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Verstappen’s rocket start and Hamilton’s recovery drive – analysis of the 2021 Emilia Romagna

‘’What a race!’’ ‘’What a start to the season!’’ ‘’What a battle between two great drivers!’’ The conclusion from the fan’s perspective is clear. The Formula 1 Pirelli Gran Premio Del Made In Italy E Dell’emilia Romagna 2021, as it had been excruciatingly named, was an outright banger, with loads of talking points to analyse. And I can do nothing but agree, though it’s too early to say whether or not we’re in for one of the greatest seasons ever as many suggest on social media. For now, let’s delve into the specific events of the weekend, and how it all unfolded.

The battle for pole

Sir Lewis Hamilton took his 99th career pole position by the slimmest of margins, only 23 thousands of a second down to Red Bull’s Sergio Perez who – somewhat surprisingly – outqualified his teammate Max Verstappen, who himself was just above 9 hundredths of a second off pole. And while Hamilton did do a great job to set the fastest time in a car that was probably only the second-best, the Briton didn’t have a perfect qualifying session, seeing as he didn’t improve his lap time on his second run in Q3. In fact, instead of Hamilton taking pole by his own brilliance, it was more a case of Verstappen and Red Bull losing it. If we take a look at the Dutchman’s final lap, it quickly becomes clear where he loses those couple of tenths of a second, that he should’ve and could’ve taken pole by.

Going onboard with Verstappen as he goes through turn 3, he has a moment of oversteer which forces him to straighten his steering wheel momentarily. This carries him wide enough to put two wheels on the grass at the outside of the track, thus likely costing himself 2-3 tenths.

Verstappen having a moment of oversteer through turn 3 and subsequently going wide at the exit of it

There doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason as to why the oversteer occurs. Verstappen takes the same amount of inside kerb in turn 3 as Hamilton did on his fastest lap, and – going by the onboard sound – they apply more or less the same amount of throttle at the apex. However, there could be countless other factors which we have no chance of knowing anything about from the available data that possibly came into play.

One man who definitely – considering he was on pole at this exact track last season – should’ve been in the mix was Valtteri Bottas. But the Finn qualified an extremely disappointing P8, 4 tenths behind his teammate. And while he did make some mistakes on both of his laps in Q3, it also seemed as though he was just struggling to get a grip on a car which looked both over- and understeery at different points during the lap. There’s definitely not one single corner or mistake that I can point out and say ‘’that’s what cost him pole’’, unlike the aforementioned Verstappen. Worrying times for a driver who has been in the shadow of Lewis Hamilton ever since his first race for Mercedes in 2017, and is so hopeful to step out of it.

Verstappen’s rocket start

After his disappointing qualifying on Saturday, Max Verstappen would’ve been hoping for any sort of opportunity to turn his P3 on the grid into the lead. And he got exactly that, as rain showers throughout the Sunday had made the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari wet enough to require the use of intermediate tyres for most of the field, except a few drivers who started on the extreme wet tyres.

As the lights went out, both Verstappen and Hamilton started in second gear, trying to minimize their wheelspin. The initial launch of the two drivers is quite similar, but Hamilton struggles to get on the power as quickly as Verstappen and therefore bogs down ever so slightly whilst still being in second gear, allowing Verstappen to pull alongside and take the inside line ahead of the first real corner of the circuit, turn 2. The two drivers hit the brakes at almost the exact same time, but Hamilton releases his brakes a little more than Verstappen as they approach the apex (keep in mind, we’re talking about small margins here), trying to go around the outside of the Red Bull. Verstappen however is having none of it, and runs Hamilton clean out of road by taking the racing line through the turn 2/3/4 double chicane.

