Of the 75 tracks which have held a round of the Formula 1 world championship, few are held in such high esteem by fans as Imola.
The prospect of returning to one of the sport’s most historically significant venues had been an enticing one for the current generation of drivers, many of whom had never turned a wheel on Imola’s high-speed but narrow asphalt.
And with an unprecedented two-day race weekend, none would have the luxury of gradually familiarising themselves with the course.
For only the fourth time so far in 2020, Valtteri Bottas had successfully beaten the sport’s most successful qualifier to pole position.
So often during its tenure as a host of the San Marino Grand Prix, Imola had produced races where genuine overtakes were beyond scarce. And Lewis Hamilton, starting on the front row alongside his team mate, was less than optimistic that passing would prove any easier in 2020.
“It’s so beautiful to drive but I’m pretty certain you’re going to see a pretty boring race tomorrow,” he projected.
Max Verstappen renewed his season ticket to the third slot on the grid, but lining up alongside him on the second row was none other than old team mate Pierre Gasly having successfully secured his best qualifying position of the year in fourth in the AlphaTauri.
But after a memorable Saturday for Gasly, his Sunday would prove to be doomed before it had even begun. On his reconnaissance lap to the grid, the engineers detected a loss of water pressure on his car. It would be the first symptom of an ultimately terminal condition for Gasly.
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When the lights went out to signal the start of the first grand prix at Imola in 14 years, Bottas made no mistake and leapt out into the lead over the 400 metre dash down to the Tamburello chicane.
Behind, Hamilton’s getaway had been average by comparison. Verstappen claimed ownership of the space to Hamilton’s left while Gasly used his soft tyres to his advantage and poked his nose alongside the Mercedes on the right until what space there was promptly disappeared.
As the field barrelled through Tamburello for the first time, Bottas led the way with Verstappen jumping Hamilton into second. Daniel Ricciardo had a half-hearted look to the inside of Hamilton, before quickly slotting into fourth.
Behind, the field were behaving themselves. For the most part. Lance Stroll, 13th after his worst qualifying performance of the season, clipped the rear-right of Esteban Ocon in the chicane, damaging his front wing and forcing Racing Point to call him into the pits on the first lap.
As the cars rounded the Tosa hairpin, Sebastian Vettel got a little too close for comfort to Kevin Magnussen and, with the lightest of touches, pitched the Haas into a spin. Magnussen was able to recover and continue, albeit 17 seconds behind the rest.
This seemingly innocuous clash had a profound effect on the fight for victory. When Bottas arrived at Tosa the next time around he found a large chunk of Ferrari front wing sitting on the racing line.
“Suddenly out of turn seven there was debris,” explained Bottas. “I didn’t have time to avoid it. I aimed in the middle of the car, so at least I wouldn’t run over it with the tyres but obviously it caused me some damage or something which made the car quite quickly tricky to drive.”
The lodged debris would compromise Bottas’s pace for the remainder of the race, having also damaged the floor of his W11. But, for the early phase, Bottas was able to set the pace as he, Verstappen and Hamilton made their now traditional escape from the 17 other cars in front.
By lap eight the front three, despite having started on the harder medium tyre compound, had already amassed a lead of 10 seconds to Ricciardo and the rest of the field.
The water pressure issue AlphaTauri had detected before the race on Gasly’s car had turned out to be a radiator failure. It was not fixable, and another strong weekend in Italy for Gasly was cut short on lap nine when the team called him into the garage and out of the race. This was a huge blow to the team in their hopes of wresting sixth position in the constructors’ championship from Ferrari, as Gasly had been leading both the red cars.
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The first retirement of the afternoon promoted Stroll to 19th place. While still comfortably last following his opening lap pit stop and wing change, he was running as fast as anyone outside of the top three on the hard tyres.
The encouraging performance of the white-marked tyre prompted a flurry of early activity in the pit lane. With track position and clear air worth more at Imola than most circuits, Haas decided to pit Romain Grosjean early to switch onto the harder compound tyres. They were followed by Ricciardo, Charles Leclerc, Alexander Albon, Daniil Kvyat, George Russell and Esteban Ocon.
There were now three distinct packs lapping together around the Imola circuit – the three leaders, those behind who had yet to stop and finally all of those who had already pitted.
Out front, Bottas was happily lowering the fastest lap of the race with every tour of the track, offering little indication that his Mercedes was in any way wounded.
In second, Verstappen was well and truly keeping pace with the two Mercedes. With Red Bull sitting in what Christian Horner later described as a “strategy sandwich” and knowing they could only offer a realistic challenge to beat one of the Mercedes that afternoon, the team decided to attack Hamilton behind by pitting Verstappen for hards on lap 19 to cover any potential undercut from the world champion.
As the race leader, Bottas was immediately brought in to cover Verstappen and resumed ahead on a fresh set of hard tyres – although the gap had been halved from two and a half seconds to just one.
Hamilton saw all this coming, and made it clear to his team on the radio he wanted to be left out. Mercedes are generally unwilling to allow their drivers to run different compounds (as Bottas discovered in Portugal), but do permit this much variation in strategy between their two cars.
