. Thailand’s GP desire took a new step at Imola

Thailand’s desire for a Bangkok street race to boost tourism took a step forward at Imola with the country’s prime minister Srettha Thavisin visiting the race for more negotiations with F1’s bosses. This follows championship CEO Stefano Domenicali visiting the country in April for the same reason.

It has been suggested that Thavisin has approach majority Thai-owned Red Bull about it possibly supporting the plan for the new race. All in all, this points towards F1 getting the Asian expansion it is targeting rather than any additional races in the Americas.

But that in turn places pressure on European venues, including Imola. This race has a contract until 2025 but had been expected to get an additional year to replace the event lost to the awful flooding a year ago. The question now turns back to F1 on whether that will happen, but here Imola is boosted because the Bangkok race is expected to only start in 2027 or 2028 if a deal is reached.

Imola remains a driver favourite but is its time on the F1 calendar drawing to a close?

Imola remains a driver favourite but is its time on the F1 calendar drawing to a close?

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

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