Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez delivered a Red Bull 1-2 around Ferrari’s home track as the Scuderia’s weekend fell apart.
From the outside of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix front row, Charles Leclerc was swamped by Perez and not at any stage was the Ferrari able to pierce even the Checo barrier, let alone that of runaway winner Verstappen.
This was probably aggravated by the absence of DRS for the first 33 laps of the inters/dry race. By the time it was enabled the tyres were past their best – and even then there was only one fully dry line into the overtaking spot of the Tamburello chicane at the end of the DRS zone.
Hence Leclerc wearing through his tyres and beginning to fall away and hence the gamble of a second stop which, after Perez had responded, got the Ferrari close enough to tempt Leclerc into pushing just a little too hard, spinning at Variante Alta after taking too much inner kerb in trying to get to the DRS detection line on Perez’s tail. A hit of the barrier required a stop for a new front wing – and from there all he could do was recover from ninth to sixth.
The other Ferrari? Carlos Sainz was spun out on the wet first lap by Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren, for which Ricciardo profusely apologised afterwards, taking time to visit the Ferrari garage as soon as the race was over.
Never having track position, it was difficult to call if the Ferrari was really any slower than the Red Bull this weekend. Pole between them had only been decided by a Leclerc lock-up and a cleaner Verstappen lap. Leclerc had then looked set for victory in the sprint race but opened out his right-front tyre having perhaps pushed too hard in the early stages when the fuel load was high, ensuring he was out of Verstappen’s DRS reach.
Verstappen’s pass on Leclerc with just over a lap to go of the sprint gave him the crucial advantage at the start on Sunday.
The wet track on the Leclerc/Sainz side of the grid on Sunday was way less grippy than that of the Verstappen/Perez side. So this time it was Leclerc’s turn to bog down a little off the line, allowing Verstappen to get away cleanly and Perez and Lando Norris’s McLaren to grind past.
The McLaren was dealt with quite quickly by Leclerc but that still involved eating into his tyres’ energy reserves. The necessarily attacking nature of Leclerc’s drive for the rest of the day ensured he used more of the tyres than the defending Perez.
Maybe the Ferrari was a little harder on the fronts than the Red Bull, but Mattia Binotto doesn’t believe so: “I think that was the case in the sprint race but not today. It was just the track position we were in.”
Did Verstappen believe his Red Bull – newly fitted with lighter parts, saving around 4kg – was genuinely quicker than the unchanged Ferrari here?
“Well [Leclerc] was pulling away from me yesterday… We brought upgrades but I don’t know how much that brought us. We were on top of everything better than in Australia and sometimes that’s more important than upgrades. We’ll see in the following races. I think we just did a better job today as a team. In the wet it can be a bit hit and miss.”
Within that framework, the dynamics of the race were dominated by the Perez blockade to Leclerc – despite the Ferrari briefly getting ahead at the first stop, only for Perez to reclaim the place with a bold off-line pass – thereby allowing Verstappen to ease away without stressing his tyres.
Even as Leclerc got a slipstream on Perez, the Red Bull was always fast enough to stay ahead. The Red Bull engine was deploying longer at this point than the Ferrari, which was clipping. This is just part of the respective power unit design choices made. It enables Leclerc to have advantages out of the corners, but that wasn’t of use to him in these particular circumstances.
All this dicing as Verstappen pulled away meant that as the potentially tricky changeover time from inters to slicks came, Verstappen had a comfortable 5.5s cushion to play with. From there on lap 19 onto the medium compound slicks, they could all have got to the end and most did so. The second stops for Red Bull were triggered only by Ferrari’s late attempt at resetting the tyre equation.
“It had got to a point where it was clear there was no opportunity any more for Charles to overtake Perez,” explained Binotto. “His pace was very similar. He wasn’t running out of tyres but he no longer had an advantage. We thought if we made the extra stop, it would make them pit Perez too – which they did – and in that way we would reset the tyre picture.”
That and the advantage of the one-lap undercut brought Leclerc to within sniffing distance with nine laps to go. All weekend his advantage over the Red Bulls had been at Variante Alta, the chicane at the top of the hill. Just after that is the DRS detection point for the pit straight, so he was looking to maximise all he could while he had the warmer rubber.
He just took too much inside kerb. It would maybe have worked with last year’s car but with the 2022 generation and their super-stiff, non-trick suspensions, there was no way. Around it went, thwacking the wing – and the tifosi groaned en masse.
That secured Norris a podium after a somewhat lonely race, half-a-minute behind at the flag. The Sainz/Ricciardo incident at Tamburello on lap one boosted George Russell’s Mercedes – another benefitting from the drier odd-numbered side of the grid to make up places off the line – up to an early sixth place from 11th on the grid, helped also by Valtteri Bottas being slowed by lightly hitting the spinning Ricciardo.
Once it got a few consecutive laps on its tyres, the Mercedes reverted to being a much better car than it had appeared to be in qualifying. Make no mistake, it’s still a long way off the frontrunning pace – further off at Imola than at any of the preceding three tracks as it needed to be raised on its suspension further – but it was capable of running at McLaren/Alfa Romeo pace, two cars which had comfortably outqualified it, and faster than Kevin Magnussen’s Haas which was initially running fifth. Russell and Bottas were both able to overtake the Haas – Bottas with a very committed move into Rivazza – even before the pitstops.
Magnussen then dropped another place through being undercut by Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin. Vettel had done a great job in wet qualifying and hung on in the sprint, made up places with his early call on pitting, got the tyres straight up to temperature when that wasn’t an easy thing to do and was generally faultless in delivering an eighth-place finish, passed late in the race by the AlphaTauri of a similarly immaculate Yuki Tsunoda. To add to Aston Martin’s satisfaction, Stroll took a point for 10th, with Magnussen’s Haas in between them.
In the other Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton – on the wetter even-numbered side of the grid – had a disastrous race. The gripless start put him back in 12th but without the straightline speed to pass Tsunoda. Having to brake to avoid Esteban Ocon’s unsafely released Alpine in the pitlane lost him further places and put him in a DRS train which was simply unbreakable. His second stint was spent following the other AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly who always had DRS from Alex Albon’s Williams ahead of him who in turn was in the DRS of Ocon, Stroll and Tsunoda ahead.
As Russell benefitted from the Leclerc spin – and further helped by a 9s delay at Bottas’s stop for a cross-threaded right-front – to finish fourth, Hamilton floundered in 13th. This was the cascading effect of the 0.381s difference in what was supposed to be their tyre-warming laps in Q2 but which they didn’t get to improve upon because of a red flag. It put Russell an odd-numbered 11th in the sprint race and Hamilton 14th and thus on the wet side for Sunday.
Russell was hampered in the second stint by the failure of the pit equipment which was supposed to adjust his front wing flap for the move to slicks but didn’t. Carrying an understeer balance, he was slower than the chasing Bottas and had to fend him off repeatedly into the Tamburello chicane. Bottas was ultimately thwarted by the track still being damp off line into the braking area. But given the obstacles placed in his way through the weekend, it was a great performance from Valtteri.
And a perfect one from Verstappen. “It seemed probably easy on the TV,” said the maximum points winner (including that for fastest lap), “but you still have to be focused, especially also with backmarkers. It’s easy when you’re off-line to lock up or go through a wet patch and go off track.”