When Mercedes CEO Toto Wolff was staring at his monitors on lap 32 of the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix in disbelief with one of his cars destroyed in the gravel and the other limping to the pits with a broken front wing, you could forgive him for thinking that his team would leave the Imola circuit without a single championship point for their weekend’s efforts.Lewis Hamilton’s title fight with Max Verstappen.
Just two races into this 23-race 2021 Formula 1 season, Hamilton’s great escape could end up taking on even more significance if this really is to be the year-long showdown between the sport’s two current heavyweights.
Having dominated the opening weekend in Bahrain – except for the one day that mattered most – Verstappen and Red Bull were out for revenge on Mercedes when they arrived at the Autodromo Enzo E Dino Ferrari in the quaint northern Italian town of Imola.
Returning to the early-spring setting familiar from decades of San Marino grands prix, the tortuously titled Formula 1 Pirelli Gran Premio Del Made In Italy E Dell’emilia Romagna 2021 was held in the unseasonably cooler temperatures seen across the European continent last weekend.
The characteristics and climate of the circuit appeared to have better suited the Mercedes than Sakhir had – something best demonstrated by Hamilton securing his 99th career pole position during the closest qualifying session in recent memory.
But Hamilton’s Saturday success came as a surprise to him and engineer Peter Bonnington. Mercedes CEO Toto Wolff was under no illusions as to who was the favourite for Sunday. “If you one-for-one compare the laps to Red Bull, Max, without the mistake, would have been on solidly on pole,” he said.
For the first time in a long time, the first Red Bull behind the pole-sitting Mercedes belonged not to Verstappen, but his team mate. Sergio Perez had been audibly frustrated to miss out on his first career pole position by less than half a tenth of a second, but at least fulfilled his purpose by providing Red Bull with a genuine two-pronged attack to Hamilton for the first time since Daniel Ricciardo left the team.
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The split strategy of the chasing Red Bulls would have given Mercedes a headache – until just 45 minutes before lights out, when the 60 percent chance of rain for the race quite rapidly grew to 100 percent. Heavy rain drenched the circuit – or at least part of it. The run from Tamburello to Tosa was saturated.
On a tentative reconnaissance lap on the intermediate tyres, Fernando Alonso learned just how little grip there was at the tight Tosa corner, slipping off the track and into gently into the barriers. Luckily for Alpine, Alonso was spared the embarrassment of being eliminated from the race before it had even began, but had to pay the price of a new front wing as penance.
The track was thoroughly soaked around most of its 4.9 kilometres, but with only light rain in the air by the time the drivers pulled off the grid for the formation lap, the vast majority opted for the intermediate tyres.
Charles Leclerc may have briefly questioned the wisdom of that decision when he spun into the gravel at Acque Minerali, but the Ferrari driver was able to recover both his car and his grid position for the start of the race.
Facing a potential flanking from the Red Bulls behind him, Hamilton tried to make his W12 as wide as possible on the long run to Tamburello. But Verstappen’s traction was so great that he was up the inside of the Mercedes before they had reached the end of the pit lane.
With the inside line, Verstappen would have been forgiven for expecting Hamilton to yield into Tamburello, but the world champion refused to give way and hung on around the outside. Inevitably, Hamilton ran out of road and was forced to clatter over the savage sausage kerbs in the second part of the chicane, losing all momentum and dislodging fragments of black bodywork from his car. Somehow, Hamilton did not lose his second place to Perez behind.
As the field navigated through the spray and searched for what grip they could find, Nicholas Latifi emulated Leclerc’s formation lap spin at Acque Minerali, dropping him down the field. While he was able to continue, the Williams driver was seemingly unaware that Nikita Mazepin’s Haas was alongside him on the approach to Variante Alta and intruded into Mazepin’s personal space, earning him a swift trip into the barriers and a disappointing early retirement after one of Latifi’s strongest weekends of his F1 career to date.
The Safety Car was deployed to help clean up the debris as the drivers tried to keep what heat they could in their tyres.
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Perez demonstrated how easy it was to lose control by skidding off the track at Piratella, losing his place in the queue to Daniel Ricciardo and Pierre Gasly. But when Perez illegally reclaimed his fourth place from the pair after returning to the track, he immediately earned himself a 10-second time penalty (misreported elsewhere at the time, including on F1’s social media feeds, as a stop-go penalty) which effectively remove him from the equation at the front of the field.
Verstappen led the pack away at the restart on lap seven, with Hamilton in hot pursuit. The damage to his Mercedes wasn’t as bad as the team initially feared – once the broken footplate detached itself he was losing a couple of tenths per lap. But with the benefit of a clear track in front of him, Verstappen was able to easily pull a gap of three seconds to the Mercedes after just over a single lap of green flag racing.
With no active rainfall, the long, slow process of drying the circuit began as the field began to rapidly spread out around the circuit.
Gasly, who had looked in top form all weekend in the dry, began to plummet down the field on his full wet tyres as those around him on intermediates enjoyed far more grip on the gradually drying surface. He would eventually make the switch to intermediates on lap 14.
