The three-week hiatus since the Bahrain GP felt way too long. But the 2021 Imola GP definitely delivered on the build-up with an exciting Sunday and a satisfying result all around. The iconic Italian circuit returned to the F1 calendar in 2020 and has thankfully stayed on. But it’s still officially called the Emilia Romagna GP.

Red Bull was strong around the twisty Imola layout last year and Max Verstappen was the favourite to win heading into the GP in 2021. The Dutchman would also have the confidence of having a car closer to matching the pace of the Mercedes. Last year, Max DNFed in all three Italian rounds and the Red Bull driver would be keen to break the curse.

Qualifying became quite tricky as most drivers struggled to stay within track limits, especially on this older layout with smaller run-off areas around the corners. Many a lap time was deleted by drivers exceeding track limits with most incidents occurring around Turns 9, 13 and 15. However, there was an early red flag in Q1 when Yuki Tsunoda had a mid-speed crash on the exit of Turn 15, smashing the rear end of his AlphaTauri against the much stronger barrier. Carlos Sainz got eliminated in Q2 with the 11th fastest time, mistakes not allowing him to improve. While the fight for pole was expected to be the usual battle of Mercedes and Verstappen, Lando Norris was setting surprisingly quick times in the new Merc-powered McLaren.

The final qualifying results saw Lewis Hamilton claim pole position at Imola while teammate Valtteri Bottas qualified 8th fastest, unable to set a faster time without breaching track limits. A Red Bull would be lining up on the first row on Sunday but it would be driven by Sergio Perez. Max’s small mistake on his final flying lap cost him precious hundredths of a second and placed him third fastest. He would have been 4th fastest behind Norris had the McLaren driver’s time not been deleted due to exceeding track limits. This allowed Charles Leclerc to start on the second-row alongside Max. Pierre Gasly seems to have continued his form at Italian races from 2020 as he qualified 5th fastest, quicker than both McLarens with Daniel Ricciardo starting 6th and Norris 7th. The final Q3 runners were Esteban Ocon and Lance Stroll and were placed on the grid in that order.

Come Sunday, nearly all race strategies were rendered useless. It had rained. Rain clouds that were predicted to stay clear of the circuit before losing their water had decided to change the plans by showering the already tricky circuit, just ahead of the race. This meant all cars would start on wet weather tyres and all drivers but two opted for the intermediates. A couple of drivers went off even on the formation lap. A safety car in the first 5 laps was inevitable.

When the lights went green, the front row had a good start but Verstappen managed to pull off a brilliant one. He was alongside Hamilton right away, down the inside of the first chicane while the Brit blocked off Perez on his right. The two went in side by side but there was room for only one and Verstappen had the racing line, making contact with Hamilton as the Mercedes bounced over the kerbs. Red Bull was in the lead on the exit of the chicane and the No.44 Mercedes had minor damage to its front wing. Perez had backed off too early to avoid getting caught up and had Leclerc to deal with. Gasly on the full wets had braked early as well which allowed Ricciardo to pass him through the first chicane as well. Tsunoda, who was starting on the last row, was also able to make up a few positions in the first lap.

Further back, on Lap 1, Nicholas Latifi spun off on Turn 12. As he rejoined the circuit on the run-up towards Turn 14, he did not see Nikita Mazepin on his right (maybe blindsided by the spray from the wet track). The Haas driver was on the white edge (avoid wet grass to stay in control of RWD racecar) and had nowhere else to go when his front wheel clipped the rear end of the Williams and sending Latifi into the wall. This brought out the Safety Car right away. Given the wetness of the track, only a few felt the need to pit for fresh tyres. As drivers struggled to keep the temperature in their drivers under SC conditions, Mick Schumacher did a bit of a Grosjean when he lost control and planted his front end into the wall ahead of the pit-lane exit. Luckily, the damage was not terminal and he was able to turn the car the right way around and drive it back around to get it back to the pit since they were still lapping behind the SC. However, the debris from Mick’s incident forced them to close pit lane entry and extended the SC period by a couple of laps.

