Verstappen wins a wet and wild Imola Grand Prix

When race day finally comes, and precipitation fills the air, Formula One fans know that excitement in just over the horizon.

As the rain gently fell over the beautifully scenic Imola circuit, some forty kilometers away from the Bologna district of Italy, the woes of the impending forecast had different implications for each of the ten competing teams. For some, like seven-time and defending World champion Lewis Hamilton and the supremely talented young thoroughbred Max Verstappen, the period leading up to lights out is one of focus and meditation. For others, like the former four-time World champion Sebastian Vettel, it is a stressful period ripe with frustration.

It is safe to say that the early going for Vettel at his new team has been a tumultuous period. And Aston Martin’s gremlins have yet to be ironed out. Both their entries, those of Vettel and teammate Lance Stroll had issues early Sunday, with break issues. Meaning that last-minute repairs had to be effectuated and for Vettel, meaning he would have to start last, from pit lane. A drop of seven places from his qualifying position of thirteenth. Young Canadian Stroll started in tenth position, once more qualifying ahead of the former champion.

Aston Martin weren’t the only team to endure difficulties before the race had even began, as Sunday was proving to be a difficult day for many – a feeling that would ultimately be the ambiance of the entire day. Both Fernando Alonso and Charles Leclerc had pre-race excursions across the Italian countryside, and both were lucky to drive away unscathed in the process. Even in dry conditions, the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix was causing headaches for most during difficult practice and qualifying sessions. Especially the packs least experienced drivers. Nikita Mazepin  found himself in a crash once again in practice, and Yuki Tsunoda too found himself in trouble, crashing out of qualifying before putting up a time.

Ultimately, the king of all things Formula One, Lewis Hamilton emerged on top once again – earning himself an impressive ninety-ninth pole position. Behind him, though, sat both the Red Bull’s, with Sergio Perez taking a career high second spot on qualifying. Verstappen third while Charles Leclerc sat fourth at the track named after his scarlet Scuderia Ferrari. Pierre Gasly was an impressive fifth, ahead of the McLaren duo of Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris. Valtteri Bottas found himself constantly fighting the track, and wound up in eighth position. Imola proved once more to be a wild beast to tame, at the lights had yet to go out.

Lights Out!

Under wet conditions, most opted to kick off the Grand Prix on intermediate tires – Gasly though, started his campaign off on full wet tires and quickly lived to regret that decision. Once the lights had finally been turning off, Verstappen began to show his brilliance with a quick and clean getaway. He and Perez were instantly all over the defending Hamilton, charging hard into the opening corner of the race, and with how close the Red Bull cars have been to the mighty Silver Arrows so far in this fresh new Formula One season, there was never going to be any quarter given by any of the three main protagonists. Verstappen pressed Hamilton hard, pulling out ever so slightly ahead of the Britton who rapidly ran out of track upon which to drive, and was forced to either yield his spot to Verstappen, or face the unforgiving apex. He chose the curb and suffered a damaged wing and front plate, but worse still, he sat helplessly as Verstappen took lead of the race.

Behind them, Leclerc, perhaps feeling the pressure to perform for the Italian fans who peered into the empty stadium from balconies and rooftops, scorched his way past Perez and into third position. Norris exchanged rubber with Stroll, while Nicholas Latifi slid off track and by means that only he knows about, survived taking any damage – only to return to the track in time to be hit by the struggling Mazepin. Amidst an explosion of debris, Lattifi’s day was done, Mazepin was once again driving damaged, and a safety car was deployed while the race stewards gathered up the wrecked William’s and swept up all the shards of carbon fiber bodywork.

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Radio communications between drivers and their engineers indicated that the safety  car was travelling at too slight a speed, and the pilots complained bitterly that they were unable to keep heat in their tires. The wet surface most definitely accounted for the reduced pace of the safety car, and then Mick Schumacher gave proof to the issue of cooling tires as he lost control of his Haas and smashed into the wall of the pit exit, leaving his nose behind as he struggled around the track. His incident couldn’t have come at a worse spot on the circuit, as he now had to make his way fully around the course before pitting – and once he had, found that the pit lane was closed and he now had to drive his damaged car around for a second embarrassing parade. Haas’ woes continued on.