As they so often do, Verstappen and Hamilton began trading fastest laps as they grew in confidence with the increasing grip offered by the damp asphalt.
Lando Norris was also finding good grip on the circuit, but was unable to make the most of it stuck behind McLaren team mate Daniel Ricciardo in sixth place. Norris made a few euphemistic remarks on the radio about how he might go quicker with a clear road ahead, which were interpreted as intended, and the team asked Ricciardo to let him by.
Wisely, Ricciardo not only complied but did so at the exit of Tosa rather than in the middle of the corner. Norris immediately disappeared into the horizon in pursuit of a potential podium.
Further back, Sebastian Vettel had endured a torrid start to his race. Both Aston Martins had overheating rear brakes on their reconnaissance laps and required attention on the grid. Vettel had to start from the pit lane, and to make matters worse his tyres were not re-fitted before the five minute warning, earning him a stop-go penalty.
Vettel tried to turn his fortunes around by being the first car to try medium dry tyres on lap 22. It was quickly apparent the call was a touch too soon, as Vettel’s lap times were seconds slower while he tried to bring them into an working window. Matters weren’t helped by the timing of his penalty, which Vettel felt came far too late, and obliged him to return to the pits where his tyres cooled further.
Eventually, the track conditions hit the sweet spot and Vettel set the fastest first sector of the day – prompting Red Bull to react and bring Verstappen in before Mercedes could beat them to it.
With Verstappen relinquishing the lead, Hamilton was told he had just a single lap to push to try and make up the deficit to the Red Bull. But Verstappen’s natural proficiency in low-grip conditions is no secret and it was little surprise to see him comfortably retain the lead of the race after Hamilton resumed also on the medium compound, aided by a slightly slow Mercedes pit stop. As there was no theoretical need for any further stops, it seemed that Hamilton would have to find a way past on-track if he was to deny Verstappen a first win of the season.
By lap 30, all the field had made the switch to slicks. While the visible dry racing life offered plentiful grip, the dark patches still present offline lay in waiting for any ill-judged move that strayed onto them. Surprisingly, Hamilton was among the first to fall foul to such a simple yet costly mistake.
Coming to lap George Russell’s Williams on lap 31, Hamilton took to the inside under braking for Tosa and had to try and get his car slowed down enough on the dark, damp surface. But he could not. In a scene reminiscent of that dark day in China during his rookie season, Hamilton skidded helplessly into the gravel before running out of room to turn the car safely out again and kissing the barrier.
For what felt like an eternity, Hamilton tried to figure out a route of recovery back onto the circuit as any chance of victory evaporated like the steam from his aching front tyres. Eventually, he was able to awkwardly – but legally – reverse his Mercedes back out onto dry ground and resume, albeit with his front wing hanging off.
Russell later admitted he could have chosen a better place to let the Mercedes by. But Hamilton accepted responsibility for the error. “I guess I was in a bit too much of a hurry to get by everyone,” he said.
“It just wouldn’t go into reverse so I was holding the reverse button and it took forever to engage. And when I was reversing, I was like I’ve just got to keep going backwards and work my way out in reverse and if I hadn’t done that I would probably still have been there now so I’m grateful for it.”
Hamilton’s afternoon wasn’t over. But the time lost was going to put him out of contention for all but the lowest points places, clearing the way for Verstappen to take the championship lead for the first time ever.
Then, suddenly, all eyes were on Tamburello, and the wreckage of the other Mercedes and Russell’s Williams.
The pair had been involved in a massive accident, turning the approach to the first chicane into a frightening scene of destruction. In its former, flat-out guise, this section of track has seen many violent accidents over the decades, including F1’s most notorious crash. Given its history, it was a relief to see both drivers climbing from their cars unaided.
As the blame game began between two drivers whose destinies have been on a collision course for some time, the race was red-flagged to allow for an extensive clean-up operation.
Hamilton, a lap down by the time he had rejoined with a new front wing, was suddenly handed a lifeline. Rather than languishing in 10th without a hope of clawing back solid points, he instead would have everyone who had passed him neatly lined up in a row to pick off one by one.
At the end of the lengthy delay, Verstappen led the field back out onto the circuit for the single formation lap before the restart. Tyre temperature, always important, would be critical for this restart to the race and Verstappen almost cost himself everything with a lazy half-spin onto the kerb at the first Rivazza.
Leclerc, in second, briefly thought he should pass the Red Bull, then chose not to, a decision which surprised Norris, now third. With the Red Bull team’s hearts firmly in their mouths, Verstappen was able to collect his car and himself before charging over the finish line to resume proceedings.
Norris, who had switched to soft tyres, seized his opportunity and pounced on Leclerc’s medium-shod Ferrari. The McLaren swept around the outside of the Ferrari into Tamburello before turning his sights on trying to challenge Verstappen for the lead.
Hamilton’s challenge to recover through the field had been made easier by Kimi Raikkonen, who spun his Alfa Romeo at Tamburello, losing position to Hamilton and Yuki Tsunoda. The Alfa Romeo did not reclaim his position as he should have done, earning a 30 second post-race penalty. Given what had happened to Perez earlier, the stewards admitted this area to the regulations lacked consistency.
