Max Verstappen overtook F1 championship rival Charles Leclerc on the penultimate lap of the sprint race at Imola, claiming eight crucial championship points and first place on the grid for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

After losing out to Leclerc at the start, Verstappen bided his time as he preserved his tyres before going on the attack in the closing laps.

Red Bull’s superior tyre management and straight-line speed allowed Verstappen to reclaim P1 on Lap 20.

The RB18 was also working well in the hands of Sergio Perez, who got within a couple of seconds of Leclerc on the final lap after starting down in seventh.

Why Verstappen will beat Leclerc again

The sprint race at Imola was a nice snippet into how Sunday’s grand prix might play out between F1 title rivals Leclerc and Verstappen.

Even though the Ferrari driver got the better start from second on the grid, Verstappen’s superior tyre management proved to be decisive. 

The Dutchman remained patient and showed why he is the reigning F1 champion, ultimately seizing his chance at Tamburello on Lap 20 as he went side-by-side with his former karting rival. 

Red Bull’s race pace advantage was also highlighted by Perez’s fightback through the field.

Starting from seventh on the grid, the Mexican quickly moved up the order, finding himself in third behind Leclerc.

Had the sprint race been a couple of laps longer, there’s no doubt that Perez would have been able to breeze past Leclerc for second place.

Looking ahead to the race, teams will have free tyre choice meaning Ferrari could opt for the mediums given its graining issues, while Red Bull may choose to run the softs again given how well it looked after them.

Red Bull will be confident regardless of what tyre or what the weather is doing.

Verstappen stormed to pole position by 0.7s, even though he lifted on his best lap, in the wet conditions and his superior tyre management in the sprint should make him the favourite for the main event on Sunday afternoon.

The Red Bull’s superior pace on the straights is another string to its bow, hence why we’ve tipped Verstappen to claim his second victory of the season should his RB18 remain reliable.

A Mercedes recovery?

Mercedes’ miserable weekend continued at Imola after it saw both cars knocked out in Q2 for the first time since the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix. 

Both George Russell and Lewis Hamilton were unable to make any significant progress during the sprint race, with the Mercedes W13 lacking straight-line speed and the various DRS trains making overtaking difficult. 

In theory, Mercedes should fare better on race day given it has often performed better on heavy fuel looking back at the three previous races.

However, with limited overtaking opportunities and a lack of practice time to improve the car setup, is it realistic to see either Hamilton or Russell in the top six before the end of the race on Sunday?

Tyre warm-up has been a big issue for Mercedes and with temperatures expected to be cooler (and there is a serious threat of rain), it could be another difficult day for the eight-time world champions. 

Russell has hinted that Mercedes will need to be bold with the strategy to rescue a torrid weekend for the team.

If Mercedes can leave Imola with two cars inside the top 10, then it should be very content with its Imola weekend.

Eyes on the weather

Like on Friday, rain is forecast on Sunday with the potential for showers.

It was red flags galore during qualifying with the session halted on five separate occasions as the drivers struggled to get to grips with their 2022 machines in slippery conditions.

Wet-affected races are always chaotic, with last year’s Emilia Romagna GP no different.

Verstappen ultimately took the win in 2021 but we saw Valtteri Bottas and Russell dramatically collide on the start-finish straight, while Hamilton recovered from the gravel trap to finish second.

Rain always spices up the show so that’ll be something to keep an eye on ahead of the grand prix.

Prediction

While Red Bull and Ferrari look to be evenly matched at the front of the field, the former’s superior straight-line speed and tyre degradation, particularly on the soft compound, will tip the race in its favour.

Perez looks to be in fine form once again so a Red Bull 1-2 could be a real possibility should the Mexican make a good start from third. 

Third: Sergio Perez (Red Bull)

Second: Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)

Winner: Max Verstappen (Red Bull)