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Graham Read
Formula 1 Correspondent
4:02 PM 19th May 2024
sports

Verstappen Holds Off Norris To Win At Imola

 
After extensive flooding forced the cancellation of last year's event, Formula 1 returned to Imola, close to Bologna in north-eastern Italy, this weekend for the latest Emilia Romagna Grand Prix. At the finish line today, Red Bull's Max Verstappen held off a late charge from McLaren's Lando Norris to claim the victory.

Max Verstappen was made to work hard for this afternoon’s victory
Max Verstappen was made to work hard for this afternoon’s victory
It’s just over 30 years since the death of the iconic Brazilian F1 triple champion Ayrton Senna at Imola’s Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari circuit back on 1 May 1994 during the San Marino Grand Prix, with Austria’s Roland Ratzenberger also having perished there the day before, and that awful weekend will so remain in my memory forever. On a far more positive note, though, it’s a traditional old-school track with fewer run-off areas than many of its more modern counterparts and with an increased use of gravel traps rather than asphalt to deter track limits issues. However, the drivers respect its history and value the challenges it poses.

2024 Formula 1 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1hr25m25.252s
2 Lando Norris (McLaren) +0.725s
3 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +7.916s
4 Oscar Piastri (McLaren) +14.132s
5 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +22.325s
6 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +35.104s
7 George Russell (Mercedes) +47.154s
8 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) +54.776s
9 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +1m19.556s
10 Yuki Tsunoda (RB) Lapped
11 Nico Hülkenberg (Haas) Lapped
12 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) Lapped
13 Daniel Ricciardo (RB) Lapped
14 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) Lapped
15 Zhou Guanyu (Sauber) Lapped
16 Pierre Gasly (Alpine) Lapped
17 Logan Sargeant (Williams) Lapped
18 Valtteri Bottas (Sauber) Lapped
19 Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) Lapped
20 Alex Albon (Williams) Retired
On the news front since Miami a fortnight ago, Red Bull’s legendary designer Adrian Newey has publicly indicated that, after leaving his current longtime employer next March, he envisages taking a short holiday before probably joining another F1 team for a few years. The 65-year-old was unwilling to comment on the speculation as to which one it might be. McLaren’s impressive Woking HQ is only a short drive from Newey’s palatial rural home and would be convenient, but it seems almost certain that he will be joining Ferrari and working for the first time alongside Sir Lewis Hamilton, with a contract either already signed or about to be signed. Although Newey has long been financially secure, a deal with Ferrari will no doubt also reflect an increase in his substantial current Red Bull salary.

The return of Formula 1 to racing in Europe for the first time this season after its longhaul travels east and west to date meant that most teams brought upgrades to their cars this weekend and that the paddock was full of their luxurious "motorhomes,"  which are actually temporary buildings and a far cry from the traditional mobile bases of former years. Ferrari and McLaren are the only teams to have confirmed their driver pairings for next season, and with many pieces still to fall into place regarding who will or won't end up where, it was fascinating to see various drivers, both with and without their representatives, slipping quietly in and out of secret meetings within the said team bases.

The Mercedes team principal, CEO, and part owner, Toto Wolff, is still trying to woo Red Bull’s Verstappen as a replacement for the Ferrari-bound Hamilton, with George Russell expressing his desire for the reigning champion to become his new teammate, but the probable lack of a competitive car there may well put him off. With Verstappen probably uninterested in a move to Mercedes in the short term at least, Hamilton made it clear in the Imola paddock that his choice as his replacement would be the team’s Italian rising star, 17-year-old Andrea Kimi Antonelli, who is currently competing in his first Formula 2 season and is being nurtured towards a potential debut in world motorsport’s top category next year.

Lando Norris today came close to making it two wins in a row
Lando Norris today came close to making it two wins in a row
Meanwhile, Carlos Sainz, who is about to be displaced at Ferrari to make way for Hamilton, has a lucrative offer from Audi, which is understood to expire at the end of this month as the automotive giant looks to finalise its driver line-up sooner rather than later. The likeable Spaniard is clearly hoping for a better opportunity to arise with Red Bull or Mercedes, but is fully aware that, if Red Bull opts to retain Pérez alongside Verstappen and Mercedes settle on a Russell/Antonelli line-up, he would perhaps be well advised to not discard a long-term deal with Audi. Sainz’s decision about his future may be just days away, and once this key piece in the jigsaw is in place, others will follow.

Over in the Williams camp, it’s still highly questionable as to whether Logan Sargeant will retain his seat, and the team principal, James Vowles, has revealed that he is evaluating three drivers to potentially join the outfit for the 2025–2026 seasons. One is believed to be Valtteri Bottas, who met with Vowles in his Williams office yesterday, and there has been speculation that Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, long managed by Wolff, may join the squad. One definite piece of news came last Wednesday when Alex Albon signed a multi-year contract extension to remain with Williams. The Thai/British driver expressed his enthusiasm about what he sees as a successful future ahead for the team, even though it is one of only two teams not to have scored a single point so far this season, partly because its current car is overweight compared to the opposition and is in need of going on a diet.

Sainz’s decision about his future may be just days away, and once this key piece in the jigsaw is in place, others will follow.
The ontrack action began on Friday afternoon with the opening free practice session, which was interrupted by red flags after Albon hit a kerb hard and his car’s power unit shut down, leaving him stranded on the inside of Acque Minerali. As a quick aside, it's wonderful to be reporting from a circuit where the corners have longstanding proper names, rather than just Turn 1 or Turn 14. At the conclusion of the initial practice period, it was Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Sainz who had gone first and third quickest, sandwiching Russell’s Mercedes and ahead of the Red Bulls of Sergio Pérez and Verstappen. The latter had repeatedly set some fastest sector times but failed to put a great lap together and twice had offtrack excursions.

