Italian marques bring some mixed emotions on home soil

The first-ever FIA WEC race at Imola Sunday brings with it plenty of intrigue and a huge amount of local interest. A bumper crowd is expected trackside, with tens of thousands of fans set to pack the grandstands for the second round of the 2024 season.

For the locals, there is a smorgasbord of teams and drivers to root for in the top class, with the Le Mans-winning Ferrari AF Corse team now joined by Lamborghini with its new SC63 and the revived Isotta Fraschini brand. And they all have a different outlook and set of objectives for the six hours of racing to come.

At Ferrari AF Corse, the clear aim is to win on home soil, after it failed to do so last year in Monza in the aftermath of its historic victory in the centenary Le Mans. Ahead of qualifying, Ferrari has flexed its muscles and looks on track to achieve this target, topping all three practice sessions. It then finished 1-2-3 in qualifying with a dominant performance from all three 499Ps.

Antonio Fuoco, who set the fastest time, put in an impressive performance. Robert Shwartzman in the privately funded No. 83 499P, who took second spot on the grid, described the achievement as “undoubtedly excellent” ahead of just his second race in the championship.

Right now, looking at the qualifying results, few would bet against Ferrari winning Sunday at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari. Nevertheless, Fuoco was keen to keep expectations in check in conversation with RACER ahead of the race, as winning here will require more than just raw pace. Traffic management, tire consistency and luck will all play a part, and the feeling at Ferrari is that Porsche and Toyota will be in the mix.

“I think it’s going to be tough because it’s a medium to low-speed track with hairpins and tight corners. It’s hard with the GT cars and it’s very different to the other tracks we will visit this year,” he said.

He also feels that while there will be an element of a home-field advantage for Ferrari to feed off of, it is important that the team doesn’t get distracted by the occasion.

“It’s special to be here,” he added. “After Monza last year where it was quite special with the fans after Le Mans, I think on race day there will be many fans around the track to see us again. As always, as an Italian, this is an extra boost; they really push us all weekend.

“Last year we finished on the podium (in Monza) which was good, but for sure this weekend we will try to achieve the maximum. We need to be focused to do this because it’s going to be quite tight, and even the weather forecast looks unclear.”

Ferrari’s history in yellow is also an ace up the Italian marque’s sleeve the weekend at Imola. Motorsport Images

A key difference this year to last year’s outing at the “Temple of Speed” is that AF Corse has the benefit of its third 499P, which only increases its chances of a strong result each weekend.

In Qatar, Shwartzman, Yifei Ye and Robert Kubica finished fourth and ahead of both factory cars on debut, providing proof that the No. 83 is not here simply to fill a space on the grid or play second fiddle to the works crews.

“We try to work together as a group and having Robert (Kubica) as part of the team, a driver with a lot of experience, is good for us,” Fuoco responded when asked about the impact that having a third 499P has on race preparation. “We work as a team, share all the information and put it all together.”

Lamborghini, meanwhile, is focused on scoring its first set of WEC points after the SC63 finished 13th on its global debut in the season opener and qualified 16th Saturday. Here, racing on a circuit that it tested on prior to race week, Iron Lynx team principal Andrea Piccini feels confident it will close the performance gap once the green flag drops.

Don’t let the clouds fool you; Lamborghini is staring down their best opportunity yet. They’ve already tested at Imola… Motorsport Images

“This is such a different track to Qatar, which is super flat, and Sebring which is so bumpy. You come here, it’s a super downforce circuit with a lot of curbs, fast entries, and quick changes of direction.” Piccini told RACER.

“It’s a challenge and we have to be realistic. This is a track we have tested on already and we saw the car was competitive in practice. I think this is one of the races where we have the best chance of a good result. I don’t think it’s possible to fight for the podium, but we can fight to score important points for the championship.

“We hope to be fighting closer to the front at Le Mans (in June). But that’s a very high-speed circuit and we don’t know where we will be for a circuit like that. So until the test day there, we just need to prepare as best we can by maximizing what we have here.”

Isotta Fraschini, on the other hand, has a more modest goal of simply finishing the race.

During Qatar week, Isotta took a cautious approach to the track action, treating it as an extended test session before retiring after six hours with a front-suspension issue. Here, with the hybrid system now functioning as intended and the suspension issue diagnosed and rectified, its level of expectation has been raised.

On the pace front, while the Tipo 6-C hasn’t set times capable of challenging the cars at the sharp end of the field ahead of the race this week, it came significantly closer than it ever did at the Lusail circuit during practice.

The team, though, left the circuit Saturday night concerned by its qualifying run. Driver Jean-Karl Vernay told RACER the team was left confused by the results sheet, unable to achieve better lap times than it set in practice despite running with no traffic, low fuel and with new tires. The Frenchman pushed hard, only to end up 4s off pole and dead last.

More of the same from Isotta Fraschini on home soil? So far it looks to be so. Motorsport Images

“It was frustrating,” he said. “Our race pace is good, though we know we are still behind. Yet this afternoon in qualifying — we don’t understand it — we didn’t make a huge step with our setup and our fastest lap of the week came yesterday morning. We were able to do a 1m32.5s after just eight laps on a track I haven’t been to since 2017 (a whole second quicker than the lap in qualifying).”

Like Iron Lynx, the reason everyone within the Isotta organization appears more relaxed is because they have been able to draw from testing experience at Imola during the development phase of the car. This allowed the Duqueine-supported team to head into the first free practice at Imola with a baseline setup to build on.

“We are working hard, taking steps, but the level is so high,” admitted Vernay. “We are motivated as a small team. This is a super-demanding track, but it’s cool to drive. We are looking OK I think. We made a step since Qatar, and we are looking good.

“Qatar was a test session, really — a difficult first meeting. As our car is an LMH car, we have our own hybrid system and it took us a lot of time to ensure it was legal for the FIA. We lost a lot of time in the Prologue because of that, so we didn’t have much time to prepare.

“Since then we haven’t tested but we have done a lot of work at the factory to prepare the car for this weekend. They’ve done a great job because, out of the box here, we have been closer to the front. We are fighting against big guys with more financial support.

“We are going to do all we can now to show we deserve to be here.”

Story originally appeared on Racer