One Grand Prix down, 22 (hopefully) to go, and let’s hope they are all as good as this one! The result might seem very familiar with a Mercedes driver winning ahead of a Red Bull, although strangely this is the first time since 2015 that Lewis Hamilton has won the first race of the season.
But what matters is this was a genuine two-horse race at the front with the two best drivers currently in F1 driving the two best cars doing all the entertaining. It’s probably the first time the TV director hasn’t had to search through the midfield to find something of interest to show. But most importantly, this appears to be the shape of things to come with the possibility of a whole season of this.
The race was decided by Hamilton just being able to hold on using hard-compound Pirelli’s 11 laps older than Max Verstappen’s. If you are going to pass someone, you need to do it quickly and Verstappen didn’t.
You can’t afford to hang around attempting it for lap after lap because your tyres will overheat from sliding around. As the late, great Murray Walker would have said, ‘catching in one thing, passing another’.
It was true when he was in charge of the microphone and it’s still true. As we know, very little in F1 changes, as we have just witnessed with Hamilton winning with. Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas standing on the podium beside him.
But it was interesting to see how the change in the pressure affected the teams. Mercedes this time was the chaser, making the aggressive move to undercut at the first opportunity with little to lose while Red Bull tried to hang on.
Mercedes won out this time, although we saw that pressure impact it at Bottas’s second pit stop when they had troubles getting the right-front off cost him about nine seconds. That was at a point where Mercedes wanted to use him to force Verstappen to stop earlier and wasting that chance weakened its chances. Mistakes can be very costly in the kind of title fight we are looking at.
But Red Bull put a lot of pressure on Verstappen with its strategy. It was always going to be difficult to pull back that deficit to Hamilton, so the team needs to not only be able to pull off quick pitstops, they need to think a little more about their strategy decisions.
Next time Verstappen is in this situation, will Red Bull bring him in earlier to guard against the undercut? And if so, although it would have worked this time, will it in another race situation? The pressure of leading is a very different one.
BATTLE OF THE NUMBER TWOS
The second drivers at Mercedes and Red Bull also have a bigger part to play. Bottas got a better result than Sergio Perez with third place plus the point for fastest lap, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Bottas normally starts the season very strongly, but for some reason, he hasn’t this year. Yes, he had the slow pitstop, but that didn’t make up for his huge deficit to the front two. He had already lost time in the first stint and spent to much time behind Charles Leclerc early on.
Mercedes would have expected a lot more from him even though he outscored Perez. Remember, Perez qualified poorly but after stopping on the formation lap and starting from the pits, fifth place was an excellent result for him on his first outing for Red Bull which is a car it has to be said is fairly difficult for any driver to adapt to easily.
What I really like about Perez’s drive was he just got on with it, passing cars and never getting stuck for long. That’s very different from what we often see from Bottas and I think that could give Red Bull an extra edge in this title fight.
TIME TO END TRACK LIMITS NONSENSE
There’s been a lot said about track limits in the past and this race was no exception. The time has come to simply state that some part of the car has to stay on the black stuff. If you can see the white line on the inside of the car, then a time penalty is immediately added.
Something like one second per infringement would very quickly put the drivers off using the runoff area in both qualifying and the race. You’d be amazed how precise the best drivers in the world are when they have to be.
To reduce confusion for the enthusiasts and fans watching at home, the monitored times would need to show this time penalty immediately and could show the number of times each driver has abused the limits.
The on-track action might not match the on-track race position, for qualifying it could be added immediately to the lap time but it would be real, the current penalty in qualifying is a delegated lap time. Currently, when a driver has a five-second penalty in the race you have to do your own maths as to where they are actually running or might finish depending on what the pitstop situation is.
In the race, both Hamilton and Bottas did this for the first few laps and it gained them a little bit of time. All the drivers will agree that it was quicker to go wide at Turn 4, so if it was a tenth of a second per lap doing it 10 times in the race gains you a second. But it also means less load on the tyres, so overall you gain that little bit more or it allows you to do one lap more on that stint.
While Verstappen allowing Hamilton past after he ran wide was the correct thing to do as the rules stand, I also think that he was at least half a car ahead of Hamilton before he ran wide.
I’m sure Hamilton didn’t try too hard to allow Verstappen a car’s width on the exit of the corner, which I believe the rules also require a driver to do. If Verstappen had been able to hold his line and not run wide, would they have collided or could Hamilton have tightened up his line to allow room?
We will never know the answer to that but it’s a very similar situation to Hamilton and Albon at the Red Bull Ring in last year’s Austrian Grand Prix. Again, it was at Turn 4 but the penalty that time was five seconds for Hamilton after Albon spun following contact, to me this was the same except Verstappen did the right thing by avoiding contact but Hamilton didn’t get a five-second penalty when simply did the same thing and allowed his car to run as wide as the track limits allow leaving no room for Verstappen.
Enough said about all that, other than we all want to see consistency from the race officials and that is not what we get. There needs to be a clear rule everyone understands rather than constant changes, clarifications and inconsistency.
As far as all the other eight teams were concerned, some had a good weekend, some an OK weekend and some a poor weekend.
McLaren showed it is at the top of the midfield in race pace but with a little more to find in qualifying. Ferrari was the opposite, with Charles Leclerc fourth with a brilliant qualifying lap but fading to sixth. Perhaps Ferrari needs to back the engine off a bit too much in the race. AlphaTauri is also in that front of midfield group and has a quick car, but ultimately underachieved.
The Alpine, at least in Fernando Alonso’s hand, showed a reasonable turn of pace. A little bit more needs to be found but he was able to make Q3 and would have scored a few points if not for a brake duct blockage that overheated the rear brakes, so at least they are going to be in that midfield battle.
Further back, Alfa Romeo like Ferrari faded perhaps for the same reason. Williams also made little impression on Sunday after George Russell did a good job to make Q2 on Sunday, but we will see if that car really is better as expected at Imola.
Aston Martin did not look like the Racing Point team of last year and Sebastian Vettel still doesn’t look at home in the car. It’s difficult to say what that is, as when it comes to drivers adapting to new cars we can see that Carlos Sainz, Daniel Ricciardo, Yuki Tsunoda and Mick Schumacher have all got in and got on with it. You can say the same for Perez, certainly on race pace, although for him the stakes are a bit higher.
But Vettel seems to want to find the excuse. I was also very disappointed when he came on the radio complaining about Esteban Ocon coming across in front of him when it was clear to see for the millions watching he was the one that tucked in behind Ocon, lost downforce and drop kicked the Alpine.
The team also needs to accept that the new aerodynamic rules might not suit them as much as the higher rake cars. Mercedes is probably suffering the same problems but is showing it can find a workaround. Aston Martin needs to do the same because regulation changes and adapting to them is the challenge for every team.
There’s little to say about Haas except it went through the motions. Schumacher did OK but Nikita Mazepin looks like he is out of his depth.
It will take three or four races before we see the true picture and the real impact of these regulation changes. What we believe currently is that these changes suit the high rake concept just that little bit better than low rake cars, but that will get blurred as we go to different circuits with different requirements and also as teams add a few widgets here and there.
We will then see who has the best overall package and a true performance order over a run of events.
If they can all be as good as this first one with perhaps a couple more cars joining in that battle at the front then it’s going to be an exciting year.