Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes face a role reversal against two Red Bulls in the battle for victory in Sunday’s Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix.
Although Hamilton starts with the advantage of pole position after a hard-fought Imola qualifying hour, Red Bull have both their drivers at the sharp end with Sergio Perez starting second and Max Verstappen third.
Hamilton team-mate Valtteri Bottas, meanwhile, is down in eighth after a scruffy performance in Q3.
The situation is reversed from the season-opening Bahrain GP – when Verstappen took pole ahead of the two Mercedes cars but Perez missed Q3 – and much of last season when Alex Albon trailed the leading trio’s pace.
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“I think it’s great that we’ve finally got the two Red Bulls behind there,” said Hamilton, who claimed his 99th career pole on Saturday by less than a tenth of a second from Perez and Verstappen.
“I think it’s going to definitely make strategy harder and it’s going to be a real challenge because they’ve got great race pace. I think their pace was looking strongest for the race in the long runs yesterday. But I’m just so happy.”
Red Bulls drivers also start on different tyres for the first stint in an additional strategic advantage for the Milton Keynes-based outfit.
Whereas Verstappen, like Hamilton, is on the medium compound, Perez is on the grippier but less durable soft.
“If we’re able to get off in order, then they obviously have a bit of a better set of cards in terms of strategy but that doesn’t mean we can’t pull out something unique and do something different,” added Hamilton, aiming for back-to-back wins at the start of a season for the first time in F1.
“I’m not really sure what happened with Valtteri. It’s very hard to overtake here so obviously we probably won’t have the support of him early on but nevertheless, maybe he will make it through but otherwise we’ve just got to focus on our job and try and do absolutely everything and more to keep these lads behind.”
Can Red Bull make their ‘better set of cards’ count?
Perez’s run to the first front-row start of his long career was particularly eye-catching given the Mexican had seemed to still be a little off the RB16B’s ultimate pace in just his second race weekend for Red Bull.
In fact, the 31-year-old felt he would have beaten Hamilton to pole had it not been for a mistake on his final Q3 attempt, with Verstappen also able to point to an error on his last run.
With the starting tyre advantage over Hamilton and Verstappen and characteristic strong long-run pace, Perez is now feeling optimistic for the race.
“I think we had great pace in the long run, I think with the steps that I made with the car we should be having pretty strong race pace,” he said during an appearance at the SkyPad on Saturday evening.
“Definitely it favours the soft for the start. If I get a good launch, I should be leading into Turn One.”
For Verstappen, beaten to the race victory against the odds by Hamilton when Red Bull was the quicker car in Bahrain three weeks ago, the task of winning from the second row on a track that offers few true overtaking opportunities is tough but not insurmountable for a driver of the 23-year-old’s talent and speed.
“I didn’t do any long runs [on Friday after his car’s driveshaft broke] but we’ll have a look at it,” said Verstappen. “I don’t think it will be a big issue but it’s hard to overtake here, so we’ll see what we can do.”
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