Ferrari's Leclerc ready to feel the fervour of the 'tifosi' at Imola
The massed ranks of Ferrari fans will be hoping to celebrate a triumphant homecoming at Imola on Sunday after Charles Leclerc's early season domination raised expectations to the highest levels in years.
The Monegasque has taken 71 of a possible 78 points and Imola, a circuit named after team founder Enzo and son Dino, offers a scoring bonanza as the first sprint race of the campaign as well as first European round.
This year the winner of Saturday's 100km sprint will take eight points, which means Leclerc could collect a maximum 34 — including a bonus for fastest lap — instead of the previous best available 29.
The Ferrari driver's lead over Mercedes' George Russell is also 34 points after three of a scheduled 23 races, meaning that even if Leclerc draws a blank he is sure to be still leading the standings after the weekend.
Leclerc has so far taken two pole positions and all three fastest laps.
The Ferrari "tifosi" have not flocked to Imola with such high expectation since seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher took a record seventh win there in 2006, his last season with the Italian team.
"It's difficult to think about the championship, but we've got a strong car, a reliable car," the 24-year-old said after winning in Australia.
"I hope it continues like this and if it does, we probably have chances for the championship."
Earlier on Thursday, Ferrari announced that Spaniard Carlos Sainz, who has also made a strong start to the season, will race for them until the end of the 2024 season at least.
Team boss Mattia Binotto has ruled out introducing significant upgrades for this race, given the hectic format with practise and qualifying on Friday, and Mercedes and Red Bull are thinking along the same lines.
Red Bull's reigning champion Max Verstappen won at Imola last year, but has finished only one of the three races, with the team in a battle to make the car more reliable, and needs another victory.
"The team trackside and back at the factory in Milton Keynes are working hard, hopefully we’ll have a straightforward weekend and we score good points as a team," said the Dutch youngster.
Lewis Hamilton was the 2020 winner for Mercedes, but the seven-times world champion's team are struggling this time with a bouncing car.
"Imola is going to be a challenging event," said Mercedes motorsport strategy director James Vowles, whose team are second overall despite their problems.
McLaren took a step forward in Australia after struggling in the Bahrain opener before recovering slightly in Saudi Arabia and could also be contenders with Lando Norris, third last year, and Daniel Ricciardo.
Alpine will be testing a new floor upgrade and are on the up with Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon, while Pierre Gasly is AlphaTauri's big hope in that team's home race.
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