The penultimate retro circuit in the 2020 Formula 1 calendar takes us to Italy for the third time this year. The Imola circuit is a challenging one, especially in the much larger racecars of today, and is also remembered as the venue for one of F1’s most tragic moments: the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994. 

Formerly known as the San Marino GP, Imola hasn’t hosted an F1 race since 2006 which featured Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and Juan Montoya on the podium (in that order). For 2020, it’s being called the Emilia Romagna GP and I was already certain of a dull race on the narrow circuit. Kimi Raikkonen is the only driver on the current grid who has raced here before and the format was limited to just 2 days for this race. That meant the teams would only have one practise on Saturday before qualifying to get familiar with the track and get the most out of their cars. 

The starting grid was the usual affair with Mercedes on the front row (Bottas took Pole) and Max Verstappen being third quickest in qualifying. But it was a pleasant surprise to see AlphaTauri having good pace at another race in Italy with Pierre Gasly qualifying fourth fastest and Daniil Kvyat starting 8th on the grid. Daniel Ricciardo was quick enough for the fifth slot and lined up alongside Alex Albon in sixth. Charles Leclerc astonished us with another good qualifying result in the hobbled Ferrari to start seventh on the grid. The McLarens took the fifth row with Lando Norris outqualifying Carlos Sainz. Adhering to track limits proved to be one of the hindrances for most drivers to set their fast times and played a role in deciding who got out of Q1 and Q2.

Imola is a counter-clockwise layout and the start-finish straight isn’t exactly a straight line and instead has some kinks before the first chicane. When the lights went out on Sunday afternoon, Bottas got a much better start around the outside while Hamilton seemed to struggle for traction. It allowed Max and Daniel to pass Lewis towards the chicane but the Brit was able to reclaim P3 from the Aussie around the exit of the corner. The two McLarens were hot on Kvyat’s tail but managed to avoid an incident on the first lap. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Kevin Magnussen who got spun around by Sebastian Vettel as they were rounding Turn 7. This particular moment ended up playing a key role in deciding the outcome of the race as you will find out later in this report. Magnussen was still in the race after the collision and simply rejoined at the back of the pack while Vettel continued his race as well with minor damage to his front wing.

Gasly had lost a place at the start of the race but was still on the tail of the Renault in front while the usual trio had sped off. Unfortunately, the Frenchman’s hopes for another surprise podium in Italy were smashed when his team informed him of a terminal situation on the car and would have to retire him after just 9 laps. The two Mercs and Verstappen were the only ones from the top 10 starting on the Medium tyres and could pit a bit later. With Red Bull running a solo operation at the front of the pack, they decided to undercut race leader Bottas by pitting ahead of him on Lap 19 and switched to the Hard tyres. Mercedes responded by pitting Valtteri the very next lap for the same tyre strat. This put Lewis in the lead and Bottas managed to rejoin still ahead of Verstappen.

Lewis was also expected to pit soon after which would put Bottas back in the lead again but the Brit made an impromptu strat call to stay out longer on the same set of Mediums. Not only was Hamilton putting in more laps, but he was also setting the fastest times to build a considerable gap over his teammate. Meanwhile, Max was able to catch up on Bottas and was within view of a potential P2 finish. One of the reasons the Finn wasn’t able to pull away from the Red Bull and reduce the gap to his teammate was because he had picked up some damage during the race. He hadn’t made contact with anyone but he’d picked up some debris around Turn 7. Yep, the turn where Vettel collided with Magnussen and suffered some wing damage. Turns out some of what had fallen off the Ferrari got picked up by Bottas’ W11 earlier in the race and was affecting his performance. 

In the left photo, you can see the damage to Vettel’s front wing endplate and on the right you can see the piece of Ferrari that the Mercedes crew took out of Bottas’ car after the race.