Hamilton pulling slightly ahead of Verstappen, before the Dutchman forces him wide

Some might question whether or not Verstappen took it a touch too far since Hamilton bounced over the kerbs and lost a bit of his front wing endplate, most likely along with getting some floor damage, but if we go by previous incidents, Verstappen does nothing wrong in this situation. First of all, stewards tend to be quite lenient on incidents taking place during lap 1, as was for example demonstrated at the 2020 Russian GP where Charles Leclerc took out Lance Stroll completely unnecessarily and didn’t receive any penalty. Second of all, since the 2019 Canadian GP where many fans were outraged by the stewards’ decision to penalise Sebastian Vettel for blocking Lewis Hamilton and stopping the Brit from overtaking him, tougher and rougher racing has been allowed. Generally speaking, when one driver is on the racing line and pushes his opponent off the track, penalties will not be given. With that in mind, what Verstappen did was harsh, but fair – and Hamilton should’ve probably known better than trying to go around the outside on a wet track.

Hamilton’s roller coaster race

A few laps after Hamilton had unsuccessfully tried to perform the overcut on Verstappen (which we’ll go into later), he came into trouble when lapping the train of backmarkers containing Valtteri Bottas, Lance Stroll, George Russell, Kimi Räikkönen and Mick Schumacher (who was two laps down) on lap 31. Trying to get past Mercedes’ junior Russell, he dived up the inside at turn 7, Tosa. But as the track was still damp, he lost the rear of his car and slid across the gravel trap at the exit of the corner, ending up with his rear wheels still in the gravel. In order to avoid beaching his car, he quickly stamped on the throttle and used his momentum to get onto the tarmac exit road. However, in doing so he smashed into the barriers, destroying his front wing. He then just about managed to reverse back onto the track, having to pit for a new front wing. A crash between his teammate Bottas and Russell a lap later would turn out to save him a lot of the lost time, but we’ll return to that topic a bit later.

For now, let’s focus on what happened with Hamilton. As he makes his way towards turn 7, he dives down the inside of Russell and thereby goes off the racing line and onto the damp part of the track. At first, there seems to be no issues, but as soon as he turns into the corner, he has a big snap of oversteer which he has to correct, sending him off the track and into the gravel trap. And although some might speculate that the backmarkers around him played a role, the sole visual reason that the slide occurs is Hamilton going onto the damp part of the track – a very unexpected mistake indeed from statistically the greatest driver of all time, perhaps a result of feeling the pressure of a championship fight with Verstappen.

Hamilton getting onto the damp part of the track whilst lapping Russell, and as a result losing the rear of his car

After the red flag which gave back Hamilton almost all of the lost time, his recovery drive was brilliant. Having similar pace to Verstappen, he slowly but surely picked his way from ninth to second place, crucially without making any mistakes in the dirty air from the cars in front. For a while, it looked as though Norris could potentially keep Hamilton at bay for P2, but at the end of the day that was never realistic. Using the DRS advantage which he’d gained by overtaking Norris, Hamilton proceeded to set the fastest lap, securing himself an extra point and therefore the championship lead.

The 7-time world champion, although making a silly mistake out of ‘’desperation’’ (according to himself), showed exactly why he has won those many titles. Granted, it took a huge amount of luck for the red flag to come out just as he had crashed, but as with everything else, there’s never only one reason for something happening – Hamilton’s recovery was both down to luck and skill, and wouldn’t have been possible had one of the two been missing. The most impressive part though was to keep his head cool and not make more mistakes, something which he has had a tendency to in the past when things haven’t been going his way.

Bottas vs Russell

Ever since George Russell – due to Lewis Hamilton testing positive for COVID-19 – made a one-off appearance for Mercedes at the 2020 Sakhir GP and comprehensively outperformed Valtteri Bottas, fans have been speculating, wondering, theorizing and all things alike about who of the two will and should have a seat at Mercedes. A direct comparison has obviously been impossible to find ever since the race where Russell stood in for Hamilton, but even so the vast majority of F1’s fan base has been of the opinion that Russell is the superior driver to Bottas. And going by this race, I would certainly agree. Nevermind the crash itself, the fact that Russell – in a Williams – had better pace than and was trying to overtake Bottas in a Mercedes is really the significant thing here. Hugely disappointing from Bottas and immensely impressive from Russell – if it continues like this, Bottas is going to have a hard time even keeping his seat for the rest of the season.

