This wasn’t the homecoming Ferrari was expecting.
Ferrari hadn’t arrived in Italy leading both championships since its heady days of domination way back in 2004. A hero’s welcome was on the cards from the sold-out crowd, and with the car competitive, title leader Charles Leclerc in a rich vein of form and Red Bull Racing on the brink of a reliability crisis, all signs pointed to a big weekend for world motorsport’s most famous team.
But when things seem too good to be true, they probably are - especially if you’re a modern Ferrari fan.
Red Bull Racing, equipped with reliability and aerodynamic upgrade and having taken a course of weight saving, dominated the weekend from start to finish. Max Verstappen took pole on Friday, beat Leclerc to victory in the Saturday sprint and commanded the Sunday grand prix, leading every lap and setting the fastest lap to score maximum points for his second career grand slam.
Ferrari’s weekend couldn’t have contrasted more starkly.
Carlos Sainz crashed out of qualifying and the race, although Charles Leclerc more gamely took the fight to Verstappen, energised by what was a 46-points lead over the Dutchman at the start of the weekend. He led most of the sprint race but was eventually undone by poor tyre wear, and he was on the pace on Sunday but struggled to get past Sergio Perez’s rearguard defence in the battle for second, the Red Bull Racing car too quick in a straight line and the track too slippery from a pre-race downpour to try anything creative.
But by the final 10 laps Ferrari had decided it wasn’t in the mood to settle for third.
Leclerc was called in for fresh soft tyres, and Red Bull Racing responded by pitting Perez one lap later. The gap, previously a frustrating three seconds, shrunk to less than one, and suddenly the Monegasque was in with a shout.
But with a rare Imola overtake in his sights, he took too big a bite of the kerbs at Variante Alta and was spat backwards into the barriers. He was lucky to emerge with only minor damage, and after a pit stop for repairs he could continue to a subdued sixth-place finish.
“I was too greedy and I paid the price for it,” he said dejectedly after the race.
It was the kind of error that characterised his early years in Formula 1, when his phenomenal speed wasn’t matched by his machinery, often prompting him to overdrive and crash.
But this year it’s not a matter of the same desperation. In 2022 he clearly has the car beneath him to contend for wins and the championship. Instead it’s a more philosophical question for the Monegasque and his Italian team to answer: how much do they want to risk?
Leclerc still comfortably leads Verstappen in the title standings with a 27-point advantage, albeit down from 46, but the season is long and the gap is bridgeable. An uncertain development war also lies ahead to muddy the competitive picture, and RBR is already bringing updates think and fast.
Leclerc noted after the race that he might miss the seven points he lost late in the race, but it might be equally true that come November he’ll miss the additional seven points he came so close to snatch from second-place Perez. It’s too soon to play the numbers game; he must make hay while the sun shines.
“I think there will never be regret for asking a driver to push,” Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto said. “It is part of our job to drive to the limit.
“Obviously we are fighting for the best positions and we know that we are leading the championships.”
“No regrets. I think we made the right choice, and that’s it.”
In its first legitimate title campaign in years, Ferrari is choosing to go bold - it has to if it wants to beat the experienced Red Bull Racing team. But it’ll have to learn its limits first if it wants to pull it off.