After three excruciating weeks of waiting in anticipation, the Formula 1 circus showed up at Imola for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.
The fans’ patience was promptly repaid though as the classic circuit delivered a cracker.
The teams, on the other hand, wouldn’t have complained as this long gap from Bahrain came in handy for them to work on the development of their cars based on the data collected in the season opener in Sakhir.
We came to Italy with many unanswered questions. Some have been answered while the others remain pending for now.
So on with our five takeaways from the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola.
Old-school Imola does not disappoint
As F1 operated under the pandemic, a silver lining emerged in the form of several classic racing circuits returning to the championship calendar after years of absence. Imola is one of them.
F1 has been under the microscope for years now for being predictable with races becoming boring processions. This has triggered several reactions from the stakeholders.
Certain teams’ dominance and aerodynamic regulations have usually been highlighted as the main culprits. As such various aerodynamic regulations changes have been introduced (a considerable one in 2017) with the most anticipated one still to come in 2022.
Artificial gimmicks like DRS (Drag Reduction System) for instance, have been introduced to make overtaking easier as if a race can only be exciting with more overtakes.
We keep hearing absurd suggestions in the form of reverse-grids qualifying, and now the flirting with sprint races on Saturday to “spice up” the show. That is worrying!
The basis of evaluation for exciting racing should not be based on the number of overtakes executed in a race. An unpredictable race can also offer excitement.
So why not bring back some old-school circuits that are unforgiving, and punish the slightest driver error?
As witnessed in Imola over the last weekend drivers were spinning, running off, crashing, and flying off the curbs throughout practice and qualifying which set the stage for an unpredictable outcome.
The rain on race day was a welcome addition to the circuit’s efforts in challenging the drivers. With its old-school layout, Imola would have put up a fight even in dry conditions.
Imola and other old circuits have come back as part of a reaction to fill in for other venues unable to host races due to the pandemic.
So instead of focusing only on the aero regulations, why not add the “reinstatement” of old-school circuits to the masterplan devised to improve racing in Formula 1.
Food for thought?
The duel continues
After the teaser we received in Bahrain, Mercedes seems to have made good use of the three-week break.
They came to Italy with an improved car, making the choice between the RB16B and the W12 even harder. Furthermore, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen continued to deliver the intense duel we have all been yearning for.
This time Verstappen prevailed. He was not in “the zone” during practice, and lost pole to the seven-time champion due to a mistake in Q3 in qualifying on Saturday.
On Sunday however, the Dutchman went into the race with his usual all-or-nothing mentality by pulling off that audacious move on Hamilton on lap one. It took great control and respect from both drivers to emerge from Tamburello with the W12 only losing part of its left endplate.
That move was key to Verstappen’s win and he never put a foot wrong after that. Hamilton, on the other hand, seemed to be under pressure to regain the position. To add to Hamilton’s difficulties, he had a slow pit-stop, and he ended up in the gravel trap with that somehow desperate move on Williams’ George Russell while attempting to catch the Red Bull ace through traffic.
Despite the red flag period (due to George Russell and Valtteri Bottas’ crash) handing the Briton a lifeline, his recovery drive was nothing short of a masterclass and he was able to limit the damage by achieving second place.
It was a case of two top teams operating at a high level with their two extremely talented drivers applying pressure on each other in a relentless fight for the top honours.
Interestingly though, it remains to be seen how Red Bull and Mercedes balance their development efforts between this year and next year’s cars (built to the new aero regulations). Red Bull made a mess of it between 2013 and 2014. Mercedes have managed to maintain their edge over the 2016/2017 and 2018/2019 regulation changes.
Drivers struggling with their new rides
All drivers driving for new teams this season have notably struggled in this race. By that we mean Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz, and Sergio Perez. They were all out-qualified (except Perez and Ricciardo) and out-raced by their teammates. This shows the importance of being one with your car on a circuit such as Imola.
All five drivers are experienced and have been in Formula 1 for some time now. Should they be struggling with adapting to their new chargers that much?
Alonso admitted he wasn’t fast enough in qualifying and even said he had to get used to driving in the mixed conditions, prevailing on Sunday, again.
Vettel had another nightmare with reliability issues and a stern penalty affecting his race (which ended with a DNF). His underwhelming qualifying performance was actually irrelevant after considering his aforementioned problems. So we might just cut him some slack this time. But he’s on the second of the “five races” he said he needs to get used to the AMR21. Three more races and the grace period is over.
Sainz showed good pace in the race but couldn’t keep his car on the track. It was only down to the safety car and red flag periods that he could salvage his race.
Ricciardo out-qualified Lando Norris just because the young Briton had his Q3 lap deleted for exceeding track limits. Otherwise, Lando was outperforming Daniel all weekend, which led to the team ordering the latter to let his teammate through for having better pace. A key decision which allowed Norris to reach the podium.
Then comes Perez. From hero to zero within less than 24 hours. Although he beat Verstappen in qualifying due to the Dutchman’s error in Q3, his qualifying efforts were respectable (less than a tenth off Hamilton’s pole time). In the race though, he was all over the place, and unlike Sainz did not benefit from the safety cars and the red flag.
Is it really that difficult to get used to a new car? Or were these five drivers’ struggles race specific?
Why is Valtteri Bottas in a Mercedes?
Every season, Bottas over-talks his chances of beating his decorated teammate to the championship. And every year he starts off well, gets excited, and tells whomever it may concern to “you know what”; but he never sees his title challenge through. Recently though his performance has been embarrassing with Turkey 2020 still fresh in our minds.
Toto Wolff once said that Bottas is the best “wingman” to Hamilton and Bottas was hurt by that. But honestly he hasn’t done anything to prove otherwise. In Imola he even relinquished his role qualifying eighth and fighting in the wrong end of the grid once again leaving his teammate fighting alone in the front. Mercedes were lucky Perez struggled in the race, otherwise he would have been a factor in the final outcome.
With an uncut gem such as Russell lurking within their junior ranks, it is a mystery why Bottas is still driving a Mercedes (unless Toto doesn’t want to rattle the status quo).
Which brings me to the final takeaway:
George Russell was out of line
This will be a quick hit on the crash between Mercedes’ Bottas and Williams’ Russell halfway through the race which ended both their afternoons.
No matter where the fault lies (the stewards later deemed it a racing incident) which sways towards a 50/50 responsibility; Russell had no right to go over to Bottas’ car and behave the way he did.
The kid has undeniable talent and has come across as a nice, respectful guy since entering F1. Although his frustration might be understandable, that however, does not justify his reaction. He’s still young though and should learn from his mistake.