Have Red Bull’s rivals made an upgrade breakthrough? Five talking points for Imola

2023 Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix

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This weekend’s Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix at Imola could be a pivotal point in the course of the 2023 season, with many teams planning to bring substantial upgrades to their cars.

As the opening race in the first triple-header of the 2023 season – followed by rounds in Monaco and Spain – the effectiveness of the upgrade packages brought to Italy this weekend could have a major impact on teams’ final placings in this year’s championship.

Here are the talking points for the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix.

Upgrades galore

Although it is only round six of this year’s world championship, the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix is set to effectively mark the start of the second phase of the 2023 season.

The opening five rounds of the championship were dominated by Red Bull, who claimed every chequered flag first every time to storm to a commanding 122-point lead over their nearest rivals Aston Martin in the constructors’ championship. In the drivers’ standings, Max Verstappen leads team mate Sergio Perez by 14 points, courtesy of his third win of the season in Miami.

But this weekend in Imola marks a key point of the season. Many of the ten teams have been building to this round to introduce their first major upgrade packages of the season, not least of which Mercedes, who will be looking to make progress in their efforts to chase down the runaway Red Bulls.

George Russell, Mercedes, Miami International Autodrome, 2023
Mercedes are planning a change of development direction
Team principal Toto Wolff has said Mercedes’ W14 will receive a new floor, new body work and new front suspension in what he described as a “large operation” for their 2023 car. Although he emphasised the need for his team to “manage our own expectations” of the impact the upgrades will have on their performance, it could still be an important first step on their mission to establishing themselves as Red Bull’s main rivals.

AlphaTauri and Alfa Romeo are also among the teams planning important new parts for their cars in Italy this weekend. The fight in the midfield so far in 2023 has been as close as it has possibly ever been, with the bottom six teams all covered by just 14 points. With this weekend’s race the first of a triple-header, points gained over the next three weeks could be critical to the final championship order at year’s end.

However, the nine teams chasing Red Bull could be in for a rude awakening. The world champions themselves have no intentions of allowing themselves to be caught and may well have new parts of their own just as their rivals. Although this weekend could see the start of the next phase of the season, do not be surprised if it continues very much the same way as the first.

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Tyre rule tweaks

Since returning to the F1 calendar in the midst of the pandemic in 2020, Imola has been the scene of multiple attempts to shake up the race weekend format. Back in 2020, the entire event was truncated to just two days with a single, 90-minute practice session leading into qualifying and the grand prix the next day. Last season, Imola was host of the first of three sprint weekends.

Pirelli tyres, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Pirelli will bring fewer tyres to Imola
This year sees the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix used as the testing ground for F1’s latest experimental format – the ‘Alternative Tyre Allocation’. Over three practice sessions, traditional qualifying and the grand prix, each driver will be allocated only 11 sets of Pirelli tyres for the whole weekend, rather than the typical 13 – four sets of softs, four sets of mediums and three sets of hards.

In qualifying on Saturday, all drivers will only be allowed to fit hard tyres in Q1, and those who progress to Q2 only permitted to run mediums in the second session. The top 10 drivers who race the final shoot-out for pole position must use soft tyres for the duration of the session.

This is the first of two occasions where the Alternative Tyre Allocation system will be tested in 2023 – the second venue is still to be decided but will be not be one of the planned sprint weekends. The experimental format is not designed with entertainment in mind, but rather in an effort to reduce the quantity of tyres used through the weekend. While the changes will affect every driver in the field, it will be interesting to see if some teams are affected more than others.

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Leclerc’s lament

Leclerc hit barriers twice in Miami
It’s been a difficult start to the 2023 season for Charles Leclerc. The driver who took three race wins for Ferrari in 2023 has amassed only 12 points this season outside of his brilliant race weekend in Baku – and even there he ended up in the wall at the end of sprint race qualifying.

