Drivers expect overtaking to be tough, but not necessarily impossible, in the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix on Formula 1's return to Imola.
After a 14-year hiatus since the 2006 San Marino Grand Prix, Imola will host its first F1 race in over a decade today during a condensed two-day weekend of action.
Mercedes duo Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton claimed yet another front-row lockout in a fascinating qualifying, with Bottas prevailing to land his fourth pole position of the season by a tenth of a second over his teammate.
Despite an exciting Saturday, Hamilton is concerned that the race could end up being something of a procession around the narrow and fast-flowing Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, something he had foreshadowed early on in the day.
"It's definitely not going to be a great race circuit for us, being that it's so fast for us," Hamilton said after the sole 90-minute practice session.
“I mean, it's very narrow, it's going to be very difficult for people to overtake. There will probably be no overtaking in that midfield after Turn 2 [the first part of the Tamburello chicane]. Maybe down the main straight you'll see some overtaking.”
And Hamilton was not alone in his bleak prediction about a possible lack of action on Sunday.
“It’s going to be hard to overtake,” agreed Haas driver Kevin Magnussen, who qualified down in 17th.
“It can be too hard to overtake of course – Monaco and Singapore, they’re often not very exciting races because of that. But I don’t think it’s as bad as that here.”
On the last two visits to Imola in 2006 and 2005, F1 fans were treated to some classic lights-to-flag duels for the lead involving Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, though there was a lack of swashbuckling exchanges of position between F1’s two heavyweights of the mid-noughties.
Overtaking has always been renowned as being difficult at Imola due to the high speed corners and width of the track, but changes to the circuit since F1’s last race could help the cause.
The removal of the former final chicane has significantly extended the main straight, meaning there is a longer run down to the first official braking zone at Tamburello chicane.
Unlike in 2006, there will also be a DRS zone along the start-finish straight, something which should help the drivers in their quest to pull off some manoeuvres down into Turn 2.
Despite similar concerns about a lack of action at the Tuscan Grand Prix at Mugello, a single DRS activation point along the straight proved more than enough to aid plenty of passes.
“It is quite a long, long, straight,” McLaren’s Lando Norris noted.
“We don’t know 100% what the racing is going to be like, how easy it’s going to be to overtake.
“I don’t think it’s going to be maybe as unpredictable or as exciting as what it was in Portugal last weekend, just because it’s a bit more normal this weekend with how the tyres are working on the Tarmac and the wind and everything.
“Turn one on Lap 1 is our best opportunity. And turn one is the best opportunity on every other lap as well.”
Besides the start, Hamilton concluded after qualifying that there will be limited opportunities for him to make up for narrowly being beaten to pole by Bottas.
“It’s perhaps a little bit like Monaco in that sense,” he explained. “I think there’s strategy as well. There are usually only a couple of options.
“It won’t be as good as the last race in terms of the opportunities to overtake, places that you can follow. But, as I said, maybe we’ll be surprised.
“Nonetheless I’m going to give it everything I’ve got and fingers crossed.”
And Bottas is fully aware of the importance of the start, having only managed to convert five of his previous 14 career pole positions into victory.
Bottas could potentially be disadvantaged by a lack of rubber put down on the side of the grid that houses pole position, with the majority of drivers opting to run close to the pit wall in order to take the shortest route to the line throughout practice and qualifying.
Nevertheless, the Finn is feeling confident about his chances of recording a third victory of the season to claw back some of his 77-point deficit to Hamilton in the championship.
Bottas knows he will have a fight on his hands to earn the win and might have to withstand some intense race-long pressure.
“It’s going to be a good fight,” he said.
“It’s one of the longest runs on the calendar into Turn 1, so no doubt Lewis and Max will be chasing me but it’s a good place to start and hopefully the pace is good. So it’s game on.”
Red Bull was left encouraged by its long run performance and Max Verstappen is hopeful that will help him get closer to the Mercedes duo and be in a position to challenge on Sunday.
Verstappen will line up third on the grid and felt that some of his 0.5s gap to pole in qualifying had been exacerbated by a “messy” Q2 that was disrupted by encountering engine trouble.
“[The] long run was alright, so hopefully we’ll be a bit similar tomorrow,” Verstappen said when asked if he was hopeful of fighting for the win.
“Let’s hope that, top-speed-wise, we’re in a good position. I don’t think it’s going to be very easy to pass anyway but we’ll see what we can do.”
Joining Verstappen on the second row is his former Red Bull teammate Pierre Gasly, who will be one to watch when the lights go out. The Frenchman will set off from the clean side of the grid on Soft tyres, with all three cars ahead of him on Mediums.
AlphaTauri’s pace was the surprise of the weekend as the Faenza outfit headed the midfield pack thanks to Gasly’s standout effort to secure his best qualifying result of what has been a sublime 2020 season.
Gasly, who is already a race-winner in Italy this year, will be eyeing up another shock following his qualifying excellence.
AlphaTauri’s long run pace in practice hinted at some superb potential, which will only act as further encouragement for the dark horse at Imola.
With plenty to watch out for, we should be in store for an intriguing and potentially dramatic race.