The racing action resumed on Lap 7 and Max managed to fend off Lewis into the first chicane before pulling away from the defending champion. After the poor start, Sergio had dropped off at the restart as well and found himself in P4, behind Charles. However, the Red Bull driver’s day got worse as he was handed a 10 second time penalty that he’ll have to serve when he makes his first pit stop. The reason? During the SC period, Perez had slid into the gravel and lost a couple of places in the process. When he returned to track, he overtook the two cars that had passed him to reclaim his place, like one would in a queue. That’s not allowed. Since Perez went off due to his own mistake, he’d lost those positions and as such the rule of ‘no overtaking behind the safety car’ applied in this case as well.

Hamilton was trying to stay within 5 seconds of Verstappen with a few battles going on in the middle order in the damp conditions. There was an ongoing debate about the possibility of more rain and nearly all teams were playing the waiting game to see who’d be the first to risk switching to slicks. Sebastian Vettel was the first one when he switched to the Mediums on Lap 21. But it was after Tsunoda switched after 25 laps that all others started pitting for slicks as the racing line had dried up.

Red Bull went for the undercut by pitting Verstappen on Lap 28 and Mercedes brought in Hamilton the following lap. However, a slightly slow stop for the Brit meant that he was behind the Dutchman once again. It was slower than Red Bull’s stop by just over 1 second. Various other contenders for point-scoring positions pitted around the same time as the leaders. Nearly all other point-scoring contenders pitted around the same time as the race leaders. Halfway through the 63 lap race, Max and Lewis were already lapping those in the top ten. As Hamilton went down the inside to pass George Rusell through Turn 7, he went onto the wet bit of the tarmac and ended up sliding off. The gravel slowed him enough to avoid a serious crash with the wall but he damaged his front wing anyway as he tried to drive out. After a long pause, he was able to reverse out and rejoin the race.

As Hamilton pitted to get fixed up, he ended up falling a lap behind Verstappen but still in the top 7. As the Brit rejoined the race, on Lap 32, there was a massive incident just behind him between George Russell and Valtteri Bottas.

Bottas had been struggling in the damp conditions yet again and was running in P9. He was being caught up by Russell who was having a strong run in P10. Both drivers had switched to the Medium slicks just a couple of laps ago. The 2019 F2 Champion had his DRS wing wide open as he chased the black Mercedes down the straight and seemed intent on passing it around the outside towards the Turn 2 chicane. Bottas saw the overtake coming and moved slightly to the right for a more defensive line. This little twitch from the Finn saw Russell place the right-side wheels of his FW43B on to the still-wet grass. The next thing we saw was the Williams car swinging sharply to the left, slightly airborne, its front wing smashing into the halo of the Mercedes alongside it. Since the incident happened at a spot where both cars were likely hitting their top speeds, the momentum carried them off into gravel with Valtteri taking a strong second hit as his car met the barrier at pace. This massive crash led to the session being red-flagged.

Both drivers walked away okay from the incident but left a strong image that suggested they blamed each other for this outcome: Russell slapping at Bottas’ car as the Finn flipped him off from inside his cockpit. There was much debate regarding who was at fault for this racing incident for the rest of the race and following days. Initial comments from George claiming that Valtteri had made an “aggressive” move specifically targeting him, were met with stern rebuke from both the Mercedes driver and team principal Toto Wolff. While many outlets and pundits saw the incident as a 50-50 mistake from both drivers, I maintain that Russell should take the majority of the blame as he was the aggressor and his mistake while overtaking (going onto the wet grass) led to the crash.

The red flag circumstance did bestow Mercedes with the opportunity of getting Hamilton back into podium contention. All cars were allowed to unlap themselves and change their tyres ahead of the rolling restart. The top 8 were as follows: Verstappen, Leclerc, Norris, Perez, Sainz, Ricciardo, Stroll and Hamilton. Max had a dicey moment just before the restart as he lost the rear end and nearly skidded off track but he managed to catch the spin in time. Norris, Perez and Ricciardo had switched to used Soft tyres while the rest of the front runners stuck with their Mediums and most had pitted just a few laps before the red flag incident. The racing resumed on Lap 35 out of 63.

