Why Imola was "brutal" for F1 drivers who changed teams

A major focal point of the 2021 Formula 1 season thus far has the form of the group of star names who have joined new teams for this year.

Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Carlos Sainz, Daniel Ricciardo and Sergio Perez have found the process of adaptation to be perhaps even harder than they expected, and thus far all five men have struggled to match the form of their teammates.

That was made more complicated by the presence of Imola as the second venue on the schedule. After testing and a race weekend in Bahrain, a place where there is plenty of margin of error, they came to an old school track with little run-off in places and kerbs that bite.

Throw in the FIA's laser focus on track limits, and then rain on race day when these guys had no experience of running their new cars on wet tyres, and it was a difficult weekend. As Perez put it, Imola was a "pretty brutal" challenge.

All the aforementioned drivers made intriguingly similar comments about finding the limits, and requiring that extra bit of confidence in cars that they still don't know very well.

Their collective struggles were not helped by this year's reduced testing programme, a result of cost-saving measures agreed with the FIA. Teams had just three days of running in Bahrain, thus giving each driver just one and half days to adapt to their new environments, plus a short filming day shakedown session.

If you had mechanical gremlins, as was the case notably for Vettel, your testing time was further compromised heading into the first race weekend – where you faced the new 2021 schedule of two hours of Friday practice instead of the previous three.

And busy weekend run plans are in essence designed to help the team make the car go faster rather than allow a driver to experiment, so it's hard to catch up.

After qualifying, it looked Perez had done a better job of adapting to his new situation than his colleagues, as he took a superb second on the grid, ahead of Max Verstappen.

Then a fraught race day that saw a bad start, an off behind the safety car and a spin reminded the Mexican that he still has a lot to learn. He's taking nothing for granted.

"I don't look at what other guys are doing to be honest, but certainly it is a big task to change teams and then get to drive on your second weekend your car in these conditions," he said.

"It is pretty brutal. So, I think I am not there yet, although I got a good lap yesterday, you saw today how far I was, and how difficult and tricky things still are.

"So, I think I am just learning, and it is a process that we are making good steps, and hopefully we will learn from today again."

Perez conceded that Imola was a tough test: "It is one of the worst places you can come with a new car, to be honest, because a little mistake here in qualifying or in the race can be very costly.

"Even in the race you saw the amount of mistakes that I did, or that other people did. It is just tricky. But no excuses, just work harder."

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing,

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing,

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Alonso snuck into the top 10 on Sunday after Kimi Raikkonen received a penalty, but thus far the former world champion has struggled to match Alpine teammate Esteban Ocon – who in turn spent most of 2020 trying to catch Daniel Ricciardo, then more settled at Renault.

Alonso recognises that it's been a tough job for all the drivers in new seats this year, but he insists that the Imola weekend provided a good education.

"Probably yes, I'd tend to agree," he said after the race. "It looks like that, and it feels kind of obvious that every lap I do, every lap we do, these drivers, we feel more comfortable."

The Imola race proved to be a nightmare for Vettel, who had to start from the pitlane after the last minute brake fires that afflicted both Aston Martins. For good measure he then got a penalty as the team was still working on the car too close to the start.

"It is a lovely track so it bites when you get things wrong, which is the purpose," said the German. "I need that last bit of confidence, maybe these drivers new in teams struggle a bit more. I think I just struggled to put everything in that one lap yesterday, which is ultimately the last bit of confidence.

"It is getting there, but certainly it is not great when you have a day like this. If you were to think what could go wrong, I don't think you could come up with our race today and not in that order.

"But time in the car will help, and I'm quite sure it can't be any worse. It was quite good when I saw the conditions as I was quite upbeat because I thought we can make a difference. It turned out we were starting on the back foot even before the lights went out."

Vettel's Aston team boss Otmar Szafnauer has sympathy for the plight of the former world champion.

"If the car philosophies are completely different then it does take time," he said. "And, you know, having talked to Checo [Perez] too, he's gone to a Red Bull, which has a different philosophy to ours.

"And he says the same, that it's just gonna take seat time to be able to get to those fine, fine margins of getting the most out of the car."

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR21

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR21

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Szafnauer acknowledged that the lack of testing has hurt all drivers in new teams: "Yeah, it did. And I guess my biggest regret is that we weren't as reliable as we should have been in the winter.

"And Seb lost a significant amount of his day and a half. So had we had more testing, Seb in the car more, I think he'd be in a different place on the learning curve."

McLaren boss Andreas Seidl agreed that the curtailed testing schedule has not helped Ricciardo and the other team movers get up to speed. However he insisted that everyone just has to accept the circumstances.

"I won't say it's a surprise," Seidl said on Sunday. "We know it's not just straightforward to jump from one car into another one, when you only have one and a half days of testing.

"I think there's no point complaining about the one and a half days of testing, because that was an agreement between all teams in order to only have one test this year to save costs.

"But these cars are complex. And then to find these last two-three-four tenths, which make then also, let's say, the difference when you really not comfortable to push these cars to the limit, that's not that straightforward to find and get out of these cars. That takes time. But, again, this isn't a surprise."

Ricciardo himself made the point that this year's tighter field has put an even bigger spotlight on gaps between team mates.

"Every tenth matters, but even more so now," said the Australian. "So you just can't afford to be a few tenths off the pace, or you're going to get knocked out of Q2 and not make it, or it could be the difference from top three to the top eight.

"So at this track, there's more risks. You certainly do need to be comfortable with the car on the limit and have that confidence, and it certainly took me more time this weekend than it did in Bahrain."

Sainz has experience of changing teams, having bounced around from Toro Rosso, to Renault, McLaren, and now on to Ferrari.

At Maranello he's come up against Charles Leclerc, in his third season with the team, brimful of confidence, and absolutely at the top of his game. Sainz has struggled to match him over one lap so far.

"I know he's a qualifying expert," the Spaniard said after qualifying seven spots behind Leclerc at Imola.

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

"And particularly in the Ferrari he looks to be really at home and knowing exactly what to expect from the car when it comes to Q2 and Q3 high grip conditions, and he's an expert, he's very, very good driver.

"But at the same time if there's something that I've seen during these first two races it's that I'm not slower than him in any of the corners really. So I know that if I put the laps together, I can be up there."

Sainz gave an intriguing insight into the fine margins involved: "Today maybe it was the kerb riding, how the car will react to the kerb, depending on the angle that I attack the kerb.

"And I was caught out a couple of times in all these chicanes by maybe catching the kerb in a different angle, and getting out of position.

"Here there's very long straights after those kerbs and I was missing one or two tenths in the straight after because of that.

"Basically that's what I'm talking about, just knowing how the car is going to react to which angle, and being super precise on the angle of attack to know that in the next straight

"I'm not going to lose that 10 and a half that I just made up. I mean there's still a bit of analysis to do, but I'm pretty sure where that where that lap time is, and how it can be extracted."

As Alonso suggested, the crazy Imola race probably accelerated the progress along the learning curve for all the drivers mentioned.

They will no doubt make further steps in Portimao and Barcelona – and then just at the time everything should start to fall into place they will arrive in Monaco, where confidence is all, and those limits are finer than anywhere else.

It will be fascinating to see how they compare with their team mates around the streets of the principality.

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Author Adam Cooper
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