Image: Wikimedia Commons / Governo do Estado de São Paulo
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Governo do Estado de São Paulo

Max Verstappen wins incident-packed race at Imola

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen stormed to victory at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, keeping his cool in the face of wet weather, crashes, smashes and an unusual error by Lewis Hamilton.

Hamilton managed second place, an impressive recovery after winding up in the gravel track halfway through the race. His incredible placing, coupled with a bonus point for fastest lap, keeps him top of the drivers’ championship by a single point. Lando Norris took an impressive third for McLaren despite car issues in the final laps, and the top five was rounded out by Ferrari – Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz in fourth and fifth respectively.

The race began in wet conditions, and all the cars were struggling – Nicholas Latifi sadly couldn’t complete a lap, crashing on the opening. A safety car period followed, and one came soon after for Mick Schumacher, with racing only really beginning on lap six. For Verstappen and Hamilton, though, it was straight off the line – a poor start cost the Mercedes driver his pole position, and the pair touched during the battle. As the track dried in places and remained wet in others, it seemed as if this may be a tyre battle – Verstappen and Hamilton responded to changing track conditions with pit stops in laps 28 and 29 respectively.

It was lap 31 where things really changed, however. Hamilton tried to overtake Verstappen, and wound up in the gravel, crunching his front wing in the process. He returned to the track in ninth, unaware that potential salvation would come at the cost of his teammate. George Russell attempted to overtake Valtteri Bottas, and collided with him. The accident was huge, leaving debris all over the track and forcing a red flag. Bad news for half of the Mercedes team, but it gave Hamilton a chance to sort out his own car and mount his impressive comeback.

The big incident was the Bottas-Russell clash … neither man believed he was in the wrong

Verstappen remained on top, opening up a solid lead and eventually winning 22 seconds ahead of his rival. Hamilton showed some grit, climbing back through the pack and overtaking the second-place Norris who reported “vibrations” in his car with three laps to go. His shot at the win vanished when he crashed, but the second-place finish was an impressive one, and deserving of kudos.

The big incident was the Bottas-Russell clash – it was heated between the two men as they got out of their cars, swearing at each other, and it was clear that neither man believed he was in the wrong. At the time of writing, stewards are investigating the incident – the general consensus among the commentariat is that Russell was at fault, executing a dangerous overtake in wet conditions, but we’ll wait and see what is said.

After the race, Verstappen said: “It was very challenging out there especially in the beginning. It was very hard to stay on track. With tyres degrading in the wet, to choose the right moment to go to slicks is never easy. I had a little moment with my restart but everything else went well today. I surprised myself. We worked really hard to make that better. In these tricky conditions we did a great job.”

Hamilton said: “First off, congrats to Max, he did a great job. Solid work from him. And also to Lando. What an awesome job and so good to see McLaren back up there. On my side, it wasn’t the greatest of days. [It’s the] first time I’ve made a mistake in a long time, but I’m grateful I could bring the car home.”

Norris said: “I am happy. A nice recovery after yesterday. It was a long race – a tough one. I didn’t start so well. I tried hanging onto second but Lewis was a bit too quick. It is nice to be fighting these guys. Nice to be here on merit. Hopefully we can be again in the future. I am happy with third. I am not disappointed.”

When I predicted an event-filled race at Imola, I never expected quite this much

It’s a weekend off for the racers before we head to Portugal and, on the strength of these the first two races of the season, anything could happen. Hamilton had a brilliant win there last year, but I get the feeling that this year may be slightly different.

By the time the red flag went up halfway through this race, it already felt like enough had happened for a championship – overtakes, wet conditions, racing, crashes, disputes, I could go on. When I predicted an event-filled race at Imola, I never expected quite this much.

There’s a lot to talk about but, as my report indicates, there were two key stories. Lewis Hamilton, the master of the wet, ran foul on a wet track and took himself out of contention for a win in the process. It was some brilliant driving to make a comeback to second, yet almost disappointingly easy in places – it’s clear that Verstappen in the Red Bull is Hamilton’s only real competition, slightly tempering the excitement when they were separate.

Something with longer ramifications, though, is the incident between Bottas and Russell. At its most basic, it was a high-speed crash between two drivers in wet conditions – it’s fortunate that nothing was hurt but the drivers’ pride. It will be ruled on and punishments will be distributed if necessary, but it’s hard to ignore the significance of this battle. Bottas is on a one-year contract with Mercedes, and Russell is being lined up for a potential seat in the future, so they both need to prove themselves. A poor qualifying run put Bottas near to Russell, and led to this crash. Although the Hamilton-Verstappen rivalry is the headline ticket, keep your eyes on how this rivalry develops too, because it may be significant in 2022.

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