A tough day for Mercedes - F1 2021 Season Review: Emilia Romagna
Let's take a look back at a drama-filled race at Imola!
Race two of the 2021 Formula One season is now a thing of the past; but we certainly won't be forgetting it any time soon. The second race held at Imola in two years has just taken place, and what an action-packed race it was.
Let's take a look at exactly what happened over the course of this weekend, starting off with yesterday's qualifying session!
The first qualifying session at the Imola circuit started with a red flag as Alpha Tauri rookie, Yuki Tsunoda, lost the rear of his car on the exit of the Turn 14 and 15 chicane. The young, Japanese driver hit the back of his car into the wall, causing a lot of damage in just his second weekend of the season. Alpha Tauri were able to fix this damage, but would have to start at the back as Tsunoda hadn't yet set a time. The Red Bull sister team opted to take an engine penalty at the same time.
With Tsunoda out, the rest of the field were one place more secure of the drop zone. Both Williams were able to secure their place in Q2 after a good performance from Russell and Latifi, seeing both Haas cars and both Alfa Romeos not making it through to the second session. Kimi Raikkonen would start in 16th, ahead of teammate Antonio Giovinazzi in 17th, followed by Mick Schumacher in 18th, alongside Nikita Mazepin in 19th; and Tsuonoda finishing 20th after his crash.
The big surprise of Q2 was the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz not making it through to the final session as a result of traffic. The Spaniard was only able to put his SF21 into 11th place, missing out on Q3 by just six-tenths of a second. Sebastian Vettel being eliminated in Q2 was also a surprise, with the Aston Martin driver starting behind George Russell in, who did a fantastic job to put his Williams in P12. Vettel would start in 13th place, alongside Nicolas Latifi who was able to out-qualify two-time world champion, Fernando Alonso, but only just. Both drivers were exactly 0.455 seconds away from 10th place, but it was the Canadian that was able to emerge on top, leaving Alonso in fifteenth place.
Q3 started off well for McLaren's Lando Norris, with the Briton setting a base time that was 1.2 seconds faster than his new teammate, Daniel Ricciardo. Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez would set faster base lap times, but there was a lot of potential for McLaren to get a good result in the final run.
And a good result was what the McLaren got - well, only briefly as Norris set a blisteringly quick time only four-hundredths of a second off that of Hamilton, only for his time to be deleted due to a track limits infringement at Turn 9. Hamilton would remain at the top of the table, taking his 99th career pole position at his 30th unique circuit, ahead of Red Bull's Perez that would alongside Hamilton on the front row for the first time in his career.
Max Verstappen slotted his car into third after a couple of errors on his final lap, followed by Charles Leclerc, who had a good performance to put his Ferrari in 4th. Pierre Gasly would start in fifth place, ahead of Ricciardo in sixth; followed by an immensely disappointed Norris, who was inches off a front-row start.
Valtteri Bottas was nowhere, putting his Mercedes in eighth place, almost half a second off his teammate's pole position time. Esteban Ocon would be the first teammate to outqualify Fernando Alonso since the 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix with a ninth place start, followed by Lance Stroll rounding off the top ten.
Now that we are all caught up with qualifying, let's move on to the race.
For the second race in a row, there was drama for the drivers before the race even started, this time on a slippery Imola circuit. On the outlap to the grid, both Aston Martin drivers suffered brake fires that were soon put out, while Alonso locked up his tyres and hit the wall on his outlap, much like Verstappen did at Hungary last year. Valtteri Bottas also suffered a puncture on his outlap. Finally, Charles Leclerc spun his Ferrari around on the formation lap, but was able to return to his grid slot without issue.
As the five red lights went out for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, it was Max Verstappen that had the lightning start in comparison to Hamilton and Perez. Verstappen took advantage of the dry patch on Hamilton's grid box to instantly pass Perez and draw alongside the seven-time world champion. Verstappen was ahead of the Briton in the braking zone and took the racing line, though Hamilton committed to his move around the outside, but soon run out of space. Hamilton bounced across the sausage kerb and broke a section of his front wing endplate, putting himself under pressure from Perez.