Meanwhile in the middle order, Magnussen’s long first stint meant he was ahead of those who had already made their first pit stop and was holding them up in P8. This allowed Perez who was also on a long stint to build a gap ahead of the bunched up cars to aim for high points finish. It was only around Lap 27 that the likes of Ricciardo were able to fly past the Haas with the DRS assist by which point Perez was almost 20 seconds clear. The racing action between Kevin and Charles woke us from our snooze for a few corners before the Ferrari was able to get past on its fresher tyres. On Lap 29, the broadcast cut to a slow Renault rolling to a stop on the grass and I’ll admit that I was relieved to see it wasn’t Ricciardo. Ocon’s sudden retirement triggered a very brief VSC (virtual safety car) period meaning all drivers had to slow down. Unfortunately for Bottas, this happened in the exact time as his rival was near the pit entry. So, Lewis was able to stop for his fresh set of Hard tyres after doing 30 laps on the Mediums while Bottas had to drive slowly under the VSC. Even though race pace was resumed before Hamilton had rejoined the track, the damage was done. He was comfortable clear of his rivals, still in P1 and on a fresh set of rubber. I almost switched off my TV then and there but I decided to stick around just in case something bizarre happened. 

By Lap 42, Lewis was more than 11 seconds clear of Bottas who was still being chased by Verstappen. Max would close the gap and try and stay within DRS range but wouldn’t find an opening to make the move. Luckily for him, Bottas finally gave him the chance he was waiting for when the Finn went wide out of Turn 17 and into the gravel. The Merc came back to track still ahead of the Red Bull, but only just. However, the main straight was next and with the help of DRS and slipstreaming, Verstappen got past Bottas heading into the chicane. The battle between these two allowed Hamilton to increase his lead at the front yet again. But that didn’t seem to be affecting Max who was starting to build his own lead from the Merc behind him. Raikkonen still hadn’t pitted so he was in P4 and Perez was able to capitalise on his long stint and was still P5 after pitting on Lap 28. Ricciardo was more than 8 seconds behind but still ahead of Leclerc and Albon. 

Things went from good to awful for the Red Bull camp on Lap 51. The cameras cut to Verstappen sliding backwards through the gravel with an exploded right rear tyre. He came to a halt in the gravel itself and luckily didn’t have any collisions but it was a sad and abrupt end to a brilliant race from the Dutchman. There was no visual hint about the condition of his tyres being too worn and you can see the suddenness of his rear tyre exploding in this onboard replay here:

Max’s incident did bring out the Safety Car and with only 10 laps to go, there was hope for some racing action to end the Imola GP. Bottas was able to dive into the pits at the end of the lap to switch to Soft tyres while Hamilton got picked up by the safety car just ahead of the pit lane so he pitted for his fresh set of Soft tyres the lap later. However, with the SC conditions, he was still ahead in the race order.

Max’s crash had put Sergio up in P3 but for some reason, Racing Point thought it was better to copy the race leaders and put him on a fresh set of Soft tyres on Lap 52. However, Daniel, Charles and Alex had stayed out which meant that the Mexican driver was behind them at the restart. Kvyat and Sainz had pitted as well behind Perez while Norris pitted a couple of laps later. 

Meanwhile, George Russell had moved up to P10 and was now the lapped car just behind the Safety Car. He looked poised to score his first-ever F1 point and the first of the season for Williams. But as he was trying to keep his Hard tyres up to temperature behind the SC, he did a Grosjean and veered off into the wall. Yep. You can see Kimi’s perspective of this moment, who was just behind:

Russell’s crash meant the Safety Car had to stay out even longer as the marshals cleared the track. This left us with a 5-lap dash to the finish line when racing resumed. As always, Hamilton is a master at race restarts and was able to pull away from Bottas right away. The two Mercedes on the softer tyres pretty much dumped the rest of the pack behind them. Daniel was running in P3 with Leclerc right behind. But it was Daniil Kvyat who gained the most at the restart, zooming past Perez and Albon who were fighting each other and moving up to P5 by the first chicane. The Russian then carried this phenomenal momentum on the fresh set of Softs to catch the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc. He made a surprise move around the outside of Turn 9 and was up into P4. That’s 3 places made in one lap and only four more to go. Watch the onboard view of these awesome overtakes here:

However, Kvyat wasn’t the only centre of the action when the race restarted on Lap 58. Just behind him, Perez made his way past Albon through the exit of the second chicane which placed the Red Bull a bit wide. The Red Bull’s tail started to swing out wide and eventually spun as Alex lit up the rear tyres trying to catch it. This was a close moment for Carlos Sainz who was right behind the Red Bull when it spun but was able to brake quickly enough to avoid collision and stay in the race. Check out these amazing reflexes here:

Albon’s spin put him at the back of the grid and Red Bull out of the points. In the space of 9 laps, the team had gone from a P2 result to a 0 point result. It was the exact opposite for Mercedes as Lewis Hamilton crossed the finish line to victory at Imola and with Bottas in P2, the team secured their 7th Constructor’s World Championship title in a row, a new record in the history of F1. The two blacked-out silver arrows drove in formation till parc ferme to celebrate the team’s great achievement. 