“Okay Lewis, we’re going to be extending,” Peter Bonnington calmly informed the championship leader.
Out in clear air for the first time all race, Hamilton was able to hit his own marks and drive to his optimal pace. He instantly lowered the fastest lap of the race to a 1’18.4, then 1’18.3, then 1’17.8.
With Bottas hampered by a damaged car and Verstappen stuck behind, Hamilton’s lead began to grow, becoming more of a threat to his team mate’s hopes of getting back to the front with every lap. Imola was offering up a battle for the lead that felt right out of the early 2000s, where the focus was firmly on the lap times of car aiming to build enough of a margin out front before pitting.
Back in fourth, Sergio Perez was following up an impressive recovery drive in Portugal with some consistently quick laps on the medium tyres after many of his rivals ahead pitted early.
After running 10th in the initial phase of the race, the Racing Point was able to make up enough time to pit for the hard tyres at the end of lap 27 and resume in seventh ahead of Ricciardo’s Renault having jumped ahead of both McLarens, Leclerc’s Ferrari, Albon’s Red Bull and Daniil Kvyat’s AlphaTauri too.
But as Perez brought his tyres up to temperature, yellow flags appeared on the run up to Variante Alta. Esteban Ocon had pulled off the circuit with a clutch problem on his Renault. He had smartly parked his lightly-smoking machine within easy reach of a marshals’ post before climbing out and into retirement.
Hamilton, who had already passed the scene, duly set a new fastest lap of the race to move 28 seconds clear of Bottas. It was looking increasingly likely that Hamilton might have forged enough of a margin to retain the lead of the race following his eventual pit stop. The only question now was, when?
That decision was conveniently made for him and Mercedes at the end of lap 30 when, as Hamilton rounded the second Rivazza, the Virtual Safety Car was deployed to aid recovery of Ocon’s car. To his considerable fortune, the VSC was triggered as he rounded Rivazza 2. Had it come four seconds later he wouldn’t have been able to react in time.
Only a brief VSC period was needed thanks to Ocon’s considerate parking, explained F1 race director Michael Masi. “Esteban pulled off, thankfully, relatively close to an opening,” he said.
“Once everything was in place for that car to be recovered quickly and sending the marshals track-side to do so, there was the VSC for that purpose, to recover the car, push it back into the opening quickly and safely and continue.”
Any question of whether Hamilton would be able to keep his lead was answered as the reduced speeds meant the race leader now had a much greater gap to slot back into. Although the VSC period had ended with him still trundling down the pit lane on the limiter, it had been more than enough to allow him to comfortably rejoin ahead of Bottas and Verstappen behind.
With first place now secure, Hamilton disappeared off into the distance and out of his team mate’s sight for the second time in the space of a week. Bottas, facing what Toto Wolff later explained was a 50 point loss of downforce due to the damage, had no answer for Hamilton’s pace and the gap began to grow at the rate of almost a second a lap.
Instead, it was the second Mercedes who was now coming under attack from Verstappen behind. With overtaking opportunities few and far between around Imola, Verstappen was doing all that was in his power to try and get a DRS-enhanced slipstream along the pit straight.
Bottas, who was “pushing over all of his limits” to try and keep the Red Bull behind, locked up under braking for Rivazza and ran wide over the serrated kerbs and onto the gravel. Smelling blood, Verstappen tried to set himself up for a good exit onto the pit straight, but Bottas appeared to hesitate at the apex of the final corner – presumably to try and halt Verstappen’s momentum.
It proved ineffective, however. With DRS to his advantage, Verstappen tucked up behind the Mercedes and was able to pull alongside as the pair entered the braking zone for Tamburello. Verstappen had the speed, the racing line and once the pair had rounded the chicane, he had the position too. “Send it!” he cried cheerfully on the radio.
With Verstappen free, Bottas began gradually dropping back. He held an advantage of half a minute over Kimi Raikkonen’s fourth-placed Alfa Romeo, who was the only car in the field yet to have stopped.
Perez had cruised up behind Raikkonen, but was unable to find a way past the Alfa Romeo for over seven laps, eventually being released when Raikkonen finally stopped on lap 49. Raikkonen rejoined in 12th with a fresh set of softs, right behind Russell who was enjoying one of Williams’ strongest races of the season and within a sniff of a potential points finish.
It seemed as though the order for Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix was settled. But, out of the blue, Verstappen was suddenly facing the wrong way in the gravel at the Villeneuve chicane. His right-rear tyre had disintegrated on the run out of Tamburello, while he was mid-conversation with his race engineer, pitching the Red Bull into a spin with no opportunity for the driver to react. A suspected piece of debris had caused a sudden failure.
The consequences of the incident were severe. Not only had Verstappen been robbed of a second place finish, the retirement had confirmed that Mercedes had secured an unprecedented seventh consecutive constructors’ championship.
Unsurprisingly, the Safety Car was deployed. With only 13 laps remaining and the field set to be bunched up, many teams took advantage to pit their cars for new soft tyres.