To process his emotions at the end of grand prix weekends, Leclerc has taken to composing piano pieces which he has shared publicly. To date, he has released a pair of hauntingly melancholic tracks – ‘AUS23′ and MIA23’ – after his most recent disappointing rounds in Melbourne and Miami, respectively.

With hopes of a championship challenge for 2023 seemingly already faded, Leclerc is coming to terms with having to wait for another year to have the opportunity to fight for the title. He has shown remarkable speed over recent rounds, but he has also began to allow costly mistakes to creep back into his driving. At the first of two rounds in Italy this season, the Tifosi will be hoping that solid points or even a podium will be the result for Leclerc this weekend and that ‘EMI23’ is one musical piece that will never be written.

De Vries

For AlphaTauri’s home grand prix, the spotlight will be on their newest driver – Nyck de Vries. The 2021 Formula E world champion and 2019 F2 champion arrived into F1 as arguably the most well-prepared rookie of his generation due to his age and extensive experience. With one impressive grand prix debut under his belt at last year’s Italian Grand Prix, the 28-year-old was expected to hit the ground running in his full season debut.

Nyck de Vries, AlphaTauri, Miami International Autodrome, 2023
De Vries is last in the championship
Instead, it’s been a difficult start to 2023 for De Vries. His Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend was especially poor with multiple mistakes through the weekend, then he ruined his race in Miami at the first corner by bumping into Lando Norris’ McLaren. While team mate Yuki Tsunoda has been either in or on the cusp of points in each round so far, De Vries is last in the championship without a point to his name so far.

Last weekend, rumours circulating online that De Vries’ seatmay be under threat from Daniel Ricciardo, of all people, were rebuffed. But while that is not the case, De Vries does not need anyone to inform him that he needs to start picking up his performances. His team’s home grand prix in Imola would be a great place to start.

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Gasly nears relief

After seven rounds on the brink of a possible one-race suspension due to being just two penalty points away from the 12-point threshold to trigger a ban, Alpine’s Pierre Gasly could earn some relief this weekend if he manages to go the whole weekend without incident.

Gasly has two points due to be taken off his tally at the end of this weekend, originally earned during last year’s Spanish Grand Prix for colliding with Lance Stroll during the race. While losing those points does not fully free him from the risk of a ban later in the season, it will give him some breathing space that could allow him to avoid being the very first driver to be banned under the penalty points system first introduced back in 2014.

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Are you going to the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix?

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Who do you think will be the team to beat in the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix? Have your say below.

And don’t forget to enter your predictions for this weekend’s race. You can edit your predictions until the start of qualifying:

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    Will Wood
    Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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    29 comments on “Have Red Bull’s rivals made an upgrade breakthrough? Five talking points for Imola”

    1. As this is the first real circuit so now we get to see the real differences between teams. I wonder how much or big the upgrades the teams are bringing.

    2. My guess is that top teams wont be affected much with the hard and medium tyres in qually but the slower teams are. It will be more predictable who wont make it to Q2

    3. Why set oneself up for disappointment? Who truly believes that any team could just make up a pace difference of 1 sec a lap? (or more)

      1. CheeseBucket
        16th May 2023, 16:16

        Unfortunately it’s always the same, the team that ace the regulations stay in front until the next big change. Also the rules are changed just as other teams are getting close.

        Just bloody leave it the same and eventually we get close racing, but no, that would be too easy.

        1. While this is indeed sometimes annoying, example ferrari had got pretty close to merc in 2017 and 2018, there are also other times where a regulation change allows teams to close up: red bull wouldn’t have caught up with merc by 2021 if not for some changes made that year that hurt mercedes.

      2. However, the nine teams chasing Red Bull could be in for a rude awakening. The world champions themselves have no intentions of allowing themselves to be caught and may well have new parts of their own just as their rivals.


        I think that statement in the article says it all. There will be no gaps cut to Red Bull… its going to be an easy 1-2 finish if there isn’t and mechanical issues. I don’t see Ferrari making any progress, as they’ve failed to do so for 15 seasons. Mercedes are still lost. Aston isn’t in the big leagues yet… not enough to outdo RB.

