Mark Hughes: Verstappen and Hamilton swapped roles at Imola - The Race
Formula 1

Mark Hughes: Verstappen and Hamilton swapped roles at Imola

Apr 19 2021
By Mark Hughes

As befitting an old-school track, Imola’s 2021 Formula 1 race was a red meat sort of event.

Cars ridiculously quick for the circuit, a rain-soaked surface, a heavy accident which brought out the red flags but thankfully not the ambulances.

But through it all, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton continued the duel they began in Bahrain.

Apr 19 : Emilia Romagna Grand Prix review

This time it was almost a precise inversion of the opening round: Hamilton made the great pole lap, Verstappen the mistake and on race day it was Verstappen who was flawless in victory, Hamilton who over-reached. It was as if they’d swapped roles from three weeks ago.

Who knows how it may have played out had the rain not arrived about an hour before the start and maintained its presence until about 20 laps in. But instead of strategic intrigue and a straight comparison of performance, we got what we got, a more random and reactive event and within it Verstappen was flawlessly brilliant, totally in command apart from a couple of brief moments when the day might have got away from him.

Max Verstappen wins Imola 2021

Hamilton, after being beaten off the line by his adversary and coming out second-best in a territorial dispute at the first corner (breaking off the Mercedes’ left-hand front wing footplate), lost 6s to the flying Verstappen in the first 10 laps (once the race got going again after a lap one safety car for the crashing Nicholas Latifi).

The traits of the Mercedes’ tyre warm-up in cool conditions gave echoes of Istanbul 2020 here. It was first apparent when Valtteri Bottas could qualify only eighth, totally unable to get his tyres up to temperature on the first flying lap. So it was with the Mercedes’ inters on race day; it took a long time to get both front and rears into their working range.

But once they eventually got there, it was super-quick. So Hamilton, broken footplate and all, then began to chase Verstappen down, his tyres in better shape from not having been pressed hard while they were cold for all those laps.

Hamilton getting to within a couple of seconds came at a really awkward time for Verstappen, with the track on the cusp of inters and slicks. Pit too soon and Hamilton might run longer and jump ahead on his by-now grippy inters. But it had to be soon as his inters were wearing out – yet the track still wasn’t quite ready for slicks. Very tricky, the stress evident in Max’s voice as he answered his pitwall’s questions.

Red Bull called it about right, on lap 27 of 63. Hamilton came in a lap later, and suffered a 2s delay in the pits which might have cost him the lead. That and the slow warm-up meant he was 5s behind, before a gaggle of traffic – very costly around a one dry line Imola – badly delayed Verstappen and suddenly Hamilton was right there. There was a possible ambush in the air, Hamilton could sense it.

Here we saw the adventurous driver beneath the sheen that the super-fast Mercedes of the last few years have often hidden. The attacking, swashbuckler who is happier to back himself in ambition than settle for the safe option. This is the thrill of the Verstappen-Hamilton contest and their closely-matched cars, for in this respect they are wired up so similarly.

Lewis Hamilton off Imola F1 2021

But it was still wet off line into the braking area for Tosa as Hamilton sought to gain further time through the traffic. George Russell stayed hard right on the approach, inviting Hamilton through. The Mercedes dived for the inside but on the damp Hamilton couldn’t slow it enough and he ran agonisingly slowly through the gravel trap. He went a lap down as he manoeuvred his way out of there – and Verstappen was surely off the hook, no-one else even in the same race.

Except. Hamilton – and everyone else who’d been lapped – would end up getting the lap back. Because one lap later there was an enormous accident between Russell and Bottas on the run down to Tamburello. It brought out the safety car and subsequently the red flags.

So two Mercedes drivers had collided – not without some animosity afterwards either – at the exact moment required to rescue the remaining Mercedes driver’s race.