This initially looked like it might disadvantage Hamilton, as this time the call came just after he passed the pit lane entrance. Bottas, meanwhile, dived into the pits for softs at the first opportunity. But Hamilton had more than enough time to come in the next time around. Despite the relative lack of wear on his hard tyres, Perez was brought in too to switch to softs, dropping him behind Ricciardo, Leclerc and Albon who all chose track position over fresh rubber.
Russell too had stayed out and had been promoted into tenth after Verstappen’s retirement. Conscious of the threat from Raikkonen behind on fresh softs, Russell was doing all he could to keep temperature in his 40-lap old hards.
Coming over the brow of the hill on the run down to Acqua Minerale, Russell suddenly broke traction and snapped left. Despite slamming on the brakes, there was nothing he could do to stop himself from spearing into the barriers, wrecking both his Williams and any chances of his first ever world championship points.
It was an uncharacteristic and costly mistake for Russell and one he offered no excuses for. “I hit a small bump as I changed gear and I was already in the wall before I could save it,” he said. “Absolutely gutting. It’s definitely the biggest mistake I have ever made in my career.”
The Safety Car period was extended while the marshals now had a second incident to clear. When the lapped traffic was eventually released, several drivers passed close by a group of marshals still working to clear the crash scene. Stroll, the last of the drivers to pass by, got rather too close for comfort.
As the race resumed for a final six-lap sprint on lap 58, Hamilton had no trouble leaving his team mate behind. Ricciardo was now in third – Renault having decided to stay out under Safety Car – with Leclerc in fourth.
Having seemingly thrown away excellent track position, Perez was wasting no time in trying to make up positions and was tucked up behind Albon’s rear wing at the restart. As he pulled right to try and pass the Red Bull, Kvyat took advantage of a double slipstream and moved to the inside of both, passing the pair of them by the time they reached Tamburello to jump into fifth in a brilliantly bold move.
Perez was determined to not be left out and drew alongside Albon heading into the Villenueve chicane before sweeping past the Red Bull around the outside. With cold, worn, hard tyres and a need to show his team bosses some grit and determination, Albon tried get the power down early exiting the corner but asked a little too much of his 43-lap-old rear tyres and spun.
Albon was able to recover, but the damage was done. He had dropped to the rear of the field and out of contention for any positive result. Red Bull would later apologise to Albon for leaving it far too late to call him into the pits under Safety Car and leaving him vulnerable.
Kvyat, unsatisfied by simply overtaking two cars in one restart, made it three by out-dragging Leclerc’s Ferrari out of Tosa and forcing him to yield into Piratella as he stormed around the outside and into fourth
Despite the action at the restart, there would be no more changes of position for the final five laps.
Hamilton was entirely at ease as he polished off the last handful of laps before setting the fastest lap of the race as he took the chequered flag to officially cement Mercedes’ place in the record books as seven time constructors’ champions.
Bottas finished five seconds behind having had no real chance of putting up a fight. Ricciardo held off pressure from Kvyat to take third and secure his and Renault’s second podium appearance in three races.
Kvyat backed up AlphaTauri’s strong showing all weekend with a well-earned fourth place, while Leclerc’s fifth minimised the damage to Ferrari in the constructors championship. There was no joy for his team mate – a screen appeared to show a slow-motion replay of his pit stop, which unfortunately turned out to be playing full-speed. The tardy tyre change left Vettel 12th.
Perez took the chequered flag in sixth, but was left ruing the team’s decision to pit him out of third place. “I think we had the podium very much in the pocket,” he summarised. “It was ours.”
Carlos Sainz Jnr and Lando Norris took seventh and eighth for McLaren after a weekend that was not the team’s strongest. The final points were claimed by the newly-reconfirmed Alfa Romeo pair of Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi, who had driven impressively into the points after starting from the back of the grid and was running 14th at the end of the opening lap.
But as it so often has been in the hybrid era, the greatest achievement was that of Mercedes. As well as a record seventh consecutive constructors’ championship, the drivers’ title can now only be won of Hamilton or Bottas, and there’s little doubt over which is likeliest to do it. Statistical confirmation that the Silver Arrows were now the most dominant team the sport had seen in seven decades of competition.
For Hamilton, to whom winning has become nothing less than routine, it was a moment of reflection. “Seven-time champs – that’s something I’m going to be able to tell my grandchildren one day,” he said.
“People watching maybe think we’re used to this, but it always feels like the first time with this team and I think that’s because of the spirit. So I’m forever grateful to everyone to even be a part of it. To be a part of breaking a record like this. No team has done this before.”
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff echoed the sentiments of his driver.
“This is something to be proud of,” Wolff said. “We have a group that is amazing together. It is a super proud moment with all these guys and proud to be part of it.
“As long as we stay motivated and energised we can push each other more. There will be more competition next year no doubt, we are looking forward to a new challenge.”
Formula 1’s return to Imola had been a welcome one. While the battle at the head of the field had been somewhat anticlimactic, the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix had given us plenty of talking points before the sport returns to yet another former venue – Istanbul.
But the day, much like the 2020 season itself and the six others before it, belonged to Mercedes. With one championship trophy already in the bag, another will surely follow at the next race in Turkey, where Hamilton’s seventh world title awaits him.
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