    4. Interesting if any have hi tech hi spec wet weather gear, galoshes, sou-westers and brollies to sit around waiting for nothing to happen. If not I don’t expect anyone closing the gap.

    5. Jimmy Cliff
      16th May 2023, 9:09

      So all drivers have 4 softs (2 for Q3), 4 mediums (1 or 2 for Q2), 3 hards (1 or 2 for Q1).

      That means the top teams will have 2 softs, 3 mediums and 2 hards for the rest of the weekend.
      Those fighting to get into Q2 and Q3 will need to use more tires and therefore either must accept lower grid position, no/less practice on that type of tire or that tire not available for the race.

      Those not making it into Q3 will have more soft tires available but doubt that helps because softs are barely ever used in the race. Most drivers last year did hard & medium while both RB, Leclerc & Mick did hard, medium & soft (with Leclerc using 2nd soft when he came in to replace his broken front wing).

      Current set-up seems unfair for the bottom 6 teams. It probably would have been better if the FIA gave all teams 2 softs, 1 medium and 1 hard only for qualifying. Than teams wanting to make it to Q3 would have to fight to get tor Q2 on mediums or hards against teams not expecting to make Q3 on softs. If they used the medium to get to Q2 they would then need to sacrifice 1 soft to make it to Q3.

      That brings an interesting strategic element to qualifying and might create a more interesting starting grid.

      1. But if only rains in 1 Q then then tyre will be free to select so great in dry weather but this weekend they could use jetskies.

    6. JulianBoolean
      16th May 2023, 9:58

      RB have 3/4 of a second in their pocket, no other teams upgrades are going to close that gap…and aren’t RB capable of upgrading too?

    7. Upgrades galore – Yes, but with all or most teams bringing considerable developments, the relative pecking order might remain largely unchanged, depending on how well each team’s packages perform relative to each other.

      Tyre rule tweaks – I’m okay with this experiment, although rain could possibly prevent slick use in qualifying, meaning the experiment would have to get postponed.

      Leclerc’s lament – He’ll probably have to bear Ferrari’s current situation for the time being.
      Both piano songs are good, though.

      De Vries – He needs to improve sooner rather than later because while he mightn’t be under threat for the upcoming three races, he might get sacked in the summer break, if he continues at the current rate.

      Gasly nears relief – Indeed, but he still needs to avoid picking up two or more penalty points for one more race weekend, which I’m sure he’ll manage.

      1. Gasly nears relief – Indeed, but he still needs to avoid picking up two or more penalty points for one more race weekend, which I’m sure he’ll manage.

        Granted, he’s mostly been a little bit more careful since he got this close to a ban, but on top of that the stewards have done anything they can to avoid giving him those last 2 points. I think it’s a pretty safe bet he will make it through without a ban.

        1. Yes, it’s really easy to avoid getting penalty points when stewards ignore everything you do when you’re close to a ban, it should be written in the rules: when a driver reaches 9 penalty points the max we’ll give for any offense is 2, when they reach 10 we give max 1, when they reach 11 we won’t give penalty points tilll they decrease.

          Pointless, I know, but so is the penalty system atm, without clarification, but I don’t really see drivers being treated equally if they have 0 vs 11 penalty points atm.

    8. A the famous tyre rules tweak mid season again to help Mercedes back in the game, just as in 2021. Let’s see.

      1. Possibly, but it’s not as though Mercedes never had their wings clipped or feathers plucked when ahead. I think it’s very reasonable for FIA/Liberty to want some semblance of a competition over what is still a long season. Doesn’t mean they want Mercedes or any other team to actually beat Red Bull, only that they can compete enough for the race result to sometimes be in doubt. Otherwise it’s 20 drivers go racing and Max Verstappen wins (bar mishaps).

      2. A the famous tyre rules tweak mid season again to help Mercedes back in the game

        The only manipulation I saw in 2021 was the last race.

