In a checkered and blazing young career that only seems to be getting better by every passing Grand Prix, he has won at Mexico, reigned supreme at Malaysia, dominated at Spain and enthralled at Abu Dhabi. But never in his half a decade long stint in Formula 1 did Max Verstappen ever win at Italy, an anomaly in a glittery career that the flying Dutchman corrected with supreme control and clinical domination at the 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in the wet.
Imagine the pressure Verstappen might have been contending with knowing well the fact that never once did he finish a single race here in Italy in his last three entries, an eventuality he’d correct proving there’s always a silver lining in the skies to be had even under overcast and testing conditions for as long as one persists.
And in the process of winning his eleventh Grand Prix, Verstappen defied the coming of the ‘Hammertime,’ even as the king of Formula 1 racing Lewis Hamilton took a supreme second climbing up bravely on the likes of Leclerc’s Ferrari and the valiant McLaren of Norris.
That said, what were the key moments from the 2021 Imola Grand Prix?
Verstappen keeps his cool to record fine win
Not every race has to have the quintessential signature of Lewis Hamilton’s greatness. Not every race has to be scripted in bold colours of glory that bring the laurels to Mercedes; there are contests where the Bulls rush in.
And while he may not have had held the track position at the start of the blazing Imola contest, Max Verstappen’s willingness to make himself count eventually paid off.
While many of us will point his brilliant Italian win to his consistent speed and race-management, at the heart of Verstappen‘s win was his incredible race start, the 23-year-old making a scorching move onto the outside of Lewis in the approach to the first left-hander, an effort that would completely change the complexion of the race.
Holding the racing line and rapidly tilting on to the left of the Tamburello chicane, it was, you could say, an instance of sheer daring that allowed the Red Bull driver to whistle past the staunch defences of Hamilton, easily the move of the Grand Prix.
And from that point on, Verstappen, not Hamilton, became the go-to race-leader of a contest that eventually showed that Red Bull have the makings and the package to take the championship fight to Mercedes, regardless of how relentless Mercedes appear thanks to a supreme collection of talent and Hamilton’s great work ethic.
“I am of course very happy with this win for everyone in the Team and Honda. I think the key was of course the start as we had a great launch. I surprised myself as it was always hard to get off the line in the wet last year but we worked hard to try and improve that and it worked. The conditions were challenging out there, especially in the beginning and it was very hard to stay on track but we stayed out of trouble. I wouldn’t call it a dominant performance as Lewis was following me quite well and for him to come back to second after his incident means they have a lot of pace in that car. We won because we made the right calls with tyres at the right time and the Team managed everything well in these conditions. With the tyres degrading, choosing the right moment to go onto slicks wasn’t easy but we got it right. I had a little moment at the re-start trying to warm up the tyres with some throttle but luckily we didn’t spin. We still have to work hard to improve because it’s very close, but for now I’m very happy with the result. I’m looking forward to Portimão because it’s an amazing track and then we go to a track we all know well in Barcelona. We’ll see what we can do but so far, it’s been a good start to the year,” said the race winner.
A dramatic race under testing conditions
Fans love a contest in the wet and even as the 2021 Imola GP, eventually aced by Max Verstppen was devoid of a torrential outpour, there was no lack of drama in the 63-lap run in the Italian heartland.
Starting with Leclerc spinning even before the race got underway during the formation lap, there was more drama to follow soon after in the race as Canadian Nicholas Latifi endured tough luck after having scored his best qualifying position courtesy his fourteenth.
Inside a few laps, Latifi running well inside the top fifteen on the grid collided and hit the wall, race-retiring soon after.
Later, Carlos Sainz whilst forging a great recovery driving away on fifth having begun from eleventh would run wide on the gravel trap in his pursuit of the ballsy McLarens at the halfway stage giving a glimpse into just how tricky a surface Imola proved out to be.
There were few more dramatic moments in the Verstappen-dominanted race but none more so than the high-octane clash on Lap 35 between the Williams of George Russell and the wailing Mercedes of Bottas.
