It took him four races, but Max Verstappen finally ignited his championship defense with an emphatic victory in front of the home crowd for Ferrari.
It was the Dutchman’s second win of the year, but unlike Saudi Arabia, where he retired for a narrow victory, in Italy he owned the whole weekend, leaving no doubt that , at least under the right circumstances, its partnership with Red Bull Racing is still formidable under the new rules.
Ferrari’s loss was compounded by an unusually error-strewn performance to send its raucous fans home disappointed, the title hype after dominance in Melbourne deflated by an ill-fitting risk-reward calculation.
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But at least Ferrari and Charles Leclerc still control their respective titles. Mercedes’ season has gone from bad to worse and Lewis Hamilton has been forced to admit there will be no eighth world championship in 2022 after a particularly humiliating wasteful weekend, one of the worst in his career. career.
FERRARI GETS GREEDY IN HOME HORROR SHOW
Charles Leclerc and Ferrari leave Imola still top of both championship tables, but they walk away with dramatically reduced margins and the majority of the blame internally.
The SF-75 was not the conquering machine seen in Melbourne this weekend. That’s partly thanks to the sprint format locking in the wet setup for the dry races on Saturday and Sunday, but while that left the team on the back foot it was ultimately human error that dealt the blows. of thanks.
Carlos Sainz’s rotation in qualifying was reckless and left him preoccupied with moving into midfield in the sprint rather than interfering with Max Verstappen’s run, and the Dutchman was then able to start the Grand Prix from pole position. The Spaniard was then disqualified after a slow start on the less grippy side of the grid.
Charles Leclerc lacked the pace to match the Red Bull Racing cars but was given a strategy to skip at least Sergio Perez in the first pit stop window with the overtake – except a slow stop cost him almost 1.5 seconds, making Perez back the advantage for second place.
This minor mistake then convinced Ferrari to make the fateful final bet of the tire when it might otherwise have been in a leaning position, precipitating Leclerc’s potentially race-ending error trying to apply desperate pressure. over Perez, costing him three spots and seven points.
“It’s a little [of a] shame,” Leclerc said. “I don’t think the spin should have happened today.
“We didn’t have the pace for much more, and I was too greedy and paid the price.
“It all adds up to the end of the championship, that’s for sure. This shouldn’t happen again. »
The silver lining for Leclerc is that his costliest mistake was worth just seven points in his 18-point net loss to the Dutchman, and his overall lead remains more than a clear race win. But Verstappen cannot be counted on to make mistakes, and even small mistakes will be punished in this long season. After all, last year’s championship rested on just eight points.
RED BULL EXITS THE RACE WITHOUT INJURY
It was a result Red Bull Racing badly needed after three completely dodgy first laps, and finally it felt like Max Verstappen’s title defense was on.
Verstappen dominated all weekend. He took pole in Friday qualifying, won Saturday’s sprint race and was untouchable in the Grand Prix, leading every lap and setting the fastest lap en route to a Grand Slam victory. In doing so, he got as many points as possible, ensuring maximum damage to Leclerc in the chaos of the end of the race.
Sergio Perez was also strong, albeit far from perfect, but all that really matters is that he was able to capitalize on his car’s top pace to finish second and ahead of Leclerc. In doing so, he formed Red Bull Racing’s first one-two finish in 2030 days, reminiscent of the 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix, won by Daniel Ricciardo ahead of Verstappen.
But more importantly, both cars reached the flag with no technical issues – indeed, it was the first weekend of the season, the Red Bull badged Honda engine did not suffer a terminal problem for Red Bull Racing or AlphaTauri. The power unit isn’t necessarily out of the woods yet, but it’s certainly a milestone.
“Max and Checo both drove brilliantly this weekend, and that one-two finish – all the credit to the team,” said team boss Christian Horner. “Rising up after the disappointment in Australia, coming back with such a result here at Imola was one of our best results.”
There were other little things over the weekend too, including the introduction of some key improvements despite having the only Friday practice session to test them with. It’s impossible to say what percentage of the team’s dominance was due to updates to the circumstances of the weekend, but it certainly allayed post-Australian concerns that Ferrari were close to stealing a march on the title.
