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Graham Read
Formula 1 Correspondent
7:31 PM 18th April 2021
sports

Verstappen Sublime At Incident Packed Imola

After a three week break since the season opening race in Bahrain Formula 1 very much returned to life this weekend for the unusually named Made in Italy and Emilia Romagna Grand Prix and it was Red Bull’s Max Verstappen who put in a sublime performance to emerge with the victory spoils.

Max Verstappen’s winning Red Bull literally takes to the air at Imola
Max Verstappen’s winning Red Bull literally takes to the air at Imola
The event was held at the Imola circuit in north eastern Italy, whose official name is the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari, and it’s an old school track without massive run-off areas and where mistakes can soon bite. The drivers love its challenges though, even if it is of course a place which is sadly most famous for being where Ayrton Senna died on 1 May 1994 and Roland Ratzenberger too the previous day during Formula 1’s darkest weekend. The venue hadn’t hosted a Formula 1 Grand Prix since 2006 before being called upon as an addition to last year’s pandemic impacted calendar and, having been included again this season, it is hopeful that this may not be the end of its renewed F1 involvement.

In Bahrain the 2021 rule changes clearly appeared to benefit those teams like Red Bull with high rake cars (ie where the rear is noticeably higher than the front) and hurting those like Mercedes and Aston Martin with their low rake offerings and everyone in the F1 paddock was keen to see if this pattern continued at Imola. The subject of track limits and drivers adhering to them or not was also very much on the agenda after the issues at the opening Grand Prix which impacted on its outcome and there was much ongoing deliberation amongst teams about how much resource it is worth putting into developing this year’s cars versus allocating it instead to next year’s all-new ones.

Just a few days before everyone gathered in Italy the Aston Martin team had signed up the highly experienced 33 year old Nico Hülkenberg as its official reserve and development driver, the German having deputised for what was Racing Point on three occasions last season and having driven for the team previously in 2012 and also from 2014 to 2016 when it was known as Force India. Four time champion Sebastian Vettel, freshly arrived from Ferrari, had a difficult opening race weekend for his new team in Bahrain, admitting that he wasn’t yet comfortable with the car and knowing that he must improve if he isn’t to come under potential threat of replacement by Hülkenberg at some point. In contrast, Japan’s 20 year old Yuki Tsunoda had had an outstanding start to his F1 career in Bahrain and there was eager anticipation about what AlphaTauri’s exciting rookie might offer at Imola.

At least it appeared that good progress has been made re the proposal for a trial Saturday sprint race at Silverstone’s British Grand Prix race meeting this year and possibly also at Monza and Interlagos, with financial compensation offered to each team to help cover their extra costs and with more funds perhaps available after any major sprint race accident damage. This season’s $145m budget cap for each team is accordingly set to be increased appropriately. Formula 1’s new CEO Stefano Domenicali also ruled out any future possibility of the sport moving from three day to Saturday/Sunday only race weekends, with promoters very much preferring the former as it helps them to maximise ticket sales and revenue. The budget cap essentially covers expenditure related to improving a car’s performance and significantly excludes marketing costs, driver salaries and those of the three highest paid non-driver personnel in each team. Despite this, it is still very much a step in the right direction as the previously ever spiralling spending of the leading teams has been very much stopped, with further budget cap reductions due next year and in 2023.

The Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari is an attractive and challenging old-school track
The Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari is an attractive and challenging old-school track
At Imola there was a fairly limited weekend timetable compared to normal, with just the Formula Regional by Alpine European singleseater championship appearing in support of Formula 1. None of the usual championships which often appear alongside F1, such as F2, F3 and the Porsche Supercup, were present and, with no fans or guests allowed to attend, the circuit was an unusually quiet place.

In Friday morning’s opening free practice hour Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas had topped the timesheets ahead of his team-mate Sir Lewis Hamilton and Verstappen, the trio covered by a mere 0.058 seconds, but the session was interrupted by red flags after Sergio Pérez’ Red Bull and the Alpine of Esteban Ocon had made minor contact. The stewards later adjudicated that neither driver was at fault and no further action was taken. Red flags flew too for a second time after the chequered flag had been waved when one of Haas’ rookies, Nikita Mazepin, spun off exiting the second Rivazza turn and the ensuing impact with the wall damaged his front wing. Earlier the troubled Russian had already had a spin at the same location and he has quickly acquired the nickname of “Mazespin”!

