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Emilia Romagna GP: Charles Leclerc eyes title push as Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen demand more

Can Charles Leclerc extend his championship lead or can Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen bounce back for Mercedes and Red Bull? Watch the Emilia Romagna GP all live on Sky Sports F1 as the Sprint returns at Imola; Sprint at 3.30pm on Saturday, Grand Prix at 2pm on Sunday

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Naomi Schiff and Matt Baker discuss contrasting fortunes for Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen at the Australian Grand Prix.

Charles Leclerc has admitted he is starting to sense his first F1 championship push after storming out of the blocks in 2022, with Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen demanding more from their teams ahead of this weekend's Emilia Romagna GP to get their title bids back on track.

Winning two of the season's opening three races, Leclerc has enjoyed a superb start in a newly-competitive Ferrari and already has a 34-point championship lead as the sport heads to Imola, a home race for the Tifosi.

All the action - with the return of the Sprint on Saturday (3.30pm) the ideal preparation for Sunday's Grand Prix (2pm) - is live on Sky Sports F1.

While it's too soon for title predictions ahead of a fourth race of an expected 23 and with the teams' development race set to heat up, the near-perfect start for Leclerc and Ferrari has made him the early favourite, particularly given the relative struggles of his expected closest rivals.

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Charles Leclerc doesn’t want to think about his lead in the Drivers' Championship and feels his mindset is where it needs to be after winning the Australian GP.

Leclerc's nearest challenger is currently George Russell in the Mercedes, with last year's championship protagonists Hamilton and Verstappen only fifth and sixth in the standings with both pace and reliability concerns.

Leclerc's talent has been clear over three years in Ferrari, but this may be the first season where he has a car that can consistently contend towards the front. Something which, understandably, brings a smile to his face.

"Obviously we only had the third race, so it's difficult to think about the championship, but to be honest, we've got a very strong car, a very reliable car too," said Leclerc after winning the Australian GP.

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"We've always been there, so I hope it continues like this and if it does, then we probably have chances for the championship, which obviously makes me smile after the last two years that have been difficult for the team and obviously for myself.

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Lewis Hamilton still wore jewellery for the Australian GP despite the FIA's crackdown, with Sky Sports F1's Ted Kravitz reporting there may be a 'grace period'.

"It's great to be back in this position."

The Emilia Romagna GP is one of two home Italian races for Ferrari this season, with fans - who were not allowed to attend the 2020 and 2021 events - set to pour into the historic Imola circuit for the first time since 2006.

"Italy will be incredible, but we need to approach the race weekend, just like we approached the first three weekends," warned Leclerc, who has scored 71 out of a possible 78 points to start the season.

"I think it's extremely important not to put extra pressure on ourselves and not try to overdo things. Because we are working, I think, as a team extremely well since the beginning of the season and we just need to keep doing our job, just like we did in the first three weekends."

Hamilton, Verstappen demand more from teams amid issues

Leclerc's rise to the front comes as the drivers who were expected to lead the way in the title race drop down the order.

In Hamilton's case, Mercedes have fallen well behind Ferrari and Red Bull in terms of pace, however do hold second in both the drivers' and constructors' standings after maximising results from Bahrain, Saudi and Australia.

With a lack of balance and porpoising issues aplenty, Mercedes say there is no quick fix to the W13 and there is not expected to be significant upgrade for the start of the European season, despite Hamilton's hopes. Still, the seven-time world champion has issued a rallying cry to his team.

"There's a lot of work [to do]," said Hamilton, who has travelled to Kuala Lumpur and Sao Paulo since the Australian GP and is 43 points behind Leclerc. "There will be a lot of calls, really trying to rally them up... we've got some improvements that we need to make and we need everyone's support in doing that."

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Max Verstappen doesn't want to think about the Championship fight, as he concedes it's more important to being finishing races.

Hamilton said he would be consulting with many people within the team - "just making sure we leave no stone unturned, making sure the hunger is really there and we're maximising absolutely every moment."

Demanding more of the team who have won the last eight constructors' titles, he added: "There's performance to be gained in areas that we know and we need it now, not in two or three races.

"Just got to keep that encouragement, keep that energy."

For Verstappen, speed hasn't really been the issue. Finishing races has.

While not close to Leclerc, Verstappen was on for comfortable second places in both the Bahrain and Australia races - which would have nicely complimented his Saudi Arabia win - before having to retire his Red Bull car.

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Max Verstappen retires after engine issues causes him to pull off the track at the Australian GP.

On both occasions, Red Bull diagnosed fuel issues, with Christian Horner claiming they were unrelated.

Verstappen, too, is acutely aware of the challenge ahead to get his title defence back on track.

"We need to be faster than them, which we're not," said Verstappen, 46 points off Leclerc. "And have zero problems with the car, which we also don't have.

"So it's going to be a big task."

He added to reporters about a second title: "At the moment, there is no reason to believe in it."

Watch the Emilia Romagna GP all live on Sky Sports F1 as the Sprint returns at Imola. The Sprint is at 3.30pm on Saturday, the Grand Prix starts at 2pm on Sunday.

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