Verstappen had another strong restart to keep the lead into the first chicane while Norris was able to pass Leclerc. With Perez in fourth, Red Bull Racing seemed like it could take the lead in the constructor’s championship that weekend. But a couple of laps later, Perez had a spin at the exit of the first chicane and found himself facing the wrong way in the gravel. He was able to rejoin but since it was soon after the race restart, the Mexican driver lost a lot of positions as a result. With over 20 laps to go, it was a downward slide for Checo who soon found himself outside the points.

By Lap 55, Hamilton made the pass on Leclerc down the main straight to reclaim P3. While Verstappen had a comfortable lead of over 16 seconds in the lead, the Mercedes driver was hunting the young McLaren driver. Norris’ Soft tyres had lost their advantage and he was trying his best to hold off Hamilton who was charging him on similarly aged Medium tyres. But the Mercedes was able to secure P2 using DRS down the main straight on Lap 60 of 63.

Max Verstappen claimed his first win of the 2021 season and his first Italian GP win as he crossed the finish line more than 20 seconds clear of Lewis Hamilton. Less than 2 seconds after, Lando Norris scored his second F1 podium as he crossed the line in P3. The youngster had been quick all weekend and credit to his strong result must be shared with his teammate who played along when he was asked to let Norris ahead to unleash his pace potential.

It was a strong result for Ferrari at Imola, as Leclerc and Sainz finished P4 and P5 respectively. This was representative of the improvements made by the team but the Scuderia are still a long way away from the pace of the front runners. Ricciardo’s P6 finish keeps McLaren third in the constructor’s while Pierre Gasly picked up valuable points in P7. The former Red Bull driver is hoping for a consistent, point-scoring season even though the AlphaTauri is not as strong in the mid-field battles thus far. While his teammate, Yuki Tsunoda, had a blistering performance at the season-opener in Bahrain, the young man’s inexperience was made visible as he struggled around Imola.

Lance scored the first championship points for Aston Martin’s return to F1 with a P8 result, despite a 5-second time penalty for exceeding track limits. Kimi Raikkonen crossed the finish in P9 but was handed a 30-second time penalty after the race for an infringement during the rolling restart. This placed both Alpine drivers in the points with Esteban Ocon ahead of Fernando Alonso. Sergio’s race ended in P12 with a P11 classification after Kimi’s penalty.

The sudden change in weather conditions allowed for a much more exciting race at Imola than expected. While Max did take a predicted race win, the pace of Perez is a clear indicator that Red Bull will have a two-pronged attack as they take on Mercedes in 2021. Hamilton did get the fastest lap when he had DRS to pass Norris which earned him an extra point to stay ahead of Verstappen in the driver’s standings. The incident between Bottas and Russell will likely be the first of many stories from within the Mercedes team this season as the Finn struggles for form and the Brit continues to improve.

There will be another two-week break in the action but hopefully, we’ll get another juicy race as F1 returns to the Algarve, to race around the rollercoaster that is Portimao. Stay tuned for more F1 updates and subscribe for plenty more automotive content.

Final race standings

  1. M. Verstappen Red Bull Racing Honda — 2:02:34.598
  2. L. Hamilton Mercedes +22.000
  3. L. Norris McLaren Mercedes +23.702
  4. C. Leclerc Ferrari +25.579
  5. C. Sainz Ferrari +27.036
  6. D. Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes +51.220
  7. P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda +52.818
  8. L. Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes +56.909
  9. E. Ocon Alpine Renault +65.704
  10. F. Alonso Alpine Renault +66.561
  11. S. Perez Red Bull Racing Honda +67.151
  12. Y. Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda +73.184
  13. K. Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +94.773
  14. A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +1 lap
  15. S. Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes DNF
  16. M. Schumacher Haas Ferrari +2 laps
  17. N. Mazepin Haas Ferrari +2 laps
  18. V. Bottas Mercedes DNF
  19. G. Russell Williams Mercedes DNF
  20. N. Latifi Williams Mercedes DNF

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