Bottas and Hamilton again led the way in the second practice session, but Verstappen was forced to miss most of it after having to stop on the circuit with a driveshaft failure. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was looking pretty racy, but as he continued to push hard in the closing minutes the young Monégasque driver overdid it and crashed as the second Rivazza claimed another victim. AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly ended up third quickest at what is his team’s home Grand Prix and his rookie team-mate Tsunoda again impressed with the seventh fastest time. Come Saturday morning’s final practice period a charging Verstappen ended up over 0.4 seconds clear of Lando Norris in his McLaren, with Hamilton and Pérez the best of the rest.

In line with many other sports, the Formula 1 authorities had amended the weekend’s timetable of events to ensure that Saturday’s qualifying hour did not conflict with the 3pm UK time funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh and a minute’s silence was held for all to show their respect. Verstappen’s pace in final practice had suggested he would be a leading contender for pole position, but it turned out to be Hamilton who claimed the 99th pole of his F1 career, with Verstappen only third behind Pérez, the Mexican outqualifying his team-mate at only his second event for Red Bull. The margins were so small though, with less than one hundredth of a second covering the leading trio.

The Aston Martin cars carried a very fitting addition to their usual livery this weekend
The Aston Martin cars carried a very fitting addition to their usual livery this weekend
With various drivers, including Norris, having lap times deleted for exceeding track limits, it was Leclerc who claimed fourth on the grid for Ferrari, with a disappointed Bottas only eighth fastest. George Russell continued his excellent 100% record for always outqualifying his Williams team-mate and finished an impressive 12th, one position ahead of Vettel’s Aston Martin. The veteran Fernando Alonso, back in F1 after a two year absence, could only post the 15th quickest time in contrast to the ninth place achieved by his Alpine team-mate Ocon. They say that fortune often favours the brave, but Tsunoda soon crashed out of the first part of qualifying after an over-exuberant attempt to sweep through the Variante Alta high chicane. The end result was extensive damage to the rear of his AlphaTauri and a red flag period until the car and debris were cleared.

The weather had been relatively cool at Imola all weekend and so it remained come race day, but with an additional problem called rain. The hot news though from F1’s owners, Liberty Media, as the Grand Prix start approached was that after years of discussions a Miami Grand Prix on a date still to be advised will form part of next year’s FIA Formula 1 World Championship. It will be held on a new track, which will be built at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. A ten year deal has been agreed and it is hoped that, along with the other US race at the Circuit of the Americas just outside Austin, Texas, this development will help F1 make greater inroads into the potentially massive and highly lucrative US market.

Back at Imola, as the cars left their pit garages before lining up on the grid the teams all faced a dilemma as parts of the track were bone dry, whereas other sections were very wet. Aston Martin faced an even worse problem too as Lance Stroll’s rear brakes caught fire and frantic repairs on the grid were required, whilst Vettel’s car was forced to start from the pit lane after his own brake issue. There was real tension in the air as the clock ticked down to the start and the grid was buzzed by the Italian Air Force fighter jets displaying their own high speed skills above.

With 63 challenging laps ahead of them in treacherous conditions, intermediate wet weather tyres were the preferred choice for most and, when the red lights went out, it was third placed Verstappen who made a superb start and sprinted into an immediate lead. Polesitter Hamilton tried to fight back at the first chicane, but suffered front wing end plate damage in the ensuing contact as the pair proved two into one doesn’t work. Just one lap later the Safety Car was called into action after Williams’ Nicholas Latifi had wandered into the path of Mazepin after an off-track excursion and had a hefty and race-ending shunt into the barriers. Then on lap four, with the Safety Car still circulating, Mick Schumacher lost control of his Haas on the start-finish straight whilst trying to put some heat into his tyres and had his own little accident which removed his front wing.

