Lewis Hamilton may have stormed to his 99th career F1 pole position but the pack behind him is closer than ever before. Here’s what to look out for at Imola this afternoon.

Red Bull’s two-pronged attack

Unlike in Bahrain, Lewis Hamilton will have to take on Max Verstappen - and Sergio Perez for that matter - without teammate Valtteri Bottas.

A big reason as to why Hamilton was able to strategically out-manoeuvre Verstappen in Bahrain was the role Bottas had to play during the race.

The Finn was running around six seconds behind the leading pair during the early stages of the Bahrain Grand Prix and Mercedes used Bottas as a ploy to force Verstappen’s hand.

Notably, had it not been for Bottas’ slow second stop, Verstappen would have had to respond immediately to avoid being undercut and thus surrendering any tyre advantage over Hamilton.

Alternatively, he would have extended his stint and thus been undercut by Bottas, meaning Verstappen would have had to overtake two Mercedes drivers instead of just one.

Either way, without the slow stop for Bottas, Hamilton’s victory would have been assured, highlighting the importance of having two cars in the fight for the lead.

Looking at today’s race, Hamilton has the two Red Bulls for company at the front of the grid after Bottas struggled with the rear of his Mercedes, only managing eighth in qualifying.

Red Bull will be able to split its strategies and force Hamilton’s hand - as Mercedes did in Bahrain. 

Hamilton and Verstappen are set to start on the medium tyre, while Perez will start on the softs.

The split in tyre choices for the start of the race leads us onto our next point…

Advantage soft starters?

While the threat of rain seems to have abated, cooler track temperatures may play havoc at the start of the race.

As we saw at Portimao last season, the soft tyre starters had a significant advantage in the early laps due to cooler track conditions.

This allowed Carlos Sainz to take a brief lead, while Kimi Raikkonen stormed from 16th to sixth on the opening lap.

While a repeat of Portimao is unlikely - due to its newly laid track surface playing a significant factor in last year’s Portuguese Grand Prix, cooler track temperatures could hand the advantage to Perez given that he will be starting the race on the softs.

Similarly, Charles Leclerc in fourth will also be fancying his chances in the lead Ferrari.

Speaking after qualifying, he said: “I mean I’m actually quite happy to start on the soft, the medium might struggle a bit at the beginning with the warm-up; I’m happy to start on the soft and let’s wait and see, but it looks like Red Bull has a bit more for the race.”

Softer tyres tend to give an advantage off the start line and the combination of cooler track temperatures may exacerbate this even more.

Is a Bottas recovery likely?

After showing lightning pace during Friday practice, seeing Valtteri Bottas qualify in eighth was a shock.

The Finn’s lap in Q1 would have been good enough to put him fourth on the grid, so it’s clear Bottas does have the pace in his Mercedes W12, but can he exploit it in the race?

Imola is notoriously difficult to overtake at given its tight and twisty nature. 

Bottas will have fast-starting soft tyre runners next to him on the grid, while he will start on the mediums meaning losing further ground on Lap 1 would not be a surprise. 

The Mercedes has historically struggled in traffic, while throughout 2020 we saw on countless occasions (Italy, Bahrain, Sakhir to note), Bottas’ hesitancy and inability to make crucial overtakes while in traffic.

To answer our question: Probably not.

Look out for Yuki

Yuki Tsunoda will be kicking himself after he crashed his AlphaTauri at the exit of the Variante Alta chicane, in the early minutes of Q1.

Teammate Pierre Gasly qualified fifth, highlighting AlphaTauri’s impressive turn of pace and showed it was a missed opportunity for the Japanese rookie.

While Tsunoda has his work cut out from 20th on the grid, we saw at the first race in Bahrain that he’s not shy from making aggressive overtakes,

Tsunoda pulled off impressive lunges on Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll as he went onto score points on his F1 debut.

Looking ahead to the race, Tsunoda said: "Tomorrow is going to be maybe different conditions. Rain. Try to help me a bit, anything. So just really put it all together and don’t do mistakes like today. I think it will be a bit of a different view."

Keep an eye on Yuki!

 

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