April 18, 2021
Two races, two different winners, and two mistakes among the two title favourites.
In the end the only difference between race winner Max Verstappen and championship leader Lewis Hamilton was the different implications of each of their indiscretions on a greasy Imola surface which had asked the very most of all the drivers.
Verstappen’s momentary fumble as he prepared for the rolling restart after the mid-race stoppage could easily have ended in retirement. Instead, the 23-year-old quickly gathered it all up and disappeared up the road to an 11th career victory.
In such moments are championships often won and lost so he and Red Bull can breathe a sigh of relief that have put the frustrations of Bahrain and the complications of the Imola preparation days behind them at the first opportunity.
Everyone says Red Bull have got the fastest car so the pressure to deliver has never been higher. Mechanical issues in Friday practice, an indifferent Saturday qualifying session where he could do no better than third and the added complications of the pre-race deluge might have caused a lesser driver to crumble.
Instead, he nailed the start and wiped the qualifying slate clean. Did he really start in second gear? That’s an old trick David Kennedy first told me about a long time ago and whatever the reason, Red Bull has shown that they have reacted to previous poor wet weather getaways.
By contrast, Lewis Hamilton will be struggling to decide on the best emotional response to an extraordinary afternoon in which he made a poor start, damaged his front wing in the first corner fight with Verstappen, and then destroyed it for good when he hit the barrier later on.
That he somehow emerged from the weekend with second place and fastest lap to retain his world championship lead following a trademark comeback drive was a source of delight and relief to him and his fans.
While Hamilton was making a perfect act of contrition for going off and hitting the barrier, his team was busy congratulating him for the quality of his response, hence the rollercoaster of emotions.
He more than most, will understand that emerging from a race weekend with 19 points when he had been parked against a barrier with a broken wing and had to reverse out onto track through a gravel trap is the kind of net gain that can form the bedrock of a title assault.
It was a rare and slightly clumsy-looking error from the seven-time champion when he slid off at Tosa on lap 31 but everything before and after it was driving off the very top drawer.
Even the clever reverse through gravel trap solution to the zero steering lock conundrum afforded by a formula one car helped to quickly soften the cough of the mocking hordes of social media vigilantes.
This was another race when the teammates of the leading two were not in the mix. Front row starter Sergio Perez was quickly fighting a rearguard action for Red Bull and played little role in the battle up front following a peculiar mistake passing cars behind the safety car while Mercedes’s Valtteri Bottas had a weekend to forget.
The Finn could offer no support to Hamilton, though he somewhat bizarrely, and entirely unwittingly, assisted Hamilton by crashing heavily with George Russell within seconds of Hamilton’s off.
Bottas looked like an innocent victim to this observer but either way, the ensuing race stoppage meant Hamilton lost minimal track position and it helped set up a thrilling finale for the Englishman.
Championships are made of consistency, keeping mistakes to a minimum and maybe just the odd dollop of luck. The two would-be title protagonists showed they have access to all three elements in Imola.