Drama in Imola


Red Bull’s Max Verstappen (above) takes the win at the Emilia Romana Grand Prix to show himself as an early competitor to Lewis Hamilton (Courtesy of Twitter).

Last week the Formula 1 season returned for its second race at Imola for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix. After the season opener in Bahrain where Red Bull proved that it is a title contender to try and break Mercedes’ dominance in the sport, everyone was looking forward to Imola to see if Red Bull’s pace was a one-race wonder or if it would be a proper title challenge. 

In qualifying, Mercedes showed why they are the reigning champions. Lewis Hamilton grabbed pole position beating both Red Bull’s Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen, who qualified second and third respectively. However, Hamilton’s teammate Valteri Bottas qualified in a lowly eighth, which meant that Red Bull could split its cars during the race strategy and put Hamilton under pressure. 

Charles Leclerc was able to get his Ferrari into fourth, followed by the Alpha Tauri of Pierre Gasly. McLaren’s Daniel Riccardo qualified in sixth, ahead of his teammate Lando Norris. On his final lap, Norris was able to get a provisional second, but his time was deleted due to track limits. Esteban Ocon got his Alpine in ninth, followed by Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll in 10th, rounding out the top half of qualifying.

When it was finally race day, it rained, forcing all of the cars to move to either the intermediate or wet tires. When the lights finally went out, Verstappen immediately breezed by his teammate before attacking Hamilton on the front straight. 

Both cars were wheel to wheel heading into the first corner where Verstappen was able to get the position, forcing Hamilton wide and picking up damage to his front wing in the process. Immediately after that, the safety car was brought out due to an incident at the back of the grid involving the Williams of Nicholas Latifi and the Haas of Nikita Mazepin. Both cars collided, forcing Latifi to retire the car. 

During the safety car period, the other Haas driver Mick Schumacher spun and ended up losing his entire front wing, which extended the safety car period. Perez also went off the track and lost a position to Ricciardo but immediately recovered it while still in the safety car period.

When the green flag finally returned, Verstappen streaked off with Hamilton closely on his heels. Leclerc was in third, followed by Perez and Ricciardo. Here Red Bull’s plans of putting its cars on different strategies to put pressure on Hamilton started to crumble. When Perez retook his place during the safety car, he did it illegally. The rules state that you cannot overtake under the safety car, so Perez was hit with a 10 second time penalty. This made the race a two-car event: Verstappen and Hamilton. 

At this point in the race, the wet tires were starting to wear out, but it was not dry enough for the slick tires. No one wanted to be the first to pull the trigger because if it was not dry enough, their race would be over because of the time needed for a pit stop. However, if they timed it right, they could gain a massive amount of places. Finally, on lap 27, Verstappen took a gamble and pitted for dry tires, hoping for an overcut on Hamilton. Hamilton immediately responded by pitting the next lap. However, he had a slow pit stop, and when he left the pits, Verstappen had once again taken the lead. 

It started to get crazy on lap 31 when Hamilton went off the track and ended up damaging his front wing even more. This cost him a massive amount of time against Verstappen, dropping all the way down to seventh due to his rare mistake. It seemed as if this mistake would cost him his lead in the driver standings. However, there was still more drama. 

Around 30 seconds after Hamilton went off, another incident occurred involving Bottas and the other Williams driver George Russell. Russell, who was in ninth, tried to pass Bottas but ended up in a massive collision that took them both out of the race. This led to an immediate safety car. This benefited Hamilton since he was able to enter the pits and fix his front wing while everyone else was slower due to the rules of the safety car. After his pit stop he fell further to ninth. The Bottas crash left a massive amount of debris on the track which led to a red flag, effectively suspending the race while marshals cleaned the track. 

After around 30 minutes, the race resumed. The order at the restart was Verstappen, Leclerc, Norris, Perez, Sainz, Ricciardo, Stroll, the Alfa Romeo of Kimi Raikkonen, Hamilton and Gasly’s teammate Yuki Tsunoda in 10th. After the rolling start, Verstappen blasted away from the rest of the pack with Norris passing Leclerc at the restart. Perez’s race went from bad to worse as he spun and fell down to 14th. During all of this, Hamilton was slowly fighting his way back. This was no longer a fight for a win, but a recovery drive for the seven-time champion. 

Hamilton eventually got into fifth with Norris, Leclerc and Sainz all in a battle just ahead of him that raged for most of the closing laps. Hamilton was able to get by all three and into second place.

After the restart, Verstappen was in the clear. He crossed the finish line to claim his first victory of the season, followed by Hamilton and then Norris to round off the podium, giving him his second podium in his career. Leclerc finished fourth followed by Sainz, Ricciardo, Stroll, Gasly, Raikkonen and then Ocon to round off the points paying positions. However, after the race both Stroll and Raikkonen were given time penalties. Stroll’s penalty only cost him one place to Gasly while Raikkonen’s made him fall to 13th and out of his points. 10th place was then given to Ocon’s teammate Fernando Alonso, who earned his first points since 2018.

After these two races, it is clear that there is a proper title fight with Hamilton only ahead of Verstappen by one point. Norris is in third in the standings with his surprise podium showing that McLaren are aiming for a consecutive third place finish. Leclerc is in fourth as Ferrari looks to bounce back from last year’s horrendous campaign. 

The full driver and team standings are here. The next race is this week at the Portimao circuit in Portugal. All eyes are on Verstappen and Hamilton as the fight is starting to heat up for the driver’s championship.