Had Russell not tried for the brave outside line on Bottas after getting a DRS run on him. Had Bottas not jinked slightly to discourage him. Had not Russell kept his foot in. All those things, then the Williams wouldn’t have got onto the wet line at 190mph and speared into the Mercedes before they both then crashed heavily into the wall.

Had that incident not played out at that exact time, Hamilton’s delay and limp back to the pits for a new front wing would have lost him any chance of a podium. As it was, the lapped cars were allowed to unlap themselves before the restart, putting him ninth on the rolling restart but with the cars ahead of him well within reach rather than a minute-and-a-half gone.

Max Verstappen Lewis Hamilton

Verstappen wouldn’t be troubled by Hamilton again, of course; he had comfortably enough pace to check out for the day, leaving a starring Lando Norris behind to fend off the Ferraris; this was the pack that Hamilton would quickly be up with and on which it was a relatively simple task to DRS his way back into second place. Which is probably where he would have finished anyway; he’d just done it in a more interesting way.

Much the same could be said of Norris’s third place for McLaren. He should have qualified third but for being 3cm outside the track limits on his Q3 lap. Instead he had to start seventh and fight his way back to his rightful place, which he did wonderfully well.

In contrast to his Verstappen-eclipsing Saturday and his place on the front row, Sergio Perez’s Sunday was one to forget. He lost a place down to turn 1, as Verstappen went from third into the lead, lost a further one on the exit of the Variante Alta chicane as he slid over the kerb and was zapped by Charles Leclerc.

Sergio Perez Red Bull Imola 2021

Perez would later slide wide again under the safety car and illegally repass two cars, gaining a 10s penalty and later yet, he’d spin almost to the back. Twelfth on a Red Bull victory day, he’d surely have wished that rain hadn’t fallen.

Fernando Alonso had gone off at Tosa on one of the reconnaissance laps and needed a new nose. Leclerc had almost crashed out on the formation lap at Acque Minerali but got going in time to take up his grid spot on the second row. It was wildly slippery out there.

Verstappen – after a flyer of a start – moved left of both Hamilton and Perez. Hamilton couldn’t cover them both and Verstappen, with his greater momentum, was already through. Hamilton then chose to sit it out around the outside of the left-handed part of the chicane and Verstappen simply ensured he took up all of the track width and Hamilton had to jump the Mercedes over the severe sausage kerbs to avoid a more serious hit with the Red Bull than a brief wheel-bang.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Max Verstappen Red Bull Imola 2021

The left-hand footplate departed the Mercedes’ front wing at this point. In going for Verstappen’s outside Hamilton had put himself at his rival’s mercy. It wasn’t surprising there wasn’t any there.

Norris had got a bit of wheelspin in fifth gear as he accelerated away, almost side-swiping McLaren team-mate Daniel Ricciardo. In the spray, he then made side-on contact with Lance Stroll which cost him a further place to Carlos Sainz Jr, who later had a moment all his own running off at Acqua Minerale, albeit without losing a place.

Behind Norris lay Bottas – the Mercedes just another car in the pack – Russell, the Alfa Romeos of Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi, Esteban Ocon – heading for the pits to exchange his wets for inters – and Yuki Tsunoda, who’d scythed past the wet-shod Haas pair and Latifi’s Williams.

Sebastian Vettel had started from the pitlane as the Aston needed repair work after setting its rear brakes alight (as had also happened to Stroll’s sister car). He’d later be given a 10s penalty for his crew still being on the grid beyond the permitted time.

The race came under the safety car towards the end of the lap for the Latifi accident. He’d slid off at the exit of Acque Minerali, got going again but in the spray didn’t realise Nikita Mazepin was to his right and he squeezed the Haas until they interlocked wheels, turning the Williams sharp right into the wall.

Mick Schumacher was weaving, trying to get some heat into his tyres behind the safety car when he lost it and crunched his front wing against the pit exit wall. He got going again and would eventually finish a lapped 16th, well clear of team mate Mazepin.

