Sunday’s madcap Emilia-Romagna GP saw Max Verstappen make it 1-1 with Lewis Hamilton for race wins in the 2021 F1 season but the return to Imola in its traditional April date saw enough drama throughout the entire field to make it one of the most compelling races in years.
Verstappen and Hamilton were the obvious story going into the race weekend and their battle for pole position in qualifying, Hamilton taking a “surprise” pole” with Verstappen starting in P3 was only the starter ahead of a breathless Sunday afternoon in northern Italy.
A burst of rain before the cars made their way to the grid made for a dramatic opening to the race as drivers struggled to make their mind up on whether to use the full wets on intermediates, and one or two being caught out as they made their way to their grid spot and finding themselves spinning off the black stuff and into the gravel.
The unexpected weather change wiped out any advantage the likes of Sergio Perez may have had in terms of tyre choice, the Mexican the only front runner due to start the race on the softs before the rain set in and left teams frantically digging out the wet weather tyres before the race got started.
A lack of Herman Tilke-designed massive run-off areas or swatches of tarmac made drivers really push their car and abilities to the limit as they tried to stay out of the walls.
If that wasn’t enough, brake problems for both Aston Martin’s left Seb Vettel having to start the race from the pitlane and Lance Stroll needing last-minute replacements made to his molten brakes.
By the time David Croft uttered his usual race-starting line, there had been more drama than most Grands Prix usually offer up over the entire weekend – with some sections of the circuit treacherously wet while others remained perfectly dry.
A near-faultless drive from Max Verstappen would see the Dutchman claim the checkered flag comfortably as Hamilton completed a remarkable comeback to seal second but the seven-time World Champion’s race was only saved thanks to a horror shunt between team-mate Valterri Bottas and Mercedes’ young pretender George Russell in a Williams.
The pair collided on lap 32, with both pointing the finger of blame at the other for the smash, as Hamilton tried desperately to reverse his own stricken Merc out of the gravel and back to the pits so he could replace a damaged front wing.
Had Bottas and Russell not caused the session to be halted, Hamilton’s hopes of a points finish, let alone a podium place, were dead and buried and Mercedes now find themselves in the position where their lowest point of the race singlehandedly allowed them to salvage something from it.
With Russell long-touted as Bottas’ replacement at Mercedes when the Finn leaves (whether through choice or otherwise), there is clearly plenty of bad blood between the pair.
Russell was clearly furious at what he felt was Bottas’ error, marching to the Finn’s Silver Arrow immediately after the crash and giving him a piece of his mind – before following it up with a sweary rant in the press pen after the race.
Having collided with Russell trying to overtake Bottas for P9, the British driver was looking well on course for a points finish for Williams, which will surely have added to his frustration.
For another young British driver it was a race to remember as Lando Norris picked up his second podium of his career in what was arguably his best drive yet for McLaren.
Norris was cruelly robbed of a place on the front row of the grid when his qualifying time was deleted for exceeding track limits but he shone on Sunday in the changeable Italian weather.
After being put ahead of team-mate Daniel Ricciardo as a result of team orders midway through the race, Norris grabbed the ball and ran with it as he opened up a massive gap over the Australian in quick order to push up the field and really challenge.
While most teams opted for the yellow-striped medium tires after the restart, McLaren’s decision to put Norris onto the red-striped softs worked tremendously well and allowed to young Brit to surge towards the front of the pack and sit comfortably in second for a while.
Despite eventually having to cede second to Hamilton as his tyres went off, Norris is really starting to mature into a genuine top-tier driver – and with Ricciardio on the other side of the garage he has an excellent benchmark to test himself against.
Although the Emilia-Romagna GP (or the Formula 1 Pirelli Gran Premio del Made in Italy e dell’Emilia Romagna 2021 to give it its full name) might be the last time we see F1 cars roaring around Imola for quite a while there can be no doubt that a permanent return to the former home of the San Marino and Italian GPs would be a welcome full-time addition to the calendar.
The tight circuit and punishing turns made for a real test of skill for the grid and, while finances will likely dictate it disappears from the 2022 calendar, fans and drivers alike will take excellent memories away from the 2020 and 2021 races at the circuit.
Wherever the 2021 season ends up taking us, the Imola GP has set a high bar for the rest of the races to follow this season.