The shape of the 2021 Formula One season was set in the opening seconds of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.
As pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton was swamped at the start of a cold-and-wet contest, he and Max Verstappen went shoulder-to-shoulder and head-to-head into the first corner.
Verstappen pushed for the lead, Hamilton refused to yield, and the pair touched.
It was only a minor bump, even if it cost Hamilton part of his front wing, but it showed that the pair are playing for keeps this year in cars that are very, very close.
Verstappen had already fought his corner during the battle at the front in the season opener in Bahrain, where he went off the track to pass Hamilton before being forced to hand the lead back, but the situation at Imola raised their confrontation to a new level.
“I started first, should have been first at the finish but these things are sent to test us and we’ve got a great battle on our hands. Game on,” Hamilton said after finishing second in a race which was packed with action.
“It’s very close, but for now I’m very happy with the result. I wouldn’t call it a dominant performance, as Lewis was following me quite well and for him to come back to second after his incident means they have a lot of pace in that car.”
The “incident” came when Hamilton tore the nose off his Mercedes, but he was able to pit during one of the many disruptions – when George Russell of Williams cleaned-up a lacklustre Valtteri Bottas in his Mercedes – for repairs, then chased Verstappen home on a drying track as he raced from ninth up to second.
The other star of the race was Lando Norris, not just because he made Daniel Ricciardo look a bit shabby in their McLarens but because he extracted the maximum for a car that clearly suits him.
“I think I drove very well – I made a lot of good decisions – but it wasn’t easy. We made a good decision at the end to go for soft tyres and get ahead of Leclerc. We almost held onto P2, but not quite,” said Norris.
Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz finished strongly for Ferrari despite a series of errors by the Spaniard, with Ricciardo after them.
“Certainly not an awesome race, but I think to come home sixth is good for the constructors’ points with Lando in third. Congrats to Lando, he had a great race and it’s awesome to see the car has the pace,” said the Aussie.
“My race pace was nothing too special. I’ve just got to keep working on it and improve.”
The incidents at Imola began even before the start, as Fernando Alonso crashed his Alpine on the run to the grid and then both Aston Martins set fire to their rear brakes. Still, Alonso, Lance Stroll – who was seventh – and Sebastian Vettel took the start after urgent repairs.
There were more spins and smashes from the early laps, but the biggest impact came when Russell punted a lacklustre Valtteri Bottas, who was never in the battle pack with his Mercedes, and the race had to be stopped while the mess was cleared.
“George got close and decided to go for a move. He obviously lost the car and hit me,” said Bottas.
It provided a get-out-of-jail card for Hamilton, who had beached his Mercedes after a rare error but was able to pit for a new nosecone and drive back to second.
“I’m grateful that I was back in the race and could hunt down and get back to second,” said Hamilton.
“Considering I was facing the barrier at one stage, then a lap down, yeah, it was a difficult day. I’m only human so these mistakes happen.”
But he knows he cannot afford too many more mistakes, as Verstappen and his Red Bull are clearly fast enough to set the pace in coming races.
“We still have to work hard to improve because it’s very close, but for now I’ve very happy with the result. We’ll see what we can do but, so far, it’s been a good start to the year,” said Verstappen.
Emilia Romagna Grand Prix
- Hamilton, 44 points; 2. Verstappen, 43; 3. Norris, 23; 4. Leclerc, 20; 5. Bottas, 16; 6. Sainz, 14; 7. Ricciardo, 14; 8. Perez, 10; 9. Stroll, 5; 10. Gasly, 6.