F1 2021 Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix Preview: Can Red Bull Convert their pace into a win?

F1 fans have been hibernating bears for nearly a decade, only waking up for little snacks in 2016 and 2017. We have gotten restless and yearn for bygone years of drama that F1 has so often provided us. We talk about “what-ifs” – what if George Russel was Lewis Hamilton’s teammate?

We see occasional displays of glory (see: Monza, 2020) that make us forget the truth for a week or two at a time. But the reality surrounding the competition level at the sharp end of the grid cannot be escaped. No matter how many times Sebastian Vettel teased us only to collapse before the finish line we are still waiting to fully arise. 

Like a waking animal smelling it’s first meal in months, 2021 has a different scent for F1 fans, one that’s left us drooling in anticipation after Bahrain. As we dive into Imola, will we know if the hype is real: is this finally the year somebody beats Mercedes? 

Track Guide

The 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix will be contested over 63 laps in Imola this weekend. Every metre of it’s 4.909km distance is a thrill ride for fans and drivers alike. Because of Covid19 restrictions, the former San Marino Grand Prix returned to F1 in 2020 for the first time since 2006.

The Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari is a narrow, sweeping track with lots of opportunity for drama, but few obvious passing areas. As we discovered last year, this doesn’t necessarily mean a boring race but it does heighten the importance of Qualifying – though not to the same degree as Monaco. 

A good mix of medium and high speed corners with punishing, old-school runoff areas makes this counter-clockwise circuit a beautiful and challenging one for drivers. In 2020, pre-race practice was limited to one session so many drivers still have a relatively low level of experience here. With three full days ahead of them more should be able to nail that perfect lap.

Last Time Out

F1 2021 began with such a banging Bahrain Grand Prix that it’s almost easy to forget it was the first of 23 races this year. The fight for the top was as close as we have seen on merit for years and, most importantly, it took a stroke of strategic genius for Lewis Hamilton to come out ahead of Max Verstappen. 

Vettel will be under intense pressure after his embarrassing crash in Bahrain

Beyond the Mercedes/Red Bull battle, the midfield that looked to have no room for movement in 2020 somehow tightened up to an intensity only rivalled by cosmic forces. McLaren have not lost a step and start as loose favourites for third.

Ferrari seem to be in the hunt to regain their lost mojo from a year ago and AlphaTauri is the official dark horse, primed to reach the podium once more. Lando Norris, Sergio Perez, Charles Leclerc, Daniel Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz all followed Valtteri Bottas, who was a distant third, home in Bahrain separated by less than 20 seconds.

READ MORE: WILL VETTEL REGRET HIS ASTON MARTIN MOVE?

Yuki Tsunoda collected two points for ninth in his first F1 race after mugging Lance Stroll on the final lap. Stroll and the entire Aston Martin team are further on the back foot than any other team except the towel-waving American team Haas. What remains to be discovered is if any of these results were anomalies. 

What else does 2021 have in store for us? When will Sergio Perez come to grips with his Red Bull and become the winning threat we know he is? Is Yuki Tsunoda the most exciting prospect since Verstappen? How does an F1 fan honestly contain his or her excitement for this weekend?

Has the Titanic shift actually happened?

In six months we’ll know how the cards are playing out. We’ll know if Red Bull is in the driver’s seat of this championship. Despite finishing in second and fifth place in Bahrain, they legitimately look like the season long team to beat – if you can say that after one race.

Hamilton and Verstappen are the strong early favourites for the 2021 championship

Their qualifying form, all important in Imola, was unassailable, the team’s driver pairing is arguably the best on the grid and Imola is a track that will play to their strengths. In other words, if Verstappen is actually the title threat he has appeared since pre-season testing we will know it this weekend.

Alternatively, if Mercedes have found a way to make the low-rake concept of their W12 work and they win again this weekend, we might as well crown Hamilton now. That’s the big story of this weekend: Mercedes versus Red Bull for the 2021 crown. Come Saturday, the world will revel in that battle.

READ MORE: IN THE PIT LANE – IS LAWRENCE STROLL CASH-STRAPPED?

Session Times

Practice 1: 16 April               10:00-11:00 (7:30-8:30 AM EST)

Practice 2: 16 April               13:30-14:30 (11AM–12PM EST)

Practice 3: 17 April               10:00-11:00 (5-6 AM EST)

Qualifying: 17 April             13:00-14:00 (8-9 AM EST)

Race: 18 April                       14:00 (9 AM EST)

All times in BST, unless stated

It should be noted that these are the updated times, as Friday and Saturday’s running was altered to clashing with the funeral of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on Saturday.

Grid Talk Podcast

If you want more content to preview this weekend’s Emilia-Romagna GP, the Grid Talk crew has you covered as always! Ruby Price hosted Alex Booth, Owain Medford and Sam Thatcher in the team’s Imola GP preview. Both audio and video versions of the show are linked below:

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