        1. Pirelli did introduce new tyres in 2021, although the assertion that it was done to help Mercedes is a bit off. In fact, it was Red Bull’s Verstappen who had the biggest incident that prompted the change, when he crashed out of the race in Azerbaijan when the Pirelli tyre failed.

          That said, Mercedes did succesfully lobby for ‘pitstop safety’ changes after being left frustrated their crew couldn’t match Red Bull’s pitstop times. The FIA stepped in and the difference between the two teams in pitstop time was altered; arguably not enough to decide any races, though.

          The issues with stewarding in 2021 are too numerous to go over. Were those deliberately made choices to manipulate the results? Maybe not, maybe some were. We won’t ever know. What we can know is that some of those calls were rather different from similar incidents in other races, with other teams being involved.

          1. Actually the pit stop changes would’ve cost verstappen the championship if not for the abu dhabi masi episode, you only have to look back at monza: verstappen was well ahead of hamilton, but with a 10 sec pit stop, which started happening after the pit stop rule changes, he ended up alongside hamilton and crashed both out, this is a net loss for verstappen due to pit stops.

      3. Who would have thought Mayrton would be on here spinning conspiracy theories about Mercedes/FIA? I’m truly shocked!


        1. Mayrton has a very narrow view from under that bridge

          1. How original and witty you must be such an interesting person

        2. Itsmeagain (@)
          16th May 2023, 18:12

          I’m glad your neighbor above, steveP, shows that the only conspiracy that is believed here is a conspiracy that suits the many fans here. Wolff and consortium is famous about their lobbying for mid season rule changes or new td’s. New pitstop rules, creating gossip about illegal floors, party modes on the Honda, ‘illegal wings’ (how can they be illegal when they pass the fia test?) but forgetting that MB own frontwing is bending like a banana etc, shortening DRS zones, and two drivers crying that RB is ruining F1 with their fast car….. it seems the Dunning-kruger effect is live and present

    9. It’s telling that Aston Martin is #2 in the season, while Ferrari and Mercedes keep not understanding their cars respectively.
      Leclerc losing the car while trying to find the limit shows how unpredictable the Ferrari actually is, sudden over and understeer lurking in every phase of a corner.

      The new tyre rules are another nail in the coffin for smaller teams’ competitiveness. Since they have the least amount of resources to cope with unforeseen rule changes.

      Let’s hope the weather can add something this weekend.

    10. To date, he has released a pair of hauntingly melancholic tracks – ‘AUS23′ and MIA23’

      Is it just me, or did anyone else translate the second set of letters as Missing In Action?
      It seems to sum up Leclerc’s season so far.

    11. The experimental format is not designed with entertainment in mind, but rather in an effort to reduce the quantity of tyres used through the weekend.

      And they still bring 11 sets of tyres.

      I get that Pirelli can’t make hugely different tyre compounds for one or two weekends, because the cars are built around the ones they have right now. But 11 sets is still a very large number for about 6 hours of driving.

    12. Bit off topic but the two music pieces from Charles is quite good.

    13. It’ll be interesting to see. After two races at modern dull circuits, it’s great to be back at a historic proper racing circuit (the only race I’ve enjoyed this year so far is Australia!). The other teams are massively behind Red Bull on race pace but closer in quali trim, especially Ferrari – Mercs very weak on quali pace too. Not expecting miracles from Mercedes with their new package but hopefully it gives them a stronger baseline for rest of 2023 and into 2024. Still hoping for a Aston win for Fernando though at some point :)

      1. Yes, an alonso win would be interesting, but unlikely I think, simply because I’m afraid red bull might win all races, I was expecting perez could be beaten on pace by the best drivers in the other teams, but looks like red bull advantage is too big, which means something kinda needs to happen to both drivers.

    14. Next change, drivers get 5 sets of tires for both cars for the weekend, and the minimum PSI is raised to 75.

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