Verstappen didn't need a second invitation to create a gap, and the race starts to settle into a rhythm. A couple of laps later and Nicolas Latifi is the first driver to spin his car around; he was able to continue, but only for a few hundred meters when he tangled with Mazepin (who drew alongside him while he rejoined the track) and was flung into the wall, destroying the front end of the car. Latifi was completely at fault for the incident as he simply wasn't aware of where Mazepin was.
This incident prompts the deployment of the safety car, once again bunching up the pack. Mick Schumacher had an accident behind the safety car on the main straight when warming up his tyres. The German lost the rear end and hit the barrier on the pit exit, destroying his front wing and causing the pitlane to close. Schumacher then had to drive around a couple of laps without a front wing before stopping for a replacement as he was not allowed to pit while the pitlane was closed.
The safety car returns to the pits on lap 7, and Hamilton gets into the slipstream of Verstappen, lining up a move around the outside at Turn 2. The Mercedes driver saw the gap close and decided not to take the same risk as he had on the first lap as the result would have likely been the same.
Further back, Carlos Sainz gets his Ferrari into the slipstream of Pierre Gasly to try and take fifth place, but Lando Norris makes use of a double tow and passes his ex-teammate. He draws alongside Gasly to try and make it a double overtake before the Turn 2 braking zone, but had to settle for sixth in an already impressive move.
Lap 9 sees Max Verstappen set the fastest lap of the race as his lead over Lewis Hamilton reaches the five second mark, while Norris finally makes the overtake on Gasly, who was one of few drivers to start the race on the wet tyre. The wet tyre proved to be the wrong compound for the Frenchman, as a dry line appeared on the track, causing him to lose a lot of places over the following laps. He was overtaken by Sainz, Stroll, Russell and Tsunoda before Alpha Tauri finally decided to pit him on lap 15.
On lap 11, Carlos Sainz makes one of many mistakes over the course of this afternoon's race, which was very out of character from the Spaniard in these tricky conditions. Meanwhile, Hamilton started to find a rhythm and set the fastest lap of the race. Verstappen and Hamilton were trading purple times for the following few laps, but the Mercedes driver started to close the gap by four-tenths per lap as Verstappen's tyres started to degrade.
Sergio Perez, who struggled at the start of the race, received a ten-second time penalty to be served at his next stop for overtaking under the safety car. The Mexican ran wide and through the gravel as the field bunched up after Latifi's accident, but overtook the two cars that passed him on track. Perez also reported an unusual 'movement' in his steering wheel that prompted the Red Bull team to swap steering wheels over at his next pitstop.
Lap 17 sees some controversy for McLaren, with Lando Norris hinting at his team to get teammate Daniel Ricciardo to let him through - "I have a lot more pace in me that I can't use, but I need clean air," the Briton said. This was a tough decision for the Woking-based team to make, as this was only their second race with Ricciardo. The Australian, however, complied and let his younger teammate pass with ease.
Sebastian Vettel was the first driver to pit for dry tyres on lap 23, switching his worn Intermediate tyres for a set of Mediums. The Aston Martin driver struggled with grip initially as the other teams eagerly watched to see if it was the right time to switch over. Vettel had a somewhat underwhelming race as he struggled to fight through the conditions; having a good little battle with Perez later in the race before retiring on the penultimate lap due to gearbox issues. The German did, however, face a 10 second stop/go penalty after his pitstop as a result of not having his tyres fitted by the 5-minute signal before the race - which was likely due to the brake fires both Aston Martin drivers suffered.
On lap 25, the gap between Hamilton and Verstappen has reduced to 3.5 seconds, while Verstappen's tyres start to struggle. Hamilton starts applying more pressure, making the gap decrease by a second per lap. When asked if the conditions were ready for slick tyres, the Dutchman initially responded with 'no,' but was soon forced to stop when Hamilton started to catch up.