HAMILTON HEADLINE HOPE AFTER WEEKEND WITH ‘UNDRIVEABLE’ MERCEDES
Do you remember Lewis Hamilton having a worse weekend?
The seven-time champion was 0.4 seconds slower than teammate George Russell in qualifying and finished three places and six seconds behind his compatriot in the sprint, having lost a place on the scoreboard by 21 laps.
The contrast in the race results was even starker: Russell passed the senior Briton in fourth, when he was 11th on the grid, while Hamilton worked his way up to 13th, his lowest result in pure pace since 2009.
To be fair to the 37-year-old, the discrepancy in results can largely be attributed to the start. He only improved two places, from 14th to 12th, and thus remained mired in midfield and unable to press the pace of the car. Russell, meanwhile, moved from 11th to sixth on the opening lap, where the relatively clear air facilitated a smoother run to the flag.
His progress was made more difficult by the absence of DRS, which race control left off well after halfway due to the weather conditions.
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Hamilton also struggled in the pit stops, pushed back by Esteban Ocon in a dangerous exit for which the Frenchman was penalised.
But there is no getting around Hamilton’s dismal result, the day Russell remained the last driver to finish in the top five in every race this season.
“I’m out of the Championship for sure,” Hamilton said, giving an obviously devastating voice. “There is no doubt about it.
“I will continue to work as hard as I can and try to pull myself together somehow.”
But even Russell’s decent form can’t hide how shoddy the W13 is, especially poorly shown in the cool climates of Imola. Team boss Toto Wolff has been pressured to apologize to his drivers for the substandard machinery, although the Austrian has so far refused to consider steering his team in a new direction.
“Sorry about what you needed to drive today,” he radioed Hamilton on the recovery lap. “I know it’s undriveable and it’s not what we deserve to score as a result.
“We’ll go from there, but it was a terrible race. We will get out of it. »
Nobody knows how long it takes, but you wouldn’t be holding your breath at this point.
MCLAREN’S RETURN CONTINUES AT THE PACE
If you want confirmation that McLaren’s improvements are real, you don’t need to look at the results or even dive into lap-by-lap analysis. Just listen to Lando Norris after taking his first podium of the season.
Norris has been the team’s main pessimist since finishing last among the constructors in the first race in Bahrain. His mood at the time has largely helped set the tone for the talk around the team so far this season.
Even the small improvements seen in Saudi Arabia and the relatively larger step forward in Australia were met with skepticism by Norris, who wrote these good results mainly to track the features rather than the car.
But in Italy his language was radically different, and that’s as good a validation of the team’s improvements as you’re likely to get from any analysis of lap times.
“The boring answer is just hard work,” he said of the result. “A lot of time and effort that everyone invests at the factory and everyone here.
“Just hard work and a great weekend, and it all pays off.”
There is undoubtedly a bit of circumstance in the mixture. Norris admitted he has always done well in mixed conditions – he was also on the podium in last year’s wet and dry Grand Prix here – and some midfield teams were clearly taken aback by the reduction in training time as well as by wet weather.
But McLaren are beyond luck in the results now, and if Daniel Ricciardo hadn’t subtly misjudged the first braking zone and then been kicked by Valtteri Bottas, the Aussie would probably have been right with Norris at the flag, having shown up to this point that he has the rhythm.
It’s still not enough to fight for the titles, but at least the team is on the right track, and wins could be on the horizon later in the year if the trajectory continues.
NEW RULES GET A REALITY CHECK
A final word goes to the action, or general lack thereof, on Sunday, which dampened some of the general positivity surrounding the new rules for this season.
There were around 12 passes for position on Sunday – not counting passes on the first lap or around pit stops – three of which were made by Leclerc recovering from his spin in the final five laps and five of which by drivers outside of the points and never intended to break into the top 10.
Imola has never been an easy track to overtake with the wide modern cars, although the new rules have helped matters, and so the race was a reminder that DRS, although maligned in so many quarters, remains an integral part of the spectacle. . He was certainly sorely missed in the first half of the race, during which race control left him off to try and avoid a repeat of the Valtteri Bottas-George Russell crash seen here last season.