To have a place among the few elite venues deemed worthy enough to host a round of the Formula 1 world championship is perhaps the highest honour that can be bestowed on a race track.
How refreshing it is, then, that Formula 1 rewarded its drivers and fans for enduring months of lockdown-induced delay to the start of the 2020 season with a bumper bevy of bonus tracks added to this year’s roster.
No stranger to international calibre racing series, the Autodromo Internazionale del Mugello is the first of a cohort of classic circuits set to play host to a round of this bizarre season.
From its meandering curves that flow through the Florentine fields to its breathtaking speeds, it’s no surprise so many fans over the years had looked at Mugello and pondered ‘what if Formula 1 raced here?’.
At the Tuscan Grand Prix Ferrari 1000, we finally saw that question answered. But once the chequered flag had fallen, many of the participants were also left thinking ‘what if…’.
For the fourth consecutive weekend, Valtteri Bottas had spent Saturday evening stewing over how he could beat Mercedes team mate Lewis Hamilton on the run down to the first corner.
That Hamilton would disappear into the Mediterranean horizon seemed almost inevitable. But with a longer-than-average sprint to the first corner, San Donato, and a possible headwind at play, Bottas knew this was his best chance for an upset.
As has so often been the case, Max Verstappen was the wildcard. At least, he was supposed to be. But before he even arrived on the grid it was clear something wasn’t right with the Red Bull’s Honda power unit.
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Despite his mechanics’ best efforts, there was no reprieve for Verstappen. His engine stalled on the formation lap, but re-fired, and he lined up to take the start.
When the lights went out, Bottas finally succeeded in getting the jump on Hamilton, leaping out into the lead as the championship leader bogged down with wheelspin.
Behind, Verstappen had got a similarly excellent launch, but it fell apart within seconds. The Red Bull was swamped by the chasing pack as the field rounded San Donato for the first time.
Heading into the second corner, Luco, F1’s newest race winner Pierre Gasly found himself sandwiched between Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo and Romain Grosjean’s Haas.
The inevitable squeeze pitched Raikkonen into Verstappen and Gasly into Grosjean, sending the latter trio into the gravel trap, which refused to let Gasly and Verstappen go any further. Somehow, Grosjean managed to free his car and rejoined.
“I’m stuck!”, fumed Verstappen after his second race weekend in a row ruined by car problems. “This is what you get with this fucking shitshow, honestly!”.
Unsurprisingly, the Safety Car was deployed. The marshals had more wreckage to clear at the same corner, left by a collision between Lance Stroll and Carlos Sainz Jnr. Sebastian Vettel arrived at the scene and ran into the stricken McLaren, breaking his front wing.
As the field bunched up behind the Safety Car – painted scarlet to mark Ferrari’s 1,000th grand prix – Bottas was leading from Hamilton with Charles Leclerc in a surprise third place. The field was neutralised for almost 15 minutes before race control announced a restart on lap seven.
With Mugello’s main straight over a kilometre in length and the timing line roughly two-thirds of the way along, Bottas had no intention of offering Hamilton an easy slipstreaming opportunity at the restart. As the Safety Car peeled off, Bottas kept to his own steady pace as the front running cars bunched up orderly behind him. But there was danger brewing towards the rear of the field as the train was far more strung out.
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Exiting Bucine, both Daniil Kvyat and George Russell appeared to fall back from their rivals ahead only to bury the throttle in anticipation of the restart. Many of the drivers further back reacted, assuming the leaders had already bolted.
The carnage that ensued was frightening. Antonio Giovinazzi and Carlos Sainz Jnr both suffered violent impacts as they slammed into Nicholas Latifi and Kevin Magnussen ahead, inflicting heavy damage on all four cars.
The grid was an ugly scene. The track was littered with wrecked racing cars as debris was thrown everywhere. For the second time in seven days, the race was red-flagged.
While all emerged unscathed, Sainz had been understandably shaken by the events. “It reminded me about very nasty things from the past,” he said.
