Max Verstappen won the first sprint race of the season after passing Charles Leclerc for the lead with two laps to go.
The reigning champion started from pole but launched poorly, gifting Leclerc the lead and allowing him to control much of the race.
But the 21-lap sprint was at the upper range of endurance for the soft-compound tire, and the Ferrari struggled more than the Red Bull machine in the final five laps.
Leclerc was having difficulty in particular with graining on his front-left tire, and as the lap counter ticked down, his margin shrunk from 1.5s to just 0.5s as the Dutchman sensed his opportunity.
His first shot came at the end of lap 18, but a snap of oversteer through the Rivazza left-handers cost him momentum in the DRS zone.
He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice though, and at the end of the following lap he kept tidy on exit to DRS his way back into the lead and power into the distance, taking the checkered flag by 2.975s to lock in pole position for the grand prix.
“It took a while to try to put the pressure on, but I think we were a bit better on our tires at the end of the race,” Verstappen said.
“I’m of course happy about today, but I know tomorrow with other tire compounds coming into play it might be a bit different. But we had a good day.”
Leclerc wasn’t disappointed to finish second as much as he was to discover his car appeared to have a weakness around this track, and he sounded a note of caution ahead of Sunday’s grand prix.
“We struggled with the tires at the end, so we need to analyze that for tomorrow,” he said. “We need to make sure we are ready.”
Sergio Perez finished third at the end of a great recovery drive from seventh on the grid. The Mexican jumped two drivers off the line but was methodical and patient to rise onto the podium, using the powerful DRS to his advantage in a series of clean moves.
His car’s straight-line speed, combined with possible degradation problems for Ferrari, was cause for optimism for Red Bull in the grand prix.
“I think we’re in a good position for the fight tomorrow,” he said. “It will be ideal to get a one-two – that will be great for us but probably not for the tifosi. But we will try.”
Carlos Sainz was a similarly impressive mover through the race after crashing out of qualifying in 10th. He likewise jumped two cars off the line, and after battling past Fernando Alonso on Lap 7 without DRS, he picked off Kevin Magnussen’s Haas and both McLaren drivers to put himself in the frontrunning frame for Sunday.
Lando Norris finished fifth ahead of teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who held off the fast-finishing Valtteri Bottas by just 0.3s.
Magnussen finished eighth for the final point of the sprint, dropping four places thanks to what turned out to be the wrong decision to start on the medium compound. The Dane was one of only three drivers to start on the yellow-striped tire, but he struggled to switch it on quickly enough to prevent the midfield from swallowing him up.
Fernando Alonso finished ninth ahead of Mick Schumacher in the second Haas.
George Russell finished where he started in 11th, keeping at bay Yuki Tsunoda and Sebastian Vettel. His Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton lost two places at the start and gained only one back to finish 14th ahead of Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll, while Esteban Ocon couldn’t make forward progress after the first lap on his way to 16th.
Pierre Gasly finished 17th after a first-lap crash with Zhou Guanyu. The Frenchman was pinched on the apex at Piratella and picked up a front-right puncture, while the Chinese rookie spun off into the barriers and retired with substantial damage to the rear of his car.
Williams drivers Alex Albon and Nicholas Latifi were last of the finishers in 18th and 19th.