Mick Schumacher damage Haas Imola 2021

Racing got underway again at the end of the sixth lap and the rain continued to fall steadily. Verstappen fended off a slipstreaming Hamilton down to Tamburello then proceeded to pull out big chunks of time. He had the gap out to over 5s just four laps after the restart.

Hamilton in turn eased clear of Leclerc who was untroubled by Perez. Sergio in fact was suffering much the same tyre temperature problem as Bottas further back. He’d lost temperature in the rubber behind the safety car and just couldn’t get it back.

Ricciardo had no great pace with which to take advantage but initially the struggling wet-shod Pierre Gasly was keeping the others off his back. AlphaTauri was refusing to bail out of the choice, hoping that the rain might intensify.

Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri Lance Stroll Aston Martin Imola 2021

But Gasly soon became a mobile chicane and was picked off by Stroll, Sainz and Norris, running inches apart at 300km/h in the spray, with Norris then impressively passing both Stroll and Sainz to sit himself on team-mate Ricciardo’s gearbox. Soon he’d be asking to be let through.

Gasly finally surrendered on his strategy on the 14th lap and had a set of inters fitted. Sainz at this time was intermittently very fast but having off-track adventures that would lose him the time he’d just found, as he struggled to get used to the car’s braking feel on inters.

Hamilton’s tyres had finally begun to switch on around the 11th lap and he was matching Verstappen’s pace for the first time. Hamilton didn’t reckon he could feel any ill-effects from the missing footplate, though the team could see the effect from the pressure loadings. Mercedes reckoned there was the equivalent of 0.5s per lap penalty, though this lessened when the debris that had been hanging from the sensors finally broke free completely.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Imola 2021

Just as at Istanbul last year, those laps at the gentle pace the under-temperature tyres had imposed meant Hamilton’s rubber was not as worn as that of Verstappen and after about 20 laps this was posing something of a problem for Max.

It still wasn’t quite dry enough for slicks, yet his inters were wearing out and Hamilton was hunting him down. They were almost a pitstop’s-worth clear of third-placed Leclerc by this time but Mercedes didn’t want to apply the undercut to Verstappen, because that poor tyre warm-up would almost certainly see that fail. Instead, it wanted Verstappen to stop first so it could try to ‘overcut’ past. By lap 26 Hamilton was within 2s of the lead and closing fast. This was a period of high jeopardy for Red Bull.

Max Verstappen Red Bull Imola 2021

As the newly slick-shod Schumacher set a personal best sector time on the 27th lap, it was all the signal Red Bull needed and Verstappen was brought and fitted with a set of mediums.

Pretty much everyone else followed him in on this lap or the next. Hamilton gave it everything on his inters-shod in-lap – it was a full 1.3s faster than Verstappen’s had been – but there was a 2s delay at his stop.

On the grid, the carbon shrouds around the front brake discs had been altered to direct more heat into the tyres and the suspicion is the resultant heat expansion made the front-left a little sticky to remove. There was a wheel gun problem with the front-right.

Would it have made the difference? It would have been tight. Hamilton may just have emerged ahead thanks to that in-lap but on tyres that took a time to reach temperature he’d have had a fully on-song Verstappen bearing down fast.

As it was, the pit delay and slow warm-up ensured Hamilton was around 5.5s behind. But then Verstappen encountered that snake of five cars to be lapped at the worst possible place on the track – and just like that, half his gap over Hamilton was wiped out.

The Mercedes joined the tail of that queue as Verstappen negotiated his way through them. Max had just cleared the last of them as they began the 31st lap. Hamilton lapped Raikkonen up to the Villeneuve chicane. Next was Russell as they stormed down to Tosa.

Russell saw the blue flags, stayed hard-right. Hamilton dived down the inside, knowing it was still damp there, but determined to not surrender any of that time he’d just gained on Verstappen. He just couldn’t quite get it slowed in time, the slicks surrendered their grip on the damp surface and the Mercedes was in the gravel trap.