But however much I’m sure Russell’s fans would like to neglect the fact that the youngster once again threw away points for Williams (and once again at Imola, just like when he crashed behind the safety car there last season), and instead keep talking about his astonishing pace, we can’t ignore the massive shunt that he got himself into with Bottas, his direct rival for the coveted Mercedes seat. So let’s take a look at what happened:

Russell gets DRS on the start/finish straight only a lap after it was first enabled by being within one second of Bottas – who has spent most of his race stuck behind Lance Stroll – and as the Finn covers the left-hand side of the track, which will eventually turn into the inside line for turn 2 at the end of the straight, Russell decides to attempt going around the outside. As he closes in, the track bends slightly left, and combined with the damp track that makes it impossible for Bottas to stay entirely left – he has to drift a few meters to the right to follow the natural, stable line through the kink. Unfortunately, Russell pulls out of the slipstream and alongside Bottas right at the exit of that kink, when Bottas is at ‘’his widest’’, so to speak. Russell – in the heat of the moment – misjudges Bottas’ movement and takes much greater avoiding action than was needed, thus putting one wheel on the wet grass at the outside of the track. Bottas on the other hand notices too late that he has perhaps come a bit too far across, and tries to correct it by doing a little jink towards the left. At that point, Russell is already losing control though and spears into the side of Bottas, taking them both out of the race in dramatic fashion.

As Russell puts his wheels onto the wet grass, there’s still room for him on the track

The stewards deemed it a racing incident, a decision I agree with mainly for two reasons: Firstly, the damp track plays its part in the incident. Bottas has to take a wider line through turn 1 than he would’ve done in dry conditions, and Russell therefore (according to himself) leaves a bit of extra margin for Bottas moving across the track, since he obviously doesn’t know how far Bottas is going to go. That little extra margin is what puts him on the grass and sends him into the side of the Mercedes. Secondly, everyone having an opinion about this should remember that it takes place at 300 kph, with milliseconds in hand to make crucial decisions. With hindsight, we – the spectators – can easily say that it was stupid of Russell to overreact to Bottas’ movement, but the Williams driver obviously thought Bottas wasn’t going to stop coming across – all he was doing was to try and avoid a collision, just like Bottas tried by jinking back to the left. With all this in mind though, I still do feel that Russell has to take more of the blame (even if not enough to take a penalty), since he is the aggressor trying to overtake on a damp track with only one dry line – one always has to be more cautious in those sorts of conditions.

Due to the slight bend in the track, Bottas drifts wide and puts more of a squeeze on Russell that he intended

Strategy report

Even despite the fact that races with changeable conditions are often the ones where strategy plays the largest part, the 2021 Emilia Romagna GP was still looking to be an interesting one in exactly that aspect even before we knew that we’d have rain on Sunday. That was because the two Red Bull’s of Verstappen and Sergio Perez had qualified on respectively the medium and soft tyres in Q2, thus having to start on those and therefore being able to gang up on pole sitter Hamilton – whose teammate Bottas was practically out of contention after qualifying a lowly P8 – by using different strategies. But all that went right out the window when rain showers – as previously mentioned – throughout the day forced most to start on intermediate tyres – the only driver in the top 5 who didn’t start on those was Pierre Gasly, who instead started on full wets.

With Verstappen’s lightning start, Hamilton and Mercedes were in the hunter’s shoes, aiming to take back the lead when everyone had to change from inters to slick tyres. As it often is with this transition, getting the timing right is very tricky. The first driver to pull the trigger was Sebastian Vettel, who pitted for mediums on lap 22. He initially struggled, but was soon setting competitive lap times. Seeing this and hearing their driver complain over team radio about an increased amount of sliding and drifting, Red Bull called Verstappen into the box on lap 28, putting him onto medium tyres. Mercedes told Hamilton that he had one lap to overcut Verstappen, and brought him in on lap 29. It looked to be very tight between the two drivers until Hamilton had a slow pitstop, coming out 2,5 second behind Verstappen. Further down the field, everyone had pitted in the space of very few laps, resulting in very few position changes.

