Verstappen conquers the conditions and Imola as 2021 Championship battle with Hamilton takes shape: 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix Review

After the intense battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen in the desert of Bahrain, I admit to being sceptical that Imola would produce an exciting race. Last years visit for the inaugural Emilia Romagna Grand Prix produced only six on-track overtakes and track position is key at this track. Gladly, I was proved wrong by F1’s second successive visit to Imola and on the same day, it was announced that F1 will be racing in Miami next year the weather helped produce an enthralling race.

Rain falling just before the start was they ey ingredient to an alrevady trying Grand Prix with Lewis Hamilton on pole and the two Red Bull cars directly behind him on the grid, There was a spin o the formation lap which set the tone for an incident-filled race with very few cars having no hiccups as the red flags essentially split the race in two around the halfway mark. Despite all the drama, there were only four cars that failed to finish in the changing and difficult conditions. However, it reaffirmed that F1 does look set for a titanic battle for the Championships between reigning champions Mercedes in the hands of Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull in the hands of Max Verstappen [the pair battling at turn 1 in the feature image above; image from Twitter/Formula 1].

Verstappen bounced back from his disappointment of losing in Bahrain and being out-qualified by his teammate with an emphatic race performance. From 3rd on the grid, he had an excellent launch off the grid and was leading into the first braking zone after outmuscling the Mercedes of Hamilton.

From there, the flying Dutchman never looked back as he had the race under control despite Hamilton coming back at him in the first half of the race as the tyres came back to him. Verstappen had never finished on the podium in Italy and there was perhaps nerves co ing through after he nearly lost the car on the race restart but he was imperious and in a league of one after Hamilton fell back and was thoroughly deserving of his first win of the season.

Lewis Hamilton had a rollercoaster weekend. He was not expecting to get pole position but secured it with a fantastic effort in Q3; his first of the season and Imola becomes the 30th track he has secured one in F1. After losing out to Verstappen on the opening lap and some damage to his front wing, he was closing the gap to Verstappen as the tyres w0re on that the overcut may have been possible on the changeover to slicks had it not been for a slow stop.

Finishing 2nd was still largely fortunate for the world champion. He made a rare mistake on lap 30 trying to pass the backmarkers a bit too quick and ended up in the barriers. He was able to get himself out there but the red flag brought out by his teammates incident with Russell was highly fortunate as by the time he got out the gravel trap, back to the pits and a new front wing attached he was 9th and a lap adrift. The red flag brought him back into contention and his charge from 9th to 2nd with some measured moves on the likes of Ricciardo, Sainz, Leclerc and Norris as well as securing the fastest lap of the race a few laps from home to maintain the championship lead demonstrates just why he is a seven-time World Champion.

2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix Qualifying 

Q1:
1st Valtteri Bottas 1:14.672……………15th Fernando Alonso 1:15.832; 16th Kimi Raikkonen +0.142, 17th Antonio Giovinazzi +0.290, 18th Mick Schumacher +0.447, 19th Nikita Mazepin +0.965, 20th Yuki Tsunoda (no time set).

Q2: 1st Sergio Perez 1:14.716………10th Lance Stroll 1:15.138; 11th Carlos Sainz +0.061, 12th George Russell +0.123, 13th Sebastian Vettel +0.156, 14th Nicholas Latifi +0.355, 15th Fernando Alonso +0.355

Q3: 1st Lewis Hamilton 1:14.411, 2nd Sergio Perez +0.035, 3rd Max Verstappen +0087, 4th Charles Leclerc +0.329, 5th Pierre Gasly +0.379, 6th Daniel Ricciardo +0.415, 7th Lando Norris +0.464, 8th Valtteri Bottas +0.487, 9th Esteban Ocon +0.799, 10th Lance Stroll (no time set).

What happened with the title protagonists teammates? They both seemed to have a nightmare come race day at Imola.

Sergio Perez has been struggling trying to get to grips with his Red Bull but in only his second weekend with the team put in a phenomenal effort in Qualifying to put the car ahead of Verstappen and on the front row. From this race challenging position for the Mexican, it did not materialise. He lost ground to Leclerc on the opening lap after running wide and ran wide behind the Safety Car earning the wrath of the stewards after retaking the positions from Ricciardo and Gasly. That is a slam dunk and he shouldn’t have done that after going off. The stewards were right to penalise him. After serving his 10s time penalty, the red flag brought him back into contention for a podium in 4th. However, a further spin at turn 6 on lap 38 dropped him to the back of the field and he could only recover to finish 12th on the road.

At Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas had a disappointing weekend. It looked all so promising for the Finn after he set the quickest time in both the Friday practice sessions but after losing confidence in the rear of his car in Q3 could only qualify 8th. That is not where Mercedes needed him to be and in the race he found himself struggling to pass cars in the midfield as he got himself stuck in the train of cars behind a struggling Gasly. His race ended with the collision with George Russell on lap 31 that brought out the red flags. The stewards ruled that neither driver was at fault but from a Mercedes standpoint, Bottas had been poor to that point and should never have been in a position where he was defending 9th.

Let’s talk about that dramatic incident. Coming together at high speeds nearing the braking zone, it was a dramatic incident between Bottas and George Russell; the Williams driver who is still a member of the Mercedes Driver Academy. That is an awkward coming together. Both drivers felt the other was at fault with Russell claiming when he went over to Bottas, ‘I asked him if he was trying to kill us both. We’re going incredibly fast and we know the conditions. In his eyes he’s not really fighting for anything. Ninth for him is nothing, but for us it is everything. I’m going for absolutely everything’. Bottas was a bit more diplomatic, ‘I couldn’t hear a thing what he was on about and obviously we will have a different perspective on it’. The scenes were eventful as Russell appeared to slap Bottas on the head while the Finn appeared to gesture his middle finger at the Brit.

Naturally, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff had his say on the incident too. He felt, ‘It was quite a move on the DRS, but I guess when a driver doesn’t go for a gap, he isn’t a racing driver. On the other side, maybe it was too aggressive considering that it was a Mercedes and the track was drying up’.

That isn’t the full quote from Wolff but it is the part I want to pick up on. As a racing driver, Russell saw a potential opportunity for an overtake and went for it. Wolff was right to say that the moment you don’t go for an opportunity you’re not a racing driver. That said, would a more mature driver have waited? I don’t know, Russell had managed to pick up a slipstream so the opportunity was there. Had he pulled it off, it would have been a huge statement to Mercedes. The stewards meanwhile, were convinced it was a ‘racing incident’.

For Williams, it was a bitterly disappointing end to what looked like a promising weekend for the team. Their pace throughout had suggested they could challenge for their first points since Germany 2019 and got both cars into Q2 for the first time since Hungary last year. Russell kept his ‘Mr Satruday’ tag by out-qualifying Nicholas Latifi. Latifi, getting into Q2 for only the second time in his F1 career saw his work undone by running wide on the opening lap and then tagging the Haas of Mazepin as he returned to the circuit. His race ended in the wall. Russell was making good progress and was battling Bottas for 9th and potentially set for his first points for Williams if not for the race ending contact. Hopefully, that is a sign of things to come for Williams.

Lando Norris celebrates his second podium in F1 at Imola after a fantastic Grand Prix weekend. [Image from formula1.com].

At another British team, McLaren; Lando Norris was one of the star performers at Imola. Only a track limits infraction denied the McLaren driver 3rd in Qualifying and despite the quite public rebuke of himself on social media, he bounced back well. Despite a slow start, Norris seemed a lot more at home with his car getting back ahead of former teammate Sainz. McLaren’s call to swap their drivers around on lap 11 proved critical as in clear air, Norris excelled. Taking the Soft tyres to the end from the restart was a bold decision but it paid off with a pass on Leclerc at the restart and using track position to secure his second podium in F1, the 700th for a British driver and the first time since China 2012 that two brits have been on the same podium.

2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix Race Result

1st Max Verstappen 2:02:34.598,
2nd Lewis Hamilton +22.000, 3rd Lando Norris 23.702, 4th Charles Leclerc +25.579, 5th Carlos Sainz 27.036, 6th Daniel Ricciardo +51.220, 7th Pierre Gasly +52.818, 8th Lance Stroll +56.909, 9th Esteban Ocon +65.704, 10th Fernando Alonso +66.561, 11th Sergio Perez +67.151, 12th Yuki Tsunoda +73.184, 13th Kimi Raikkonen +94.77314th Antonio Giovinazzi +1 Lap, 15th Mick Schumacher +2 Laps, 16th Nikita Mazepin +2 Laps, Sebastian Vettel DNF, Valtteri Bottas DNF, George Russell DNF, Nicholas Latifi DNF

Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton 1:16.702

With an improved car for 2021, Ferrari look set to be McLaren’s nearest rivals for third spot in the Constructors. Both cars looked fairly evenly matched in practice but when it mattered Charles Leclerc put in a phenomenal effort to qualify 4th. His race pace was strong too as he was one of the few who did not make a major error. If you were to be overly critical, getting caught out at the restart by Norris when he was running 2nd cost him a potential podium but that does not take away from an impressive performance which without the red flag would surely have been a podium. Carlos Sainz, in his first race in Italy for Ferrari, was a surprise exit in Q2 but he made up for it despite making several mistakes in the race and bemoaning himself on team radio. He nevertheless had an impressive race drive despite still getting to grips with his Ferrari, gaining three places on the opening lap and finishing just behind his teammate on the road in 5th.

Charles Leclerc excelled as he qualified and finished the race 4th while Carlos Sainz finished just behind him in 5th, a further sign of how much Ferrari have improved in 2021. [Image from Ferrari].

Daniel Ricciardo just lacked pace compared to his teammate Norris at Imola as he struggles to get settled into his new car. The honey badger did out-qualify Norris but that was largely fortunate due to his teammates track limits infringement and after a decent start had to ‘swallow his pride’ when team orders intervened. Ricciardo finished 27s behind Norris in a race that had been restarted as he failed to ask questions of the Ferrari’s but he still picked up some useful points for McLaren as they outscored Ferrari at Imola by 1 point. In their Constructors battle over the season, that second successive top 7 finish and the points that come with it could be very useful.

Lance Stroll finished 7th but classified 8th having been penalised for passing Pierre Gasly on lap 11 having left the circuit. [Image from Autosport].

Aston Martin had a fairly difficult Grand Prix weekend but were at least fortunate to leave with four points. Both their cars were plagued with heating issues in the build-up to the race but while they got both cars out to start, Sebastian Vettel had to start from the pit lane and was then given a 10s stop and go penalty for his car not being ready before the five-minute signal to start the race. That cost Vettel the opportunity to open his points-scoring account before he was forced to retire near the end with a gearbox issue. Those points came from Lance Stroll who has not appeared phased by having four-time champion Sebastian Vettel as his teammate. The Canadian led the teams charge by getting into Q3 beating the German and had a fairly impressive drive all considered finishing 7th on the road. It became 8th thought after it was deemed he had passed Gasly illegally on lap 11 having been unable ‘to complete on the track given the wet conditions.

Alpha Tauri starting Pierre Gasly on the full wet tyres was the wrong call but he did mighty well to finish a classified 7th! [Image from Autoweek].

Alpha Tauri undoubtedly had some promising pace at Imola and they may be scratching their heads at a few moments where things could have gone differently. After putting in an impressive effort to qualify 5th, Pierre Gasly’s race was almost ruined as he struggled for pace on the full wets before ditching them far too late. The Frenchman responded well, aided by the red flags to come home in 8th on the road which became 8th after Stroll’s penalty. For Yuki Tsunoda, if his debut was a dream his second race was a nightmare and a steep learning curve. Mistakes happen and spinning out in Q1 was the first. The promising Japanese driver responded well in the race and was on course for points at the restart but spinning from 9th meant successive points finishes for the rookie were not possible. It was disappointing for Tsunoda but he will recover from that.

2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix Points

Drivers:
Max Verstappen 25, Lewis Hamilton 19, Lando Norris 15, Charles Leclerc 12, Carlos Sainz 10, Daniel Ricciardo 8, Pierre Gasly 6, Lance Stroll 4, Esteban Ocon 2, Fernando Alonso 1

Constructors:
Red Bull 25, McLaren 23, Ferrari 22, Mercedes 19, Alpha Tauri 6, Aston Martin 4, Alpine 3

Alpine secured their first points of the season at Imola but it was not easy. Esteban Ocon had a huge confidence-boosting Grand Prix weekend as he out-qualified Fernando Alonso by more than four-tenths and got into Q3. Starting on the Full Wets was the wrong call but after pitting early he was able to come back and fight his way into the points at the expense of his teammate. Alonso was out-qualified by a teammate in F1 for the first time in 27 races. The Spaniard struggled in for grip in the race he described as ‘four race experiences all in one’. He spun on the way to the grid requiring a new front wing and again during the race as he finished behind Ocon on the track in 11th. He did inherit his first points of the season due to the misfortune of Raikkonen.

Fernando Alonso got his first points since his return to F1 after a difficult race due to Kimi Raikkonen’s penalty as both Alpine drivers got their first points of the season. [Image from PitPass].