Young Schumacher wasn’t the only casualty of the safety car, as Sergio Perez also found himself veering off track for a bumpy ride through the grass. Loosing two grid spots in the process, then in a shocking error, retook those two places, which is not permitted under safety car presence. An illegal move, and one that the stewards had taken note of. Surely, he would be awarded a penalty for this mistake – the only question being what that punishment might be. What had began so well for Perez was rapidly disintegrating before our eyes.

On lap seven, the safety car left the circuit and racing resumed. Still wet and still under treacherous conditions, on they charged. Hard charging Hamilton put pressure on Verstappen for the lead, but the Dutchmen showed great poise in holding off his main rival. Further back, Norris was having better luck in his pursuit of Gasly, the latter’s poor  tire choice now becoming evident. After a brief battle, Norris was ahead, with Gasly giving it his all to fight back. Those wet tires though were now an issue, as they began anchoring Gasly with a slew of vehicles now bunched up behind him, waiting for their chance to pounce. One by one then did, as Gasly fell down the pecking order and found himself watching his rookie teammate, Tsunoda, whizz past him. Free-falling down to fourteenth spot.

A pair of off-track excursions for Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz was making for a miserable day, but Perez was about to have his troubles extended, as the stewards slapping him with a ten second time penalty that he would have to serve when next he entered the pits, for retaking those two positions he had lost under the safety car. Meanwhile, the suffering of Gasly appeared to have come to its conclusion, as the Frenchman finally was able to have a set of intermediate tires fitted to his car. Starting the race in fourth, he was now running all the way down in seventeenth position. Mon dieu.

Under team orders, Ricciardo moves aside to allow Norris through in pursuit of clean air. While Vettel becomes the first to boldly try out a set of slick tires on a not fully dried circuit. A risky bit of business but the sort move that sets champions apart. Before he can find out if his gamble will pay dividends or not, though, he too faces the wrath of the stewards and is also given a ten second penalty for not having wheels attached to his car close enough to the start of the race. When it rains, it pours. His sixteenth place now surely in jeopardy.

It is now a cat and mouse game, with the track beginning to dry out. Who will opt for the risky slicks and who will attempt to eek out a few extra laps on intermediate tires. As they’ve worn away they treads, the intermediates are now acting more like racing slicks, and this is something we have seen Hamilton excel on in past races. Hamilton is indeed gaining on Verstappen at quite a click, and should be a position to challenge him again before long.

Tsunoda becomes the second driver to slap on a set of slicks, and now the rush to pit lane has begun. Like in any aspect of life, racing is replete with trends and Verstappen is a fashionista. He has a fresh set of slicks fitted while several others, including Hamilton, decide to stay out to try and gain time. The following go-around, Hamilton too enters the pits for fresh rubber, but his stop is an agonizingly slow one. Four full seconds, an eternity in modern Formula One racing. This enables Verstappen to retain his lead. Meanwhile, Vettel’s veteran decision has paid off and he sets the races fastest lap to date. He’s still down in seventeenth, but he is catching rivals at a solid pace now.

For Hamilton though, things are about to become much more challenging. While lapping George Russell, Hamilton slides off into the sand and grazes the wall. How he manages to contain his composure here is the mark of a true champion. Most would have slammed the gas pedal, burying themselves in the sand in the process – but not Hamilton. Like a sly old fox, he reverses out of the sand, and continues on. Wounded and out of position but alive to continue the fight. What he needs most now is a helping hand. A safety car or something along those lines – and he is about to get it.

Russell, just down the road, has seen an opportunity to usurp a place over the other Mercedes. He veers left at just over three hundred kilometers an hour, but Bottas too is veering left, spooking Russell, who has gone off course just enough to clip the sodden grass, sending him slideways and into Bottas. It is a colossal collision. Both cars are sent hurdling into the wall. The impact for both is severe, as they bounce off the barriers and spin helplessly across the lawn. Debris litters the air and the track. Somehow Kimi Raikkonen and Mazepin make their way through the fluttering car parts without drama, but for Russell and Bottas, the race is terminated.