Verstappen quickly built himself a 5-second gap to Hamilton which was then immediately diminished to around 2 seconds when the Dutchman encountered heavy traffic. Hamilton of course also encountered this traffic, sliding into the gravel trap whilst lapping Russell as we’ve already discussed. And with half of the Mercedes’ front wing missing, Hamilton looked set to lose out big time to Verstappen in the championship battle, as he’d have no chance of recovering to the podium. However, he catched a lucky break when Bottas and Russell’s crash brought out the red flags (which, even though they worked in his favor in this case, previously have screwed him over completely – Monza 2020 comes to mind), essentially resetting the race and giving Hamilton the lap back which he’d lost whilst being stuck in the gravel.

With 29 laps to go at the restart, the obvious tyre choice seemed to be the mediums. Most teams apparently thought that as well, with the majority of drivers taking the restart on that compound. However, of the top ten, three drivers chose to put on softs – the two McLarens of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo, and the Red Bull of Sergio Perez. The latter quickly took himself out of contention by spinning on lap 38, but Norris made great use of his tyre advantage and overtook Charles Leclerc – who seemingly was taking a nap – at the rolling restart and put himself into P2. From then on, he had to start managing his tyres which would obviously wear down quicker than those his direct competitors had on. It ended up working out brilliantly for the young Britt, who had to let the much faster Mercedes of Hamilton go, but could hold on to his P3 and only second podium during his time in F1.

Regarding the rest of the pack, no real strategy battles actually got to play out for the aforementioned reasons of the rain and the red flag.

The top performers

Throughout the weekend, several drivers made themselves noticed – some for good, some for bad reasons. One driver who did the former was Lando Norris, who made his intentions for the weekend abundantly clear by putting in a lap time good enough for third on the grid in qualifying, only to have deleted for going a few centimeters wide in turn 9 – a mistake so tiny that it can hardly be classified as it. His spirits seemed to have taken a beating, but that quickly turned around in the damp conditions on Sunday. He had far superior pace to teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who gentlemanly let him through when asked to do so by the team. And from then on, the 21-year old never looked back, taking advantage of the red flag and making an alternate strategy work brillianty, which we’ve already talked about. All in all, a superb performance.

Next up on the top performers list is quite an obvious one, Max Verstappen. I’ve already mentioned everything there is to mention about his race, but even so, he still deserves to be talked about again. Because even though he didn’t have the cleanest of weekends, he performed when it was required; at the start and in the pit stop phase, not to mention that he didn’t slide off the road when his closest rival Hamilton did. And lastly, winning by 22 seconds is always quite a good indicator of performance.

The last driver I want to mention on this list is Charles Leclerc, who delivered a very good, but pretty underrated performance in my opinion. After dragging his Ferrari into P4 on the grid with a – as usual – great qualifying, he at one point ran second in the race on pure merit. This was unfortunately ruined by the red flag, which allowed McLaren to take a gamble on an alternate strategy to put Norris ahead, and Hamilton to catch back up, but even so the Monegasque once again showcased his worth – no doubt about it.

Second driver shambles

Red Bull will probably look back at Imola as a race of missed opportunities. Because whilst Verstappen did win the race, he gained a lot less points on Hamilton than it looked like he would at one stage. Furthermore, in terms of the constructors championship, they didn’t manage to capitalise on Bottas’ DNF since Perez himself didn’t score any points due to a spin shortly after the red flag restart.

Mercedes on the other hand will not be too satisfied with their second driver either, as Bottas – despite his DNF mostly wasn’t his own fault – was looking set to not score more than a handful of points, and as we’ve established already, had poorer pace than the Williams of Russell.

With this in mind, the verdict is short and simple; both Bottas and Perez need to step up their game – likely, whoever does that the most will be the one to secure his team the constructors’ title. Hopefully, they both improve their performances enough to join the title fight – a four-way battle for the championship is always absolutely scintillating to witness, so let’s try to keep our hopes up whilst we can. And with the two first races of the season being very entertaining indeed, we can only pray that it continues like that all the way until Abu Dhabi – it’s been a long time.


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