Peter Collins explains why a wet track makes for great racing
The Formula One calendar takes us from one sunny clime to another, rarely is the Grand Prix World tour clouded with dull skies and rain.
On the odd occasion that it is, those charged with bringing the race to viewers right around the world, rub their hands with glee. The drivers on the other hand don’t particularly relish racing in the rain. Going wheel to wheel at speed already presents huge challenges for these elite drivers, throw some rain onto proceedings and it becomes all the more challenging and dangerous.
I know when the RTE team would arrive at the circuit on race day and threatening skies loomed overhead, a collective rain dance would be performed, urging the skies to open up and dump their contents on to the precious asphalt awaiting the pounding of the Formula One train. When the gods delivered the downpour, there were clenched fists all ‘round and a unified chorus of YES, yes, yes.
So why the unbridled joy for the assembled media? First of all, they’d get the opportunity to use reliable old cliches, informing their audience at regular intervals that ‘rain is motorsports great leveller’ and the race now becomes ‘something of a lottery’. All true to a certain extent. But mostly, the rain was welcomed because a wet track usually delivers an exciting race.
The rain at Imola before Sunday’s GP wasn’t torrential, but it was heavy enough to give the circuit a good old soaking and while the heavy stuff had passed by the time the lights went out to signal the start of the race, the prospect of a slowly drying track whetted the appetite for close racing while making overtaking manoeuvres off the drying racing line all the more treacherous.
Off they went on the formation lap, the plumes of spray springing from the back of the cars demonstrating just how tricky conditions were going to be for the early part of the race and reminding me that picking out drivers’ helmet colours in these conditions would be tricky not to mention identifying the different cars as they dice through the accompanying hazey drizzle.
Charles Leclerc spun on the formation lap, as if the drivers needed reminding of just how difficult it can be to manage the enormous horsepower even at low speeds, he luckily steered clear of the gravel, rejoined and took his place on the grid.
Hamilton on pole, Perez on the front row for the first time and HIS Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen third. Verstappen, defied the track conditions making a blistering getaway and he swept by Perez and Hamilton to take the lead through turn one.
Others were struggling though, Sainz running wide as he struggled for grip in his Ferrari, Nicolas Latifi bowed out early after being nudged off the track by Mazepin.
The safety car was required early but even behind the pace car, Mick Schumacher lost control of the Haas while warming his tyres and hit the wall damaging his front wing. He did get his car back to the pits to be repaired and he would get to finish the race.
Verstappen quickly established a five-second lead over Hamilton after the safety car period. He looked comfortable but soon the decision would have to be made about whether or not the track was drying sufficiently for dry tyres.
A dry line was more than evident as they began the 21st of the scheduled 63 lap race. Who’d bite the bullet first and pit for full slicks?
Vettel with nothing to lose was first to go for it. The advantage Aston Martin had hoped for didn’t materialize, the cars on Intermediate tyres were still faster.
But then, a crucial move by Red Bull as Verstappen came in for the medium compound slicks. Hamilton inherited the lead and really had to go for it on lap 28.
The expected battle for supremacy between the Dutch charger and the World champion was materializing once again. Hamiltons stop was slower than usual, 4 seconds, so when he emerged from the pit lane he could only watch as Verstappen flew by and back into the lead.
Both were coming up behind slower traffic. Initially, it cost Verstappen time and Hamilton closed in. But Verstappen dispensed with the lapped traffic quickly and as Hamilton tried to do likewise he lost control of his Mercedes and ended up in the gravel.
The World champion finally reversed out of trouble but he also went backwards far as track position was concerned.
The most dramatic moment of the race happened when George Russell tried to overtake Valteri Bottas, off the dry racing line. Russell got his right rear wheel on the grass.
His Williams speared left and took the Mercedes off and into the barriers. The British driver pointed the finger of blame at Bottas, Bottas extended a single-digit towards his opponent to let him know where he felt the fault lay.
The in-car footage suggested Russell would have to shoulder a large portion of the blame. Bottas was sticking to the established ‘dry’ racing line and although he had moved ever so slightly to the right, Russell’s rapid adjustment to avoid a collision resulted in the two coming together.
Thankfully neither driver was hurt but both cars sustained substantial damage. With shards of carbon fibre all over the track, the race was red-flagged.
The race was restarted behind the safety car, a rolling start and again there were a few scary moments as they travelled behind the safety car.
Tyres not fully up to temperature, Verstappen was one of those who lost traction temporarily, but he just gathered the Red Bull before it became an embarrassing low-speed error.
Off they went again Verstappen leading and Lando Norris showing great determination and speed to get by Charles Leclerc Ferrari to move into second place.
Hamilton had to try and recover from ninth. He quickly set about the task, working his way up to sixth in the space of four laps.
Sergio Perez was not having a good race. A number of off-course excursions dropped him right down the order to 13th. Not good enough when your teammate is demonstrating the pace of your car out front.
Hamilton finally joined the short train of three cars dicing for second and third, Verstappen looked to have the top spot in the bag from a long way out. Hamiltons Mercedes picked off the two Ferraris. Next in its firing line was the McLaren of Lando Norris.
Struggling for rear grip, Norris defended as vigorously as his car would allow, but inevitably the Mercedes got by and Hamilton had completed his mission and maximized what was possible on the day. Take nothing away from Max Verstappen.
The young Dutch driver drove a wonderful race. It’s difficult in changeable conditions to stay out of trouble and Max had his moments, but the moment that mattered most came at the end of the 63 laps when the chequered flag dropped to signal he and Red Bull had claimed their first win of the new season.
Lando Norris managed his tyres brilliantly to keep both Ferrari’s behind as he came home in third place. Round two of the 2021 world championship proved every bit as entertaining as the season’s opener in Bahrain and in this extreme high tech world, nature played a significant role.