Russell is first to climb out of the smoldering wreckage that was his Williams, and he makes his way over to Bottas. Learning in for what appear to be strong words, before a slap across the helmet of the bewildered Finn. Whether or not the words are coarse or kind, whether the slap is playful or out of anger, is known only to these two stranded men. The Mercedes wearing as much, if not more damage than the Williams. Parts litter the scene. Bottas is now out of the car, slumped over by the wall and looking dazed and confused. He’ll require a lift from the medical team. Winded, but otherwise unscathed. Red flags are waived, as clean up crews, like the stewards, have their work cut out for them.

It’ll be some time before racing resumes. Hamilton looks distressed, knowing that he has made a mistake. Something that has been a real rarity throughout his career. He will restart the race in ninth place, but he and the other lapped cars will now once again be on the same lap as the rest of the grid, and the distance that separates him from the front of the pack at a minimum. Hamilton couldn’t have hoped for a better chance than this. He will undoubtedly be hard on himself his his error, but his champion heart beats with high octane fuel, and when the times comes to clamber back into the cockpit, this lion will be ready to roar once more.

With thirty-four of sixty-three laps run, Hamilton is going to have to battle hard to catch the race leading Max Verstappen. The wet and wild Imola though, has more tricks tucked up its sleeve yet. Rookie Tsunoda had been in the midst of a strong charge up the field, until he went off, and dropped from tenth back down to fifteenth. In just two career races, Tsunoda has begun to make a name for himself. Talented, poised – and quick. Norris has used the restart perfectly, and moved ahead of Leclerc into second position. He too has driven lights out today. Verstappen almost lost it all right before the race restarted though, going for a bit of a slip before regaining his composure. Imola is still tricky.

At the Villeneuve chicane, Perez has spun once again, this time dropping from fourth position all the way down to fourteenth. Meanwhile, Hamilton has been on a tear, into sixth momentarily, before weaving his way past Ricciardo for fifth. Showing once again why he is never to be counted out. Just twelve seconds separate Hamilton and Verstappen now. A slight ways down the grid, two former champions and chomping at the bit. Alonso and Vettel are wheel to wheel vying for position. For eleventh spot and for a chance to hunt down a tenth place grid spot, the final points position. Alonso moves ahead, Vettel returns the favor. It’s a back and fourth affair, until Alonso makes his move stick and lays claim to the position. Meanwhile, Perez has ran up into the equation, and with a coming together of tire on tire, has also bullied his way past Vettel.

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Hamilton has moved passed Sainz for fourth and is in hot pursuit of Leclerc. Flying. Determined. Leclerc is no challenge whatsoever as Hamilton has climbed his way back into a podium position. His sights now set on Lando Norris and the orange McLaren. Tsunoda has been given a five second penalty for track limits violations, and Vettel who had done so well considering the challenges he faced, has had to park his Aston Martin in its garage. Out, due to a gearbox failure. Just three laps to go now, and Norris has been hunted down and passed by Hamilton. The only car ahead of him now, is the ever rapid Max Verstappen.

Imola again has something to give, as Mazepin goes for a big spin, sending his Haas out for a grassy sprawl. His second career Formula One race is going to end the same way his first did, in a crash. The grapevines already whispering talks that Mazepin may not be cut out for Formula One just two races in, and this certainly won’t quiet the critics any. Hamilton is closing the gap. Edging ever closer to Verstappen. But Mad Max is now a veteran of this premier motorsport division, and cool under fire. Even with his rearview mirrors now full of Silver Arrow, Verstappen keeps his composure, and takes the checkered flag. Verstappen wins the Emilia Romagna grand prix! Hamilton though, takes the point for fastest lap, and draws even with Verstappen for the early championship lead.

We are but two races into the 2021 season, but both has been thunderously entertaining events. Fingers crossed that season can live up to these early races the rest of the way.