A thorough stewards inquiry after the race cleared Bottas of any wrongdoing in controlling the pace at the front. Instead, blame was shared among 12 drivers highlighted for “inconsistent application of throttle and brake, from the final corner along the pit straight”.
Ocon, despite not getting tangled in the chaos behind, was forced into an early retirement after his rear brakes cooked themselves under the Safety Car, damaging his brake line. The Renault driver’s retirement meant only 13 cars remained from the 20 starters.
The red flag meant that, as in Monza, the race would be resumed using a standing start. Bottas had done well to take the lead at the start of the race. Now it was his to lose.
Smoke billowed from Hamilton’s front wheels as the five lights illuminated for the second time – almost serving as a metaphor for how livid the Mercedes driver must have felt to surrender his lead first time around.
This time, Hamilton made up for his poor initial getaway by charging around the outside of Bottas into San Donato. Bottas had only managed to savour less than half a lap of leading the race under green, but was now staring at another afternoon of watching on as Hamilton powered ahead to another victory.
Leclerc had likely not expected to have been running in third at this stage. The grand occasion of Ferrari’s 1,000th grand prix arrived at the most awkward time for the Scuderia in the midst of their worst year for decades, but Leclerc had somehow found himself behind the Mercedes.
It didn’t last long. Over four consecutive laps, Leclerc was helpless to defend as first strolink , then Daniel Ricciardo, then Alexander Albon, then Sergio Perez breezed past the Ferrari with DRS along the main straight.
Seeing this, Ferrari tried to offer Leclerc an alternative. “What do you think of Plan C?,” they asked.
“We have nothing to lose. We are so slow,” came the reply, with Ferrari bringing him in for a switch to hard tyres a lap later on lap 22.
With Leclerc dispatched and no Verstappen in the picture, the third and final spot on the podium behind the Mercedes was now very much up for grabs. Stroll, Ricciardo and Albon were the main contenders. Each would savour a third place finish for very different reasons.
Stroll occupied the position having cleared Leclerc, but Ricciardo was hovering around a second behind. The Renault pitted first for mediums on lap 28, effectively executing the undercut to sneak into third after Stroll and Albon had both taken mediums.
Out front, Hamilton’s lead was now up to seven seconds. It had been much closer, but a combination of Bottas’s right-front tyre giving up and Kimi Raikkonen rejoining from the pits right in front of the number 77 Mercedes had swelled Hamilton’s advantage.
Further back, the depleted field offered George Russell a fantastic opportunity to run among the points-paying positions on merit. Holding 10th place, the Williams driver was keeping Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari around five seconds behind. With only 13 cars still circulating, it looked like this afternoon was Russell’s best chance to score his first world championship points of his career.
The battle over third was also beginning to heat up. Ricciardo, Stroll and Albon were separated by just three seconds as the Red Bull driver set a new fastest lap of the race in his quest to get within DRS range of the Racing Point ahead.
Suddenly, on lap 43, Stroll’s left-rear tyre gave way at 285kph between the two high-speed Arrabbiatta sweepers, pitching him into an uncontrollable spin and hard into the tyre barriers. The Safety Car was immediately deployed as Stroll climbed out of his car, thankfully unhurt.
Bottas immediately looked to take advantage by pitting for soft tyres. Unfortunately for him, the Safety Car had emerged behind Hamilton, meaning the race leader was able to complete a full lap and still have enough of a gap to pit and rejoin still in the lead.
The race was red-flagged for a second time to allow Stroll’s wrecked and heavily smoking car to be cleared and the barriers to be repaired.
The prospect of a third grid start of the day was an intriguing one. The second-placed Mercedes had taken the lead in both of the grid starts so far. Would it also be the case for the third?
Having been the only driver not to pit under Safety Car, Leclerc in eighth had effectively been handed a free pit stop, moving him ahead of Russell’s Williams, who was now far more vulnerable to the cars behind.