Finding an opportunity to steam past the struggling Mercedes of the Finn on the straights, an attacking George Russell whisked down the inside of Bottas only managing to collect a bit of grass in the act, resulting in moving his front tire into the Mercedes’ right. Resultantly, both cars crashed out bringing tough luck for an already struggling Valtteri while Russell found himself retiring for the second time running in points here at Imola.
A lost opportunity for Sergio Perez
While there was glory for one Red Bull driver, there was anything like that for the other as Imola served polarising fortunes for two drivers who right at the start would have pecked themselves for a commanding win.
He had never managed to begin a race from the front row in any Formula 1 Grand Prix, which is when Sergio Perez threw up a mighty challenge to teammate Verstpapen, whom he bettered scoring a fantastic P2 at the blistering qualifying for the 2021 Imola GP.
His task for Sunday, thereafter, was pretty clear: lead the charge for Red Bull and take the fight to Hamilton. But instead, not long after the race-start, Perez found himself guilty of overtaking the Ferrari of Leclerc and the McLaren of Norris whilst driving behind the safety car, after he had run wide on Turn 9.
From that point on, what should’ve ideally been a commanding drive became an instance of damage control for the otherwise domineering Mexican talent, Perez succumbing to a 10-second time penalty which he served when he’d been P4 in the running.
But after the race-restart, Perez’ race went from bad to worse as he’d spin out wide over to the gravel with a handful of laps remaining only to fall comfortably outside of the top ten. A strong P2 right at the start eventually transpired into a sad P12, with Perez finishing even behind the Alpine of Alonso.
“The conditions out there were really difficult today and I made quite a few mistakes that were very costly. I struggled to retain any temperature in the tyres, so I lost it under the safety car and I got a 10-second penalty. It is of course important that I get used to the car and that I learn these lessons, but I messed up, I’m very disappointed in myself and really sorry to the Team. I think at the re-start the podium was ours and the pace of the car was good today, we should have finished one and two on the podium. Let’s focus on the next race now, we will work really hard as a Team and come back stronger,” added Perez.
Finally, a respectable result for Ferrari
The 2021 Bahrain GP might not have been a disaster of a race for the two Ferraris with Leclerc and Sainz managing a sixth and eighth but the run at Monza proved to be a handy result for the Italian team.
While Sainz led an excellent recovery drive, converting an ordinary eleventh (start on the grid) into a valiant fifth, his more experienced Ferrari teammate held his nerve to collect a respectable fourth in the end, the duo thus bagging twenty-two strong points for the Scuderia.
At the heart of Sainz’ action-packed run at Imola were his key battles with the twin McLarens, the Spaniard’s pass on Riccardo on the outside with fifteen laps to go being one of the finest moments of the contest.
On the other hand, Leclerc, who capitalised on Perez’ error at the start did well to initially hold onto P3, a position he’d simply not concede until Lap 16. He’d also open a five-second gap to the Mexican soon after showing raw pace in his SF21.
Looking confident to pass Lewis at the start of the race, Leclerc’s battle with the seven-time world champion from the onset of lap 6 made for fine viewing, the Ferrari nearly matching the Mercedes’ corner pace.
Charles was also the beneficiary of Verstappen pitting on Lap 28, a move that saw the Ferrari climb onto second before struggling for grip in the session post the race re-start.
Even as Norris stormed past the defensive Leclerc seconds after the race’ re-start, it could be said, Leclerc’s controlled drive earned Ferrari the respectability that they’ve been searching for since so many past Grands Prix.
F1 is alive and thriving
Anyone bemoaning the fact that Formula 1 has become pretty much predictable and lacks the thrills it so handily possessed once should focus on the stat surrounding the number of races that have been red flagged off late.
In becoming the fourth race in as many as twelve Grand Prixs to be red-flagged, the 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix was brought to a halt thanks to a dramatic collision on the straights between Bottas and Russell, both Mercedes cars retiring eventually but packaging an already captivating contest with yet more thrills and drama.
Joining the likes of Monza, Portimao, Bahrain, each of the three races that were red-flagged the last year, Imola, none could have predicted would be punctuated by an unexpected red-flag session. While thankfully there weren’t any severe incidents of the kinds that stunned us at the Sakhir in 2020, the race eventually went to the perseverance and skill of one of the best drivers on the circuit in Verstappen.