Second placed Lewis Hamilton (right) compares notes with Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez who ended up only 12th
Second placed Lewis Hamilton (right) compares notes with Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez who ended up only 12th
Racing resumed at the start of the seventh tour and third placed Leclerc applied pressure to Hamilton, whilst Verstappen started to edge clear out front. However, on lap 25 Hamilton started to reduce the gap to Verstappen just before the pit stop phase began. The leading Red Bull came in first to switch from intermediate to medium rubber, whereas Mercedes kept Hamilton out for one more circulation before doing likewise. However, a slower stop for the latter and a flying Verstappen meant the order out front remained unchanged.

As the race progressed Verstappen and Hamilton had Leclerc and Norris as the best of the rest to their rear, but on lap 31 Hamilton rather clumsily slid off the track at Tosa and ended up facing the barriers. After what must have felt like an eternity for him he managed to find reverse gear and rather scarily headed backwards onto the track and resumed his race a lap down and with clear front wing damage needing immediate attention.

Just one tour later though other dramatic events helped Hamilton. Russell looked set to sweep past a lacklustre Bottas as they sped at high speed towards the first chicane, but a little movement by the Finn to his right towards the Williams driver understandably seemed to spook the latter, who then lost control and a massive accident ensued, forcing the race to be redflagged. Both cars were extensively damaged, but fortunately their pilots emerged unscathed, if angry with each other. The subsequent radio messages from the duo needed plenty of bleeps and Russell strode over to the Mercedes driver and vented his feelings, tapping Bottas’ helmet whilst he received a raised single digit response! My own reaction was to feel relief that both drivers were unhurt, but it was ominous that this incident had happened at the very same Tamburello section of the track where Senna had perished. It didn’t go unnoticed either that the two drivers involved are very much rivals for one of the Mercedes seats next year and Bottas would so not have wanted to see Russell in a lowly Williams sweep past him with apparent ease.

After a suitable delay to allow for the damaged cars and all the related debris to be cleared away there was a rolling restart in still tricky conditions. Verstappen, Leclerc and Norris led the way, with Hamilton down in eighth position, and Norris immediately used his soft tyre advantage to usurp his Ferrari rival before the first chicane. With Verstappen gradually increasing his lead out front, a charging Hamilton set about picking off his opponents ahead with repeated and very effective use of the DRS zone before the opening chicane. By the time only three laps were remaining he had climbed upto second position after passing an ailing Norris, who was starting to suffer with his worn rubber.

As the chequered flag flew Verstappen was delighted to take his first win in Italy, his arch rival Hamilton was happy to have recovered sufficiently to be the runner-up and also take the extra point for the fastest lap and Norris was smiling about his podium finish for McLaren ahead of the Ferrari’s of Leclerc and Carlos Sainz. At the other end of the scale Williams ended up with two badly damaged cars and no points on a day when some might otherwise have been achievable. Such are the highs and lows of motor racing.

Track limits and the exceeding of them to gain an unfair advantage was again an issue at Imola
Track limits and the exceeding of them to gain an unfair advantage was again an issue at Imola
With the action, celebrations and commiserations at Imola completed it was time for everything to be packed up and transported across Europe to Portimão in the Algarve in preparation for this year’s Portuguese Grand Prix in a fortnight’s time. This will be the third race on this year’s longest ever 23 event calendar, although doubts still remain about whether all will still take place due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic. There is a strong possibility that June’s Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal will be cancelled and possibly replaced by a race in Turkey on the way back from the preceding Azerbaijan event.

2021 Formula 1 Made in Italy and Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 2hr2m34.598s
2 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +22.000s
3 Lando Norris (McLaren) +23.702s
4 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +25.579s
5 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +27.036s
6 Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +51.220s
7 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +51.909s
8 Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +52.818s
9 Kimi Räikkönen (Alfa Romeo) +1m4.773s
10 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +1m5.704s
11 Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +1m6.561s
12 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) +1m7.151s
13 Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) +1m13.184s
14 Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) Lapped
15 Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) Lapped
16 Mick Schumacher (Haas) Lapped
17 Nikita Mazepin (Haas) Lapped
18 George Russell (Williams) Retired
19 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) Retired
20 Nicholas Latifi (Williams) Retired

2021 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship


1 Lewis Hamilton 44
2 Max Verstappen 43
3 Lando Norris 27

2021 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship

1 Mercedes 60
2 Red Bull 53
3 McLaren 41