Ferrari seems to be the team to beat again this weekend.
Championship leader Charles Leclerc and his team-mate of Spain Carlos Sainz Jr. set the fastest times on Friday in a rain-soaked first practice session for the Formula One Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix ahead of the qualifying sprint scheduled for later.
The two drivers pleased the passionate red-clad local “tifosi” fans by exchanging the lead several times at Imola, on the circuit named after the founder of the Italian team and his son: Enzo and Dino Ferrari.
Leclerc, who has won two of the first three races, ended up proving quicker, 0.877sec ahead of Sainz. It was an appropriate way for Sainz to celebrate the signing of his new contract on Thursday.
Reigning champion Max Verstappen was third fastest in his Red Bull, 1.465 behind Leclerc. No one else finished within three seconds of Leclerc. Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton was once again in trouble. The British Mercedes driver finished in 18th place and more than seven seconds behind the leader.
It had been raining all morning in Imola and, although the downpour stopped at the start of the session, it came down harder again halfway through practice.
Several cars ended up skidding off the track and Leclerc spun twice. The session was also briefly red-flagged when Lando Norris hit the gravel.
Given the conditions and the qualifying sprint scheduled for the afternoon, the teams opted to preserve the cars. However, it was a good balancing act as it was the first time most of the drivers had tested their cars in the rain and the track is expected to remain wet later on.
The Emilia-Romagna GP represents the return of the sprint. Instead of the usual three practices to familiarize yourself with the car’s performance on the circuit, there will be just one practice, followed by qualifying on Friday for Saturday’s sprint. The results establish the place on the grid for Sunday’s race and offer points for the top eight.
The rain did little to dampen the spirits of the fans, who finally had something to celebrate after several years of disappointment for Ferrari.
Imola returned to the F1 calendar in 2020 after a 14-year absence, but this is the first time in three editions that fans have been allowed in due to the coronavirus pandemic. More than 120,000 tickets have been sold for the weekend.
Leclerc leads the championship by 34 points over Mercedes’ George Russell. Sainz is third, 38 points behind his teammate.