• Max Verstappen wins chaotic Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola
  • Dutchman draws level on points with Lewis Hamilton in World Drivers’ Championship
  • Briton battles back to finish runner-up, as Lando Norris takes second podium ahead of Charles Leclerc
IMOLA, ITALY – After Max Verstappen gained early redemption at Imola this past weekend, what did we learn from the F1 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix?

 

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Do we have a genuine Championship race?

For now at least, the definitive answer to that is a resounding ‘yes’. Despite Lewis Hamilton winning the opening of race of the season in Bahrain last month, fears of yet another Formula 1 procession toward the World Drivers’ Championship appear to have been confounded.

As Max Verstappen cruised home at Imola this past weekend to win for the first time in Italy, the Dutchman’s victory at a chaotic and wet Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari, was further evidence of Verstappen’s step-up in class.

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On a track more akin to a skidpan, for Verstappen to come out on top over his rival who simply revels in the wet, could be a significant moment in F1. Though a huge amount of credit should also be afforded Hamilton, chasing further history this year – coming back to finish second after sliding out into the barriers on Lap 31, and also suffering front-wing damage during the opening lap – Verstappen’s win was vital for hopes of a season-long duel.

As both men sit on 43 points heading to Portugal later this month, the next page of the 2021 F1 season is poised to play out to the backdrop of the Algarve after a gripping opening two races. We cannot wait.

 

Norris and McLaren show calibre

Imola also told us more about McLaren’s designs for the coming season, and after a top-seven double in Sakhir a fortnight ago, the Brackley-based team improved this weekend with both Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo finishing P6 or better.

For Norris, the second podium of his career looked set to come under serious threat from Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc over the final laps in Italy, but after holding off the Monagesque driver, Norris has followed up fourth in the desert, with third place.

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Ricciardo was always going to strengthen McLaren as a team in filling the boots of Carlos Sainz Jr, but furthermore, it appears to have galvanised Norris, thrilling his growing legion of fans.

As two Brits stood on the podium together for the first time since the Australian GP in March 2012 – Hamilton third to winner Jenson Button in Melbourne on that occasion – it was Norris however, that had rightfully earned the plaudits as Driver of the Day.

So, as Norris embarks on his third season in F1, how much could we yet expect from the Bristolian this term?

 

Bottas-Russell needle emerges

Away from what so far looks to be a battle for the ages to claim the F1 crown, Mercedes’ number two Valtteri Bottas could find himself left in the shadows, now being pursued hard by one George Russell.

The latter – the Silver Arrows’ main junior driver – is being heavily tipped to join Hamilton at Mercedes next season, and after both Russell and Bottas were lucky to avoid a massive crash on Sunday, could needle build between the duo this campaign?

Shortly after Hamilton’s error had seen his sliding into the barriers, Bottas had led Russell approaching Tamburello, as the Kings Lynn driver attempted an overtake. Bottas however, either did not see the Briton make the late manoeuvre, or was panicked into defending his line – as was his right – and clipped Russell, as the two careened into the barriers at high speed.

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With both travelling at approximately 200mph, for a few moments, flashbacks were in the mind’s eye of Ayrton Senna‘s tragedy some 27 years ago. Indeed, Bottas, as he sat at the side of the track, was visibly shaken – aware of the situation he had partaken in.

Russell meanwhile, defended his own corner after the race, claiming the Finn has unlawfully blocked his path. Indeed, during a heated exchange with Bottas with the Mercedes driver still in the cockpit of his car, Russell was clear of mind as to who was at fault.

Since Sunday, both men have sought to cool emotions and now wish to draw a line under proceedings. But, with a place up for grabs next term – surely between the two men in question – might the needle only grow as the season rolls on?

 

Ferrari making inroads

Over in the Scuderia garage, things look a lot rosier than 12 months ago. Having shed the antagonism and angst of an awkward split with Sebastian Vettel, the Prancing Horse have began the season in decent shape, and came within seconds of a first podium since Silverstone last summer this past weekend.

Both Ferrari drivers gained places on Bahrain last time out – Leclerc P4, Sainz Jr P5 – and though McLaren for now look to be the best ‘other rans’ next to Red Bull and Mercedes, Ferrari will be bent on having their own say yet.

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On their home track, a mere 40 miles from Ferrari HQ in Maranello, both Leclerc and Sainz Jr. battled the elements at Imola where it should not be forgotten, both have only raced on once before.

Following one another home in Italy however, questions remain over the car’s performance in the dry, and eyes will be on the famed Italian red a fortnight from now in the Portugal.

 

A vintage season in the making?

We hoped for a F1 season to remember. It appears we may have got one. After years of Mercedes’ dominance, not only do the chances of classic, one-on-one dogfight for the title look good, but the rest of the grid look like adding their own spice to the melting pot.

Having touched upon rivalries and potential needle matches already, McLaren’s ever-strengthened position will provide competition at the head of the pack, but Ferrari also have hinted at a return to form on home tarmac.

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Even at the back of the pack – for now at least – the struggles of both Haas drivers Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin are still intriguing, whilst the returning Fernando Alonso, here, took a point at Imola in only his second F1 race back in the paddock.

In seasons past, the dwindling interest in another one-horse race had been a sole reason to tune in to the start of any given race, but with one of the strongest and most diverse fields in recent memory this term, 2021 looks set to deliver quite the campaign.

Roll on Portugal.

 

The 2021 Portuguese Grand Prix takes place in Portimao, over the weekend of April 30-May 2

 

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