The Emilia Romagna Grand Prix had so many flashpoints that one was ultimately overshadowed, despite being both race-defining and symbolic of the titanic Formula 1 title battle on offer.
With grip at a premium, the wheel-to-wheel fight between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton for the lead at the start at Imola was a show of two unbelievably talented drivers right on the limit in a potentially make-or-break moment of the race, neither wanting to yield, both walking a tightrope as they braked as late as possible in tough conditions.
And Verstappen won that scrap. Revenge for coming out second-best in Bahrain. The scoreboard now reads 1-1. So, bring on round three in Portugal.
Everything that happened afterwards – Hamilton going off at Tosa, the huge Valtteri Bottas-George Russell crash and fall-out, Verstappen’s near-disaster just before restarting after the red flag, Hamilton’s recovery charge to second – took attention away from how such an entertaining race began: with a huge statement of intent from Verstappen.
Verstappen had a great launch and dipped his left-side wheels onto the grass as he snuck inside Hamilton on the blast to Tamburello. It was a bold move given how wet it was – easy for him to get pulled off-track, or maybe even snap sideways like Russell would later on – but Hamilton gave him racing room and that handed Verstappen the inside line under braking.
Some will probably believe Verstappen was wrong in what followed, and crowded Hamilton out unfairly. The stewards judged it correctly: not even worth investigating. It was an on-the-limit first-corner dice with Hamilton being prepared to die by the sword by toughing it out around the outside. Some you win, some you lose. Verstappen won and Hamilton lost.
It wasn’t a stunning, last-gasp dive or act of bullying like the one Verstappen pulled on Charles Leclerc to win the 2019 Austrian Grand Prix but in the context of this ultra-tight Red Bull/Mercedes battle it seemed symbolic that Verstappen was able to mug Hamilton before going on to win the race and even the score, even though Hamilton retained the championship lead by virtue of a fastest lap point.
Hamilton doesn’t need many reminders how fierce an opponent his title rival is, but he got one anyway.
“I had a good launch so I was just gaining speed, speed, speed but then it’s a bit difficult to judge your braking point, with the cold tyres, you don’t want to out-brake yourself because this track with all the gravel around and stuff, it’s easy to damage your car,” said Verstappen.
“We went into Turn 2 of course side-by-side but it’s difficult to expect the grip on the first lap. I also ended up a bit wider than I wanted and then Lewis was also there, then I saw Lewis had to go over [the yellow sausage kerbs].”
The exchange that preceded these remarks from Verstappen was amusing, as he insisted he was not even aware they’d made contact. Hamilton had been annoyed in the moment but was later simply relieved he’d even salvaged second after spending what felt like “minutes” in the Tosa gravel.
There was still a shade of lingering frustration though, even if Hamilton was mostly all-smiles.
MV: I don’t think we touched.
LH: We did. We did.
MV: We touched?
MV: I need to see the video then.
LH: I think my endplate got damaged. I don’t know exactly.
MV: Alright. I didn’t think we touched so I don’t know. I need to watch the video again.
Hamilton’s view of that battle was as follows: “I didn’t get a good start. Max got a better start than me and then I think I was slightly ahead going into Turn 2 but I was basically avoiding us coming together.
“Max was just coming and coming and coming across.
“Of course, we had that touch and I had to use the run-off, take those big kerbs. I’m grateful I just got through it and didn’t damage much more than the endplate.”
It was pretty clear Hamilton harbours no ill-feeling towards Verstappen and there was certainly no indication he viewed it as anything worse than hard racing. Maybe he knew he’d just been outmuscled, or that the damage had already been done once Verstappen got alongside him so holding it round the outside was more a forlorn attempt to hang on rather than done with the expectation he’d retain the lead.
Whatever the case, it was still a greater spectacle between two title protagonists than we’ve seen for a long time. And a much better image for the championship fight than Verstappen passing Hamilton off-track in Bahrain or having to slow to let him back through.
This is more of what we want to see and in a quieter race, it could have become the iconic Imola image.
Who knows, the light contact and Hamilton’s trip over the kerb, picking up that front wing damage in the process, might even have been a contentious talking point.
Verstappen’s too reasoned to say it was anything more than ‘a moment in a race he was able to win’ and pull back some points in a very long season. But he’ll take a lot of pleasure in getting one over on Hamilton.
“It’s great to be fighting against Lewis, Mercedes who as a team have been so dominant and they’re very difficult to beat,” he admitted.
“So, to be able to sit here now [knowing] two races in a row we were very, very competitive – that’s very promising, but there are no guarantees.”
That’s because Verstappen knows the calibre of driver he’s up against. So too does Hamilton. So none of this means that Hamilton’s cracked, or Verstappen’s under his skin, or he’s exposed him or anything like that.
It just means Verstappen did something that proves he can be Hamilton’s equal – if not more.
Verstappen held firm at the end of the first stint when Hamilton started to come back at him, and nailed his out-lap on slicks when the track was still difficult to retain the lead. Then it was Hamilton who erred in traffic, not Verstappen.
Sure, he was lucky not to be punished when he lost the rear warming his tyres just before the restart after the red flag, and maybe the subject of this column would be rather different if he had. But he composed himself thereafter and bolted clear to a big winning margin as Hamilton worked his way back through to second.
So while there were some uncertain moments in between forcing his way past Hamilton and taking the chequered flag, this was a strong statement victory for Verstappen.
And the best thing for F1 and its fans is that Hamilton will take that, and his error during the race, as motivation to come out swinging next time and avenge his own defeat.
“I’m excited for the battle,” said Hamilton. “I think this is really the first time in a long time that Red Bull have had a championship-winning car, so I think it’s going to be close all the way through the year.
“It’s just going to be, hopefully, more and more of these battles.”
That’s a sentiment anyone who watched Sunday’s race will surely share.