The Miami Grand Prix could show us where the season is headed as Red Bull pegged back Ferrari at the Emilia-Romagna double-header.
With two races giving the chance for a bumper score, Max Verstappen used the opportunity to claim everything on offer. A win at the Sprint, a coast to victory on Sunday, and even the bonus point for the fastest lap of the day.
That leaves Leclerc, once 40 points clear of second, 27 ahead of the current world champion. Sergio Perez trails just behind in third with 54 points. In the constructor standings Ferrari have 124 points and Red Bull 113. From an early dash to a narrow lead, the races in Italy have changed the perspective of the season before teams decamp to Miami.
Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix
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While Red Bull’s resurgence after some early disappointment is clear, what is most intriguing is how Ferrari have started to perform. It’s too early to draw conclusions, but it is certainly not too early to wonder if the pressure is already getting to Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr.
Sainz, who has only recently signed a new two-year deal with the Italians, ended up in the gravel not once, but twice. On Sunday he barely lasted a third of a lap before he was caught by Daniel Ricciardo and in the gravel. A racing incident, of course, but he began the race struggling to influence the race after a poor showing in the Sprint.
As for Leclerc, the Monegasque looked to have Sergio Perez worried in the closing stages of the race only to clip the sidings and being forced down into sixth. The points of third place would have taken the edge of the disappointment, instead he exacerbated it.
Discussing his late drop down to second in Saturday’s action, he protested that he would still be starting on the front row. A ruthless driver might not have quite so generous an appraisal of his own performance.
Speaking to Sky Sports, Leclerc said that the mistake cannot be repeated, but still he ended by putting a positive spin on a race which was essentially a setback.
"It's a big shame. Whatever happened before the spin... but it's part of racing,” he claimed.
"P3 was the best I could do. We didn't have the pace for much more and I was too greedy, and paid the price for it and lost potential points. It is a shame, this shouldn't happen again.
"Only time will tell [if this will impact the title race]. For sure, Red Bull seem to be more competitive than the first three races. We had the upper hand in Bahrain and Australia, then they had it here and in Jeddah.
"It is very, very close and I think it will be that way for the rest of the season. It's a big mistake but considering the mistakes, it could've been much bigger."
Sainz was similarly stoic, stating: "It was very bad, definitely. A tough moment.
"It's not at all the way I wanted to go out in front of the fans. Turn two can be bad, but there are always these tough moments in the life of the sportsman and you have to go through them.
"As long as I keep working hard, the good times will come."
Over at the Mercedes paddock, only George Russell’s fourth place suggests that they can rescue their season to challenge for regular podium places, but victories look a long way away.
Russell admitted the cars’ struggles, and pointed to those drawbacks as the reason for Hamilton’s frustration.
"The car has just been totally outside of the window this weekend," he began.
"It's so difficult to get a lap out of the tyres and in the right window, and it's just being able to put a lap together.
"Lewis has the pace and is incredibly fast but it's just been tricky for us, as a team, to get things done when the time was needed.
"Lewis has been massively fast, it was probably just a bit of a blip this weekend. But I have no doubt he's going to come back strongly. We all want more and he wants more and nobody is happy with this position."
Team principal Toto Wolff has said that Mercedes will come back with several changes in the United States, but with porpoising still a problem, and pace still clearly lacking, there is only so much talent can do when the world champions car appears to be the strongest. Hamilton could still turn this around to some degree, but having already admitted the championship is beyond him, he hardly appears enthused with the challenge.
"I am out of the championship, for sure,” he confirmed. “There's no question about that. I will still keep working as hard as I can and pull it back together somehow."
For Mercedes, they are in a race to keep their credibility. If they don’t, they may fail to keep Hamilton beyond the season. He has other ambitions, and it is almost certain that one of them is not to struggle in the Formula 1 pack of also-rans for no real benefit.
For Red Bull, they have to show that their early struggles are behind them and use their strength to intimidate their rivals. A slip-up at Miami could give Ferrari a confidence boost after their own recent wobbles.
And for Ferrari, they need to show their steel and focus after perhaps falling to early-season over confidence. Either way, as Red Bull head Christian Horner said: "Miami is going to be an epic race.”
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