For the second round of the 2021 Formula 1 world championship the series returned to Imola.  A classic track with just a few difficult overtaking opportunities. So expectations for a nerve-racking race were rather low. But with a very close field and surprising conditions, everything changed. The phrase ‘Oh, Mama Mia!’ was never more suitable.

Free practice:
The weekend kicked off with FP1 on Friday morning at 11 am local time. Many teams wasted no time trying to get on with their program including Alpine,  one of several teams who brought updates.  But of course, it wasn’t a session without any trouble. Tsunoda had an early off-track moment as well as Latifi, even though the latter one still finished in P9. Former teammates Perez and Ocon came together at the Villeneuve Chicane and brought out the red flag with 20 minutes to go. The restart happened 12 minutes before the end, triggering a lot of hustle and traffic on track. Practice starts and last laps had to be abandoned after Mazepin crashed at the exit of Rivazza 2 bringing out a red flag and ending the session. All in all, there were some promising performances from Gasly and both of the Ferraris. Even the top 3 were only separated by 0.058s. However, the big question mark were Mclaren who only finished P10 and P13.

The second free practice got on its way only two and a half hours later. After the red flag in FP1, everyone was eager to get more laps done and gather more data. But for Verstappen, the session came to an end only 10 minutes in after reporting that something broke. Nevertheless, his pace prior seemed pretty competitive. For once the session didn’t have any more incidents other than a bumpy ride for Alonso in the Turn 14 chicane until Leclerc crashed in the final corner with 3 minutes remaining and brought out the red flag. Mercedes finished the session with a 1-2 and Bottas being fastest on mediums ahead of Hamilton on softs. Gasly again impressed in P3 only 0.078s off P1. Both Ferrari seemed to have taken a big step as they slotted in in P4 and P5. Furthermore are to mention Tsunoda only being 0.008s off of Perez in P6, Russel setting his fastest time on hard tyres and still finishing P16 and Mazepin being 0.5s off of his teammate Schumacher. The Mclarens once again didn’t look too comfortable even though Ricciardo’s fastest time got deleted because of track limits.

Saturday morning started off with FP3, the last rehearsal for Qualifying. Apart from a crash by Latifi in the Villeneuve chicane which brought out a red flag, a big snap of oversteer for Bottas in Acque Minerali the session consisted of much traffic and many deleted lap times because of track limits. The FIA was very strict and consistent with their rules here in comparison to last time out in Bahrain. In the end, Verstappen finished fastest with a 1,14.958 min and was 0.456s clear of Norris in P2 who seemed blazing fast in that session. Hamilton was already 0.5s off in P3. Ferrari tried a new floor and again delivered with P5 and P7 as well as Gasly who always enjoys Italy in P6. Alpine was another team that had a very positive session with both cars finishing in the Top 10. However, Ricciardo couldn’t match his teammate in P2 and only finished P13. Alfa Romeo had a disappointing time with only P18 and P19.

It’s safe to say it definitely looked very exciting ahead of qualifying with the close times, the challenge of the perfect lap and the always beloved traffic in the last corner…

Qualifying:
The moment when it all counted finally arrived. All our questions were answered at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari at 2 pm local time to be precise.

Q1 got on its way with a big heart-stopping moment as Tsunoda pushed too hard and crashed at Variante Alta. The red flag was waved as the young driver luckily got out unharmed but with a P20 or pitlane start for Sunday. Bottas finished the segment quickest with Norris in third as both Williams managed to get into Q2 for the first time since Hungary 2020. Eliminated were the two Alfa Romeos and Haas plus Tsunoda due to his crash.

Q2 was a tyre gamble as the mediums would last longer but the softs would be faster in the race on Sunday. In the end, only Verstappen and the Mercedes set their times on mediums while the rest couldn’t afford the risk. Norris once again showed a stellar performance as he finished P1 with Perez 0.002s behind him. Eliminated were Sainz who drove too aggressive as well as Alonso and Vettel who had tough sessions. Furthermore, both Williams didn’t make it but it’s worth mentioning that Russel was only 0.1s off of Q3.

When it got to Q3 adrenaline was already running high and it was as nailbiting as it could get. Hamilton set a very impressive benchmark time on his first run giving him provisional pole. Verstappen and Perez slotted in behind him with Norris in fourth. While Hamilton couldn’t improve on his second run it opened the door for the two Red Bulls. However, while Perez improved to second Verstappen made a mistake in sector 1 only giving him P3 behind his teammate. In the last seconds, Norris then delivered purple sector after purple sector with a time that would have given him P3. But track limits decided and his time was deleted pushing him down to P7 behind Ricciardo. While Gasly and Leclerc stuck to their consistent spots P5 and P4, Bottas only managed P8 in his Mercedes.