As he kept some momentum, he tried at the last moment to spin turn it but succeeded only in nosing the wing into the wall. It then took an age to select reverse, by which time he’d gone a lap down. He got going again with the broken wing trailing sparks.

As he did that, Russell had got DRS on Bottas as they flashed past the pits and was gaining fast. Where the track kinks left down to Tamburello Bottas was on the dry inside line and Russell went to pass on the right. The speed differential was big, the effect of the kink funnelled Russell into a closing gap.

Russell, sensing Bottas making the suggestion of a defensive move to the right, reacted, not knowing if the Mercedes was going to keep coming. As the Williams got its right-rear on the grass so it turned Russell sharp left, rearing partly over the Mercedes, the left-front wheel of the Williams striking the Mercedes’ halo-side-on. They each then cannoned off the bank.

It was an enormous accident. Once he could see that Bottas – still sitting in the wreck – was OK, Russell remonstrated angrily with him. The stewards later judged it a racing accident. Which is exactly what it was.

A safety car was swiftly replaced by a red flag as the quantity of debris was clearly going to take some clearing up. Everyone returned to the pits, repairs were made (including a new nose for Hamilton) and everyone was free to change tyres if they wished. McLaren opted to replace its mediums with softs on both cars, opting for instant warm-up and track position over endurance. Red Bull did the same with Perez.

There would be a rolling restart behind the safety car and in the meantime all those cars which had gone a lap down could first of all unlap themselves, just as they would under a safety car. Verstappen, Leclerc, Norris, Perez, Sainz and Ricciardo were on the lead lap. Stroll, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Tsunoda, Giovinazzi, Alonso, Ocon, Gasly, Vettel, Schumacher and Mazepin would line up behind them.

Raikkonen spun on the formation lap, got going again but couldn’t get back to his original place before the safety car’s lights went out, which later got him a 30s penalty. That was one easy place gain for Hamilton.

Verstappen came oh-so-close to losing the car entirely out of the first Rivazza as he was preparing to restart. He had one wheel still on the track as he rescued the moment – otherwise Leclerc could have legitimately passed him.

Max Verstappen off Imola 2021

He made a break for it, leaving Leclerc behind. Norris maximised the instant grip of his softs and got out of Rivazza better than the Ferrari, allowing him to slipstream up to second before Tamburello.

A few seconds later Tsunoda spun to the back on cold tyres there. A couple of laps later Perez did the same. One more easy place gain for Hamilton who was busy trying to pass Stroll, going past in a committed move into the chicane on the 39th lap.

Next in his sights, Ricciardo. Daniel had been having a difficult race. After letting Norris past under instruction he’d held his position but was lapping up to 1s slower than his team-mate. Like Alonso, Vettel, Sainz and Perez, he felt he was not in harmony with his new car. Hamilton zapped him under DRS on the 42nd lap.

Verstappen meanwhile was long gone. He pulled out up to 1s per lap on Norris who was keeping an eye on his mirrors which were filled with Ferrari red, Leclerc and Sainz matching his every move now that their mediums were working better than his softs.

Hamilton was with Sainz by the 49th lap and past him on the 50th. It would take a while to catch Leclerc because Charles was able to use the DRS in Norris’s wake. But it was inevitable he’d be picked off and the move came on lap 55.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Lando Norris McLaren Imola F1 2021

Norris played it perfectly as Hamilton gave chase, not making it easy but not slowing them down by defending too hard either. Hamilton took the place with three laps to go.

With the combined slipstream and DRS benefit of 0.8s Hamilton pressed on hard for the rest of the lap to ensure the point for fastest lap. Verstappen though was 20s up the road.

Hamilton leads the championship by the margin of that fastest lap point. But he has a battle on his hands.