For the rest of us, the cheers were louder for Daniel Ricciardo who had secured another podium finish! His second in the space of three races but sadly won’t lead to a second tattoo on team principal Cyril. The Aussie did not disappoint on the podium either and treated us to his iconic “shoey” celebration. It got even better when we saw Hamilton offering to join him and drink some out of Ricciardo’s other boot. The soon-to-be 7-time World Champion didn’t enjoy it as much as evidenced by his immediate change in expression but it was nice to see him participate. Relive the moment from the audience perspective in this clip below:

Even though AlphaTauri had to retire Gasly early on in the race, Kvyat was able to pick up the slack and get them a P4 result thanks to his blistering performance at the race restart. While Daniil is still not confirmed for 2021, it was a strong performance in his favour. Perez who is also without a seat for next year didn’t feel as thankful to his team as he crossed the chequered flag in P6, a potential podium lost due to the SC pit stop. Meanwhile, his teammate Lance Stroll finished P13 after starting 15th on the grid.

Charles Leclerc delivered another strong performance in the ailing SF1000 for a P5 result while teammate Seb Vettel was once again out of the points in P12. He managed to do 50 laps on his Hard tyres to make the most of his single-stop strategy while Seb pitted during the SC. Both McLaren drivers were able to finish in the points with Sainz in P7 and Norris in P8. However, Ricciardo’s podium not puts them a point behind Renault in the Constructor’s championship and tied with Racing Point. 

Alfa Romeo picked up the last points on offer with Kimi in P9 ahead of Giovinazzi in P10. It’s an especially strong result as the pair started 18th and 20th respectively. Both drivers put in impressively long stints on the Medium tyres, with Kimi doing 48 laps and Antonio doing 53 laps. Nicholas Latifi also came close to earning Williams their first point of the season but only managed to finish P11. Haas had retired Magnussen just a few laps before Max’s crash since he was complaining of severe headaches and Romain Grosjean finished the race in P14.

The pitlane celebrations continued for the Mercedes crew who seem simply unstoppable. They’ve worked hard every year to stay ahead of the rivals and thanks to a bit of luck as well, they’ve left their marks in the history books of the motorsport. It is only a matter of time before we see them celebrating Hamilton’s 7th world title as he is 85 points clear of teammate Bottas and 120 points clear of Verstappen. Based on the current trend of race results, Lewis will secure the Championship at the Turkish GP in less than two weeks. 

For Alex Albon, the Red Bull dream seems to be over after the poor showing in Imola. The question then remains, who does the team pick to replace him: Nico Hulkenberg or Sergio Perez? Share your thoughts on whom they should pick and why in the comments below. Donโ€™t forget to subscribe to the Auto Loons blog and follow us on Twitter & Instagram too (@autoloons).

Final race standings

  1. L. Hamilton Mercedes โ€” 1:28:32.430
  2. V. Bottas Mercedes +5.783
  3. D. Ricciardo Renault +14.320
  4. D. Kvyat AlphaTauri Honda +15.141
  5. C. Leclerc Ferrari +19.111
  6. S. Perez Racing Point BWT Mercedes +19.652
  7. C. Sainz McLaren Renault +20.230
  8. L. Norris McLaren Renault +21.131
  9. K. Rรคikkรถnen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +22.224
  10. A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +26.398
  11. N. Latifi Williams Racing Mercedes +27.135
  12. S. Vettel Ferrari +28.453
  13. L. Stroll Racing Point BWT Mercedes +29.163
  14. R. Grosjean Haas Ferrari +32.935
  15. A. Albon Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Honda +57.284
  16. G. Russell Williams Racing Mercedes DNF
  17. M. Verstappen Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Honda DNF
  18. K. Magnussen Haas Ferrari DNF
  19. E. Ocon Renault DNF
  20. P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda DNF

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