AlphaTauri rookie Tsunoda was desperate to make amends for ruining his weekend after wrecking his car early in qualifying and figured that the best way to make up for that would be to overtake a seven-time world champion at the restart. For a moment, it looked like he had pulled off the bold endeavour, slipstreaming the Mercedes and diving up the inside into Tamburello.
But Tsunoda lost grip at the chicane and spun around in front of Hamilton, somehow avoiding contact and throwing away all the credit he would have earned. The rookie who starred in Bahrain described his Imola performance as “not acceptable”.
Perez, who had impressed so much on Saturday, saw his Sunday become even more frustrating when he lost the Red Bull at the tricky Villenueve chicane and spinning backwards into the gravel. He was able to continue, but was now down in 14th with all chance of decent points dashed.
With at least two positions generously handed to him by drivers ahead, Hamilton was afforded more time to pick his way through the cars in front and climb gradually back up the order. Despite their Mercedes power units, Lance Stroll and Ricciardo proved to be easy pickings, and were dispatched within a handful of laps. The Ferrari pair of Carlos Sainz Jnr – running fourth despite two off-track moments earlier in the race – and Leclerc offered a stiffer challenge.
Hamilton eventually passed Sainz on lap 50, before chasing down Leclerc and using DRS to take the other Ferrari five laps later. After spending half a minute in the gravel trap earlier in the race and having lost a lap to Verstappen pitting for a new front wing, the idea that Hamilton was now on the podium must have been a distinctly irritating realisation for Red Bull.
Norris’s efforts to catch Verstappen out front had been futile, with the Red Bull driver comfortably able to pull away from the rest of the pack. With his career-best finishing position in Formula 1 in his sights, Norris fought hard to try and keep the looming Hamilton in his mirrors behind him – a task made no easier when Norris inadvertently caught his clutch paddle on his steering wheel with his knee in some of Imola’s tighter corners.
There was only so much within Norris’s power, however, and with four laps remaining, the Mercedes took advantage of the lengthened DRS zone for this weekend and drafted easily past the McLaren before the pair had even reached the braking zone for Tamburello.
And with that, the comeback was complete. Through sheer performance, skill and a healthy dose of luck, Hamilton was back behind Verstappen as if his heart-stopping moment at Tosa had never even happened.
As annoyed as Verstappen and Red Bull may have been at seeing their main rival back behind them, it would likely have paled in comparison to the satisfaction of comprehensively beating Mercedes on track and demonstrating that the road to an eighth consecutive world championship for the Silver Arrows would have to go through Red Bull first.
Verstappen crossed the line to claim his first victory of this young season and put the disappointment of Bahrain firmly behind him in one of the more dominant of his 11 career wins. But despite seeming in total control all day, the Red Bull driver claimed it was not as comfortable as it looked.
“It’s never easy a race like this,” said Verstappen. “It’s quite stressful out there to make the right calls.
“To be able to sit here now, two races in a row, where we were very, very competitive – that’s very promising, but no guarantees.”
For Hamilton, any disappointment at being beaten was overridden at relief for simply being able to take second place after his troubles at Tosa.
“It’s the first time I’ve made a mistake in a long time,” he said. “I’m really, really grateful that we got going again and to get some points for the team was really important today.”
With the second podium of his career, Norris was excited about how much promise McLaren had shown during the start of the season.
“It’s nice to be fighting these guys,” said Norris. “It’s nice to be there on merit and there on pure pace – and hopefully we can have some more in the future.”
Ferrari will have been satisfied to leave an Italian circuit with a solid points haul with Leclerc in fourth and Sainz fifth following a series of disasters during their three home races last season. Ricciardo accepted that sixth was as good as his pace deserved that afternoon, while Gasly and AlphaTauri would have been moderately satisfied with seventh after a penalty for Stroll having shown such strong pace in the early weekend.
Raikkonen had finished ninth on the road but his penalty promoted Esteban Ocon to ninth after a solid weekend, with team mate Alonso securing his first points finish of his comeback from retirement in tenth.
While one race may mean little over a 23-event calendar, the consequences of the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix could be felt over the months to come.
With Hamilton and Verstappen trading victories to open the season and Red Bull looking like their hold the upper hand on pure pace in this early phase, Hamilton’s recovery to second could prove to be a vital piece of damage limitation as the championship battle unfolds.
In the first season ever with active cost cap restrictions, Toto Wolff was quick to point out that Bottas’s heavy crash could have consequences for Mercedes’ development programme for the W12 over this season. And in a year before such heavy technical regulation changes are introduced in 2022, it makes the question of how to spread resources between this year’s car and its inevitable successor that much more of a headache.
Not that it will be of too much concern to Red Bull, Verstappen, or indeed millions of Formula 1 fans across the globe who have been hoping to see Mercedes’ dominance under genuine threat for the first time in the V6 era.
The Portuguese Grand Prix cannot come soon enough.
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2021 Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix
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