Grosjean, who had been lapped in a Haas that was notably worse for wear following his opening lap meeting with the barriers, had been allowed to unlap himself before the restart. Raikkonen had done the same, but the Alfa Romeo driver was doomed to collect a five-second time penalty for cutting across the pit entry line after a late call to come in when the Safety Car was deployed.
Grosjean and Raikkonen were able to quickly rejoin the pack, putting heat into their tyres before joining the back of the field as the 12 remaining cars pulled away from the pit lane for the final formation lap of the day.
As Bottas lined up second on the grid, he knew not just that this was his best chance to take the lead from his team mate, but that he’d already done so in this exact situation once before today. But when the lights went out, his chances evaporated almost instantly.
By the time Bottas reached third gear, Ricciardo was already ahead. The Renault got much better traction off the line and tucked in behind Hamilton. Bottas tried to take back second around the outside of San Donato, but Ricciardo held firm.
Bottas was able to slipstream his way back up to second at the end of the lap, but by now any chance to steal a win from Hamilton had almost surely been lost.
At the back, Grosjean and Raikkonen had taken advantage of their extra lap around and had both jumped the Ferraris as well as Russell, who got a poor launch at the worst possible time and dropped from ninth to the back of the pack in 12th.
With Stroll out of the race, Albon was now only one overtake away from his maiden podium in Formula 1 in fourth. Ricciardo had looked strong in third for most of the race, but Albon wasn’t fazed and when his first opportunity came at the beginning of lap 51, he stormed into third with a bold move around the outside into San Donato.
Raikkonen’s penalty meant Russell still had a chance of a point. Having passed Grosjean’s battle-worn Haas for 11th, the Williams driver was striving to close within five seconds of the Alfa Romeo.
With only a handful of laps to go, Bottas made one final push to challenge the leader. He closed the gap to just 1.1 seconds, but Hamilton immediately responded with a blistering new fastest lap which finished off any threat that Bottas could offer to his lead.
Hamilton rounded Bucine for the 59th and final time to take the chequered flag and his sixth victory of the season.
“It’s all a bit of a daze,” said a visibly fatigued Hamilton after the race. “It was like three races in one day.”
Bottas crossed the line almost five seconds behind, knowing that he had let slip one of his best opportunities to beat his team mate this season.
Having finally secured his first podium in Formula 1, Albon’s emotions were more of relief than joy after he had secured third.
“Thanks for sticking with me,” he said over the radio, tellingly.
The first Thai driver on a Formula 1 podium had done so at the expense of Ricciardo, who was left with mixed emotions after coming so close to his first podium with Renault.
“I’m bouncing from happy and fulfilled to a little bit sad,” Ricciardo admitted. “Without the red flag I feel like we had good control on the medium tyres. So maybe that was a better chance for us to hold onto third.”
Any disappointment Ricciardo felt was nothing compared to the frustration Russell was experiencing after just missing out on points in 11th having failed to bridge the five second gap to Raikkonen ahead.
“Arghhh!”, he groaned after crossing the line. “Guys, I don’t know what to say. Without that red flag, we’d have been in the points.”
It had all come down to the final restart in the end, claimed the Williams driver.
“I just lost all my positions off the line with that second restart with a poor launch,” he explained. “I don’t really know what happened – everything seemed to be on target with the procedures.”
Formula 1’s first and possibly only race around Mugello had proved a memorable one.
From the boundless praise for its layout and unforgiving run-off areas, the Italian circuit had challenged teams and drivers alike and produced one of the most eventful races of the season.
For Hamilton, it had been another step in a seemingly unstoppable charge to a record-equalling seventh world championship. For Bottas, it had been another opportunity lost to get one over his illustrious team mate.
The fans had been treated to a race around an unusual venue that did not disappoint. Hopefully F1’s experiments with new track configurations at Autodromo do Algarve and Bahrain’s Outer circuit prove equally enthralling.