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IMOLA, ITALY - MAY 17: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing prepares to drive in the garage during practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Emilia-Romagna at Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari Circuit on May 17, 2024 in Imola, Italy. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Red Bull dominance of F1 ending or sandbagging at Imola?

IMOLA, ITALY - MAY 17: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing prepares to drive in the garage during practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Emilia-Romagna at Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari Circuit on May 17, 2024 in Imola, Italy. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

You know Red Bull are in trouble when Max Verstappen cannot find the sweetspot in the normally dominant RB20, in all three Free Practice sessions of any Grand Prix weekend. It’s rare, hardly ever happens to RBR these days. But will Imola expose the Champs today in Qualifying?

But the F1 World Champions have been in turmoil ever since they launched their 2024 challenger. It coincided with the sordid Christian Horner sexting-shenanigans with a female Red Bull teammate. The episode still simmers in the background and garnered far too many of the wrong headlines.

Related or not, Adrian Newey – F1’s greatest designer and their tech boss since they made their debut in 2005 – is leaving. There is unease in the Verstappen Camp.

Has this impacted performance? Consider the gap they had at the start of the season. Until Miami, the Bulls seemed unbeatable. But they were beaten. Now at Imola, it seems that they may no longer be top of the pecking order, all of a sudden.

Friday practice day for the 2024 Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix at Imola did not go well for the Red Bulls. And it did not improve as both Verstappen and Perez struggled to tame the RB20 as they had earlier in the year. Inevitably, when the mighty appear to ‘fall’ it’s always best to hedge one’s bets.

Are Red Bull sliding into trouble or was this a classic case of sandbagging? Time will tell, namely Qualifying later this afternoon.

An angry Max is a very fast Max…

IMOLA, ITALY - MAY 17: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB20 and Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB20 on track during practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Emilia-Romagna at Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari Circuit on May 17, 2024 in Imola, Italy. (Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

At the end of FP3 on Saturday, Verstappen was P6 and half a second down on Oscar Piastri’s best time in the McLaren. In the other RBR, Sergio Perez was 12th a further six-tenths down on the top time. For a very long time, Verstappen does not start Qualifying as the favourite.

Sky F1 pundit Damon Hill suggested as much: “We didn’t actually get to see what Red Bull’s pure pace could have been, but I do think they are under pressure. It’s probably the least dominant they’ve been at any race we’ve been to in the last two years.

“We have got a definitely fight there at the front between both Ferraris, both McLarens and, of course, the Red Bulls. I don’t think Mercedes are in that hunt, they are a little bit behind,” reckoned Hill, F1 World Champion in 1996.

The stage is set for one of the most open Qualifying in ages. Three teams, four or five drivers with a serious chance of claiming a very important top spot start for Sunday’s Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix. And of course, our theory: An angry Max is a very fast Max… Read the full FP3 report by Jad Mallak here>>>

Big Question: Red Bull dominance of F1 ending or sandbagging at Imola?