Kimi Raikkonen had been having a solid weekend having beaten his teammate in Qualifying and using all his F1 experience in the tricky conditions to finish 9th. However, he was undone by spinning behind the safety car on the lap before the restart, failing to make up his positions and failing to go through the pit lane. For a rolling start, I think that is a harsh rule to have applied as it would have ruined his race. Unfortunately for Raikkonen, the stewards gave him a 30s time penalty post-race dropping him from 9th to 13th and were clear that the ‘rule requiring a car to enter the pit lane if it fails to regain its position is consistent amongst several championships, has been in the FIA Formula One Sporting Regulations for several years and has been consistently applied’.

Alfa Romeo almost had their first points of the season through Kimi Raikkonen (right) but the stewards intervened. [Image from formula1.com].

For Alfa Romeo, that topped off a highly frustrating weekend for the team. They lost both cars in Q1 and when it looked like they had secured points they were taken away from them post-race b the stewards. Italian driver Antonio Giovnazzi. First, he was compromised on his final run in Q1 by Nikita Mazepin and just when it looked like he could be well placed for points after the race restart, he was forced to pit to sort a brake heating issue. That dropped him out of contention.

With what looks set to be the backmarkers for 2021 with the team not developing their car through 2021, Haas struggled towards the back of the field. Nikita Mazepin found himself in trouble with Giovnazzi having appeared to have broken the Qualifying gentleman’s agreement’ again at the end of Q1 but was blameless in the opening lap shunt with Latifi (where could he go?). In truth, it was a marginally better performance at Imola than at Bahrain as he got his first full race distance under his belt.

Mick Schumacher had a spin behind the Safety Car in his Haas. [Image from Planet F1].

Mick Schumacher was the man spinning behind the safety car on lap 4. His own spin prevented him from being allowed to return to the pits but after that, he didn’t put a foot wrong. The German out-qualified his teammate and finished ahead of him in the race and there is not much more we can measure his performance by.

2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix Ratings

Drivers: Max Verstappen 9.5,
Lewis Hamilton 8.5, Lando Norris 9.5, Charles Leclerc 9, Carlos Sainz 8, Daniel Ricciardo 6.5, Pierre Gasly 7.5, Lance Stroll 7.5, Esteban Ocon 7.5, Fernando Alonso 6, Sergio Perez 5.5, Yuki Tsunoda 5.5, Kimi Raikkonen 7.5, Antonio Giovnazzi 6.5, Mick Schumacher 6, Nikita Mazepin 5.5, Sebastian Vettel 6, Valtteri Bottas 4, George Russell 5, Nicholas Latifi 5

Constructors:
Red Bull 8.5,
McLaren 8.5, Ferrari 8.5, Mercedes 6.5, Alpha Tauri 6, Aston Martin 7, Alpine 6.5, Alfa Romeo 6.5, Haas 5, Williams 5

After Imola and the first two races of 2021, we do look set for an interesting and intense battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Courtesy of collecting the fastest lap point, Hamilton retains the championship lead with that point making the difference. Lando Norris with his second F1 podium is 3rd in the standings and ahead of Leclerc who is 4th. After failing to finish, Bottas is now 5th with 16 points while Carlos Sainz and Daniel Ricciardo are both on 14 points. Pierre gasly enters the top 10 with his first points of the season which is topped off by Lance Stroll on 5 points. Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso with their first points of the season are 12th and 13th respectively as the latest to score points in 2021.

In the Constructors Championship, Mercedes have a reduced lead of 7 points over rivals Red Bull after Verstappen’s win. Had Hamilton not been able to recover his car from the gravel trap then that would have been a very different story. With their first podium of the season, McLaren (41pts) have a 7 point lead over Ferrari (34pts) in the battle for 3rd. Courtesy of the stewards penalising Stroll, Alpha Tauri (8pts) extend their lead by two further points ahead of Aston Martin (6pts) while Alpine registered their first points of the season. Courtesy of the steward’s decision to penalise Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo remain with no points but ahead of Williams and Haas.

Next time, F1 returns to another circuit that rose to the occasion and hosted a Grand Prix in 2020 for the first of two races on the Iberian peninsula. It is one I am certainly looking forward to after its undulating nature produced an enthralling race. The drivers will be ‘…going side to side, left to right, like a rollercoaster‘ at the location where Lewis Hamilton rewrote the history books with his 92nd win. It is Portimao for the Portuguese Grand Prix!

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