Verstappen pitted for a set of Medium tyres on lap 27, and Hamilton starts setting purple sectors in response to try and perform the overcut. Hamilton pits for Medium tyres on lap 28; but a combination of a slow, four second pitstop and a great outlap from Verstappen sees the Red Bull driver retain the lead.
The rest of the field soon follows the leaders in, with everybody opting for the Medium tyre; apart from the Haas', who fitted the Softs.
On Lap 32, Verstappen navigates a small train of traffic, and Hamilton is eagerly trying to catch up. At the Turn 7 hairpin, Russell moves out of Hamilton's way to let him through; but Hamilton gets on the wet part of the track. The number 44 was unable to stop his car, with a twitch of oversteer sending him through the gravel. The champion tried to flick-spin his car the right way, but hit the wall and damaged his front wing.
Hamilton was able to find the reverse gear and reversed his Mercedes through the gravel and back on to the track, where he re-joined in ninth place and almost a lap down. Moments later, the safety car was deployed after a big accident between Russell and Bottas.
Russell found himself in the slipstream of a struggling Bottas with DRS and made a move to the outside. The small left-hand kink that is known as Turn 1 was where Russell drew alongside the Finn. Bottas left enough room for the move to be made, but a small twitch in his steering put Russell onto the grass before sharply turning into the side of the Mercedes.
Both cars were travelling at top speed down the straight, and left a huge pile of carbon fibre debris as they went through the gravel and violently hit the wall. Both drivers were okay, though it seems Bottas was winded as it took a while for him to get out of the car - also sitting at the side of the track until a medical car picked him up.
Russell instantly pinned the blame on Bottas, going straight over to the destroyed Mercedes and saying what he thought. Both drivers performed certain hand gestures before Russell smacked Bottas' helmet and walked off. Both drivers believe the other was at fault, though the footage seems to prove that Bottas didn't do anything in the wrong. The stewards also deemed the accident as a 'racing incident' and performed no further action.
Due to the debris, the safety car was called before being red flagged. This benefitted Hamilton as he was able to re-join the lead lap. The race was continued on a rolling start on lap 34 of 63 in order to prevent further incidents, where Verstappen half-spun and nearly lost it at the final corner. Regardless, he was still able to catch out Leclerc in second place, giving Norris the opportunity to pass the Ferrari on his Soft tyres to take second place. Tsunoda spins at the Turn 5 chicane, undoing all of his work and putting him at the back of the grid.
Perez also makes the same mistake and spins into the gravel in an afternoon that saw so much potential for the new Red Bull driver. Hamilton, on the other hand, was very cautious of the wet patches on track and started making his moves around the outside of the track at Turn 2. His first overtake was a very cautious, yet successful move on Stroll, before he overtook Ricciardo on lap 42 to take fifth place.
Hamilton attempts the same move on Sainz in 4th place on Lap 49, but almost loses it with a huge snap of oversteer. The Mercedes driver then shows exactly why he deserves his 7 world championships when overtaking Sainz on lap 50, Leclerc on lap 55 and Norris on lap 60.
The rest of the race was relatively uneventful as the drivers carefully drove around in the wet-dry conditions. On lap 63 - the final lap - Hamilton had done an impressive job to return to second place; though the gap to Verstappen was over 15 seconds. Verstappen took an incredible victory to make the score 1-1 between the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers, with Hamilton crossing the line in second and Norris taking his second career podium in third place. It was a good day for Ferrari too, with the Maranello team finishing in fourth and fifth place.
Overall, I would rate the 2021 Emiliga Romagna Grand Prix an 8.5 out of 10. The tricky, intermediate conditions allowed for some great racing; especially with the fight at the front of the field, and Hamilton's recovery drive was nothing short of impressive. The championship certainly does look close, though, with one point between Hamilton and Verstappen - with Lewis' fastest lap being the only point separating them!
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