Later on Friday afternoon, everyone headed back ontrack for the second practice hour, and again, it was Leclerc who led the way, with McLaren’s Oscar Piastri this time being the best of the rest. To their rear, a flying Yuki Tsunoda was third quickest for RB, ahead of the two Mercedes cars, Sainz and the pair of Red Bulls. So, it was Leclerc’s day, and this all set things up nicely for the Saturday and Sunday action to follow, with Red Bull clearly needing to improve.

Third place for Charles Leclerc thrilled the massed Ferrari fans present
Third place for Charles Leclerc thrilled the massed Ferrari fans present
Yesterday’s final practice session was twice redflagged after incidents involving Fernando Alonso and then Pérez. Alonso lost control of the rear of his Aston Martin at Rivazza and headed straight for the barriers, with the veteran Spaniard merging unscathed, although the same could not be said of his car. Later, Pérez ran into trouble after hitting the first apex kerb at Variante Alta. Meanwhile, McLaren topped the timing screens, with Piastri and Norris holding off the best of the rest, Sainz and Leclerc, and Russell and Verstappen completing the top six runners.

Imola on race day always has a magical atmosphere to it amidst a sea of Ferrari red, and the sense of anticipation amongst the packed grandstands was truly tangible as the three pm local time start neared...
It’s always encouraging to set fast times during practice, but it only really starts to matter come qualifying and then the race itself. During yesterday’s qualifying hour to set the grid for this afternoon’s Grand Prix, it was Verstappen who eventually showed real pace, claiming his eighth pole position in a row and equaling Senna’s longtime record set back in the late 1980s. Piastri initially earned the right to start on the front row alongside the triple champion, but was subsequently given a three-place grid penalty for having clearly impeded Haas’ Kevin Magnussen. This left Norris to join Verstappen at the front, ahead of Leclerc and Sainz, with Russell sharing row three with the demoted young Australian. Pérez failed to impress, though, not managing to make it into the top ten shootout despite being in the same car as his pole-sitting team-mate. Alonso qualified only 19th on the 20-car grid, and his team opted to subsequently break parc fermé regulations and make some suspension set-up changes to his Aston Martin. This meant he would have to start from the pitlane rather than the back of the grid, but actually, that wasn’t much of a disadvantage.

Imola on race day always has a magical atmosphere to it amidst a sea of Ferrari red, and the sense of anticipation amongst the packed grandstands was truly tangible as the three pm local time start neared, with the sun shining down and the air temperature a pleasant 25 °C. The likelihood of at least one Safety Car intervention during the 63-lap Grand Prix was statistically very high, impacting on the thinking of the teams’ strategists, and when those famous red lights went out, it was Verstappen who led the 400-metre charge towards the first corner ahead of Norris. The start was a clean affair, and the race proved for some while to be a slow burner, with Leclerc, Sainz, Piastri, and Russell completing the top six as Verstappen edged clear of Norris.

On lap 10, Albon pitted for hard specification tyres but had to circulate slowly and repeat the stop after it appeared at least one of the wheels wasn’t properly attached. This pit crew error subsequently resulted in the driver being given a ten-second stop-go penalty for the unsafe release. Meanwhile, fourth-placed Sainz was engaged in an entertaining battle with a charging Piastri just to his rear.

A late pitstop for George Russell handed sixth place to Lewis Hamilton
A late pitstop for George Russell handed sixth place to Lewis Hamilton
The sole pitstops for the leading runners began with Russell on lap 22, and, following the conclusion of this part of the race, Verstappen led from Norris, Leclerc, and Piastri. At two-thirds distance, Verstappen’s lead over Norris was a comfortable 7.2 seconds, with Leclerc, Piastri, Sainz, and Russell the best of the rest. However, on lap 53, Mercedes pulled Russell in for a second pitstop, handing his sixth place at that stage to Hamilton. Russell rejoined the circuit one position behind his team-mate, but went on to claim the extra point for the fastest lap of the Grand Prix.

...Verstappen held on to win by a mere 0.725 seconds, with Leclerc completing the podium trio to the delight of all the Ferrari fans present.
While Albon’s weekend went from bad to worse with the retirement of his car, we were treated to a grandstand finale as, lap by lap, Norris gradually closed the gap to the leading Verstappen, with thoughts turning to whether the McLaren driver could make it two wins in a row after his debut victory in Miami a fortnight ago. However, it was not to be, as Verstappen held on to win by a mere 0.725 seconds, with Leclerc completing the podium trio to the delight of all the Ferrari fans present. Piastri, Sainz and Hamilton were left to complete the leading sextet of finishers.

Next up in literally just a week’s time comes this year’s Monaco Grand Prix around the demanding streets of the famous Principality, an event first held back in 1929 and won by the British driver, William Grover-Williams, in a Bugatti Type 35B. Overtaking is notoriously difficult there, and grid position and strategy, as well as sheer ability behind the wheel, are crucial, but next Sunday we will discover the name of the latest driver to win this prestigious event.

2024 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship

1 Max Verstappen 161
2 Charles Leclerc 113
3 Sergio Pérez 107


2024 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship

1 Red Bull 268
2 Ferrari 212
3 McLaren 154