Imola gave us the closest qualifying since 2012 as the top 8 were only separated by 0.487s. Furthermore, we had lots to look forward to in the race: Would Verstappen break his Italy curse? Could we see a Red Bull 1-2? What will Norris achieve with his pace? Could Williams score points? What about Bottas in P8? What could Leclerc and Gasly manage? Would Vettel finally score points again? ….

The race:
Overnight everyone had prepared a strategy that they thought would provide them with the best end result. But when the drivers got ready to make their way onto the grid an unexpected guest turned up at Imola. Heavy rain in parts of the track proved to be a challenging force as Alonso was the first to go off and damage his front wing on an installation lap. Another big problem occurred at Aston Martin as both cars had brake issues. While Strolls issues could be fixed on the grid Vettel had to start from the pitlane and later on got a 10-second stop-go penalty as his wheels were not put on at the 5-minute warning. Furthermore, Bottas suffered a tyre puncture on his way to the grid. With the rain easing but the track being half wet half dry the right tyre choice was not easy to make. In the end, everyone but Gasly, Ocon and both Haas drivers went for Intermediate tyres, the other chose full-wet tyres. When the cars finally got on the formation lap Leclerc had a spin but could get back to his original position.

After a very chaotic and action-packed half an hour it was then eventually Lights-Out in Imola.

As Verstappen got the best start he overtook Perez and then challenged Hamilton into Tamburello coming out as the race leader. Hamilton meanwhile lost a piece of the front wing as he caught a bumpy ride over curbs in his fight for first place. Riccardo, Leclerc and Tsunoda used the start all making up places in the first lap. However, Latifi spun due to the conditions and made contact with Mazepin while rejoining the track which ended in him crashing into the wall and bringing out the safety car only on lap 2. Using the safety car to his advantage Ocon pitted for Intermediate tyres. But with rather cold conditions keeping tyre temperature was a challenge as Schumacher proved. While trying to get heat into his tyres he lost the car and crashed at the pitlane exit leaving him without a front wing. While carbon pieces from his front wing were blocking the pitlane exit Schumacher had to endure two laps before he was able to pick up a new front wing. But the rookie wasn’t the only one with a mistake. Perez spun at Piratella losing several positions. He made his way back to his original position which later earned him a 10-second penalty for overtaking under the safety car. On lap 7 the race got back on its way with Verstappen keeping his lead after the restart. While many overtakes were made in the midfield there were some cars really struggling for pace. One of those was Gasly with his old full-wet tyres and surprisingly Bottas in his Mercedes down in P10. Due to those being slower than usual Russel was able to make it into the points for the time being. On lap 18 Mclaren swapped their cars putting Norris in front who they believed to be quicker. The decision was soon justified as he pulled a 7-second gap to his teammate. When we came to lap 20 the big tyre gambling started. The track was drying up but still very wet in certain places. On lap 22 Vettel then was the first one to try the medium tyre and was soon followed by others. Race leader Verstappen pitted on lap 28 for mediums while Hamilton pitted one lap later. No positions were lost there as Verstappen maintained his lead. One of the shocking moments was shortly after Bottas was lapped by the race leader. On lap 30 first Hamilton crashed at Tosa but was able to reverse and pit for a new front wing dropping him to P9. However, the events on lap 33 gave everyone a huge moment of shock. Russel in P10 tried to overtake Bottas into Tamburello. As he went side to side with the Mercedes his wheels touched the wet grass consequently making him lose control and crashing into Bottas. The stewards first deployed the safety car but due to the amount of debris on the track, the race was soon red-flagged. At 4.25 pm local time the track was cleared and we got a flying restart. But of course, it wouldn’t have been Imola without a bit more drama as Verstappen spun at Rivazza but was able to maintain his lead which increased comfortably lap by lap. Behind him, Norris made it up to P2. But while the ones around him were on medium tyres the McLaren driver chose softs which would provide some intense last minutes. While most drivers experienced some off-track moments in the following laps, Hamilton made it up to P3 by Lap 55. Soon Norris got into trouble in P2. After five laps of hard defending by the youngster, Hamilton made his move at Tamburello.

In the end, Verstappen crossed the finish line with a 22-second lead to secure his 11th career victory. Hamilton made a brilliant recovery drive to come home in second while Norris’ impressive drive earned him third. Both Ferraris, Gasly and the Alpines scored points and finished their weekend on a positive note. However, Ricciardo and Vettel had a rather disappointing weekend as the first one couldn’t match his teammate’s pace while the second one suffered from a penalty and retired with a gearbox issue on the last lap. The same goes for Williams as the team couldn’t make use of its strong form.

An exciting weekend that slowly build-up came to an end with an epic race on Sunday. It was definitely one of the closest races F1 has seen in a while and had everyone on the edge from lap 1 to lap 63. Furthermore, we finally got to see the long-awaited duel between Hamilton and Verstappen which will hopefully carry on during the season…

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