Race Results

Pos Name Car Laps Laps Led Total Time Fastest Lap Pitstops Pts
1 Max Verstappen Red Bull-Honda 63 61 2h2m34.598s 1m17.524s 2 25
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 63 2 +22s 1m16.702s 4 19
3 Lando Norris McLaren-Mercedes 63 0 +23.702s 1m18.259s 2 15
4 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 63 0 +25.579s 1m18.379s 2 12
5 Carlos Sainz Jr. Ferrari 63 0 +27.036s 1m18.49s 2 10
6 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren-Mercedes 63 0 +51.22s 1m19.341s 2 8
7 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri-Honda 63 0 +52.818s 1m18.782s 4 6
8 Lance Stroll Aston Martin-Mercedes 63 0 +56.909s 1m18.994s 3 4
9 Esteban Ocon Alpine-Renault 63 0 +1m05.704s 1m19.417s 5 2
10 Fernando Alonso Alpine-Renault 63 0 +1m06.561s 1m19.396s 3 1
11 Sergio Pérez Red Bull-Honda 63 0 +1m07.151s 1m18.334s 2 0
12 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri-Honda 63 0 +1m13.184s 1m18.353s 3 0
13 Kimi Räikkönen Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 63 0 +1m34.773s 1m19.422s 3 0
14 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 62 0 +1 lap 1m19.47s 4 0
15 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin-Mercedes 62 0 +1 lap 1m19.074s 6 0
16 Mick Schumacher Haas-Ferrari 61 0 +2 laps 1m19.193s 4 0
17 Nikita Mazepin Haas-Ferrari 61 0 +2 laps 1m20.402s 4 0
Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 30 0 DNF 1m28.485s 1 0
George Russell Williams-Mercedes 30 0 DNF 1m26.543s 1 0
Nicholas Latifi Williams-Mercedes 1 0 DNF 0s 0 0

Driver Standings

Pos Driver Team Points R1 R2 R3 R4 R5 R6 R7 R8 R9 R10 R11 R12 R13 R14 R15 R17 R18 R19 R20 R21 R22 R23
1 Max Verstappen Red Bull Racing 105 18 25 18 19 25 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team 101 25 19 25 25 7 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
3 Sergio Pérez Red Bull Racing 69 10 0 12 10 12 25 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
4 Lando Norris McLaren F1 Team 66 12 15 10 4 15 10 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
5 Charles Leclerc Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow 52 8 12 8 12 0 12 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
6 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team 47 16 0 16 15 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
7 Carlos Sainz Jr. Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow 42 4 10 0 6 18 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
8 Pierre Gasly Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda 31 0 6 1 1 8 15 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
9 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One Team 28 0 0 0 0 10 18 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
10 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren F1 Team 26 6 8 2 8 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
11 Esteban Ocon Alpine F1 Team 12 0 2 6 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
12 Lance Stroll Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One Team 9 1 4 0 0 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
13 Yuki Tsunoda Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda 8 2 0 0 0 0 6 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
14 Fernando Alonso Alpine F1 Team 5 0 1 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
15 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
16 Kimi Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
17 George Russell Williams Racing 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
18 Mick Schumacher Uralkali Haas F1 Team 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
19 Nikita Mazepin Uralkali Haas F1 Team 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
20 Nicholas Latifi Williams Racing 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Team Standings

Pos Team Points R1 R2 R3 R4 R5 R6 R7 R8 R9 R10 R11 R12 R13 R14 R15 R17 R18 R19 R20 R21 R22 R23
1 Red Bull Racing 174 28 25 30 29 37 25 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2 Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team 148 41 19 41 40 7 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
3 Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow 94 12 22 8 18 18 16 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
4 McLaren F1 Team 92 18 23 12 12 15 12 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
5 Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda 39 2 6 1 1 8 21 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
6 Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One Team 37 1 4 0 0 14 18 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
7 Alpine F1 Team 25 0 3 10 2 2 8 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
8 Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN 2 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
9 Williams Racing 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
10 Uralkali Haas F1 Team 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

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