Formula One’s first race at Imola since 2006 was a slow burn, but late-race reliability problems reinvigorated the Grand Prix as Mercedes glided to their 7th constructors’ title. With Red Bull, their distant challengers floundering behind them, the Mercedes team seemed serene by comparison as they sealed the championship with another 1–2 finish.
The Silver Arrows are enjoying headline after headline in their relentless march of success. Lewis Hamilton equaled, then surpassed Michael Schumacher’s win record at the previous two Grand Prix. Now, the German manufacturer has officially won the team championship. The result at Imola means that mathematically, only one of their drivers can win the Driver’s Championship. With Hamilton figuratively grasping the trophy with nine fingers, thanks to his 85 point lead, that’s likely going to happen next time out at Turkey.
The inaugural Emilia Romagna Grand Prix demonstrated how much of an advantage the Mercedes team currently has compared to Red Bull. Max Verstappen held the short straw throughout the race, even though he had a pace advantage over one Mercedes, and overtook the other at the start.
With Alex Albon racing to retain his seat, the Austrian team would’ve expected the sister Red Bull to lend rear-gunner support to the young Dutchman. But once again, Albon was way down the order, and Mercedes held all the strategy cards to keep Verstappen behind.
However, things didn’t go perfectly for the champions. Bottas led from the start after his well-earned pole position on Saturday. But on his second lap of this classic circuit, the Finn collected debris from Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari, handicapping the handling of his W11. Coupled with an uncharacteristically slow start for Hamilton, where the Brit lost out to Verstappen and very nearly Daniel Ricciardo in the ever-improving Renault, Mercedes had to rely on a little bit of luck to achieve their fifth 1–2 finish this year.
With Hamilton looking quicker behind Verstappen, and Verstappen unquestionably faster behind the floor-damaged car of Bottas, the difficulty the current-gen F1 cars have following a rival in dirty air was particularly apparent.
The sole DRS straight simply wasn’t long enough for any chasing driver to fully take advantage, without the man in front making an error. It took until lap 6 for the first overtake of the Grand Prix when Carlos Sainz passed McLaren teammate Lando Norris in the only passing move before the pit stops.
Somewhat fittingly for a circuit that hasn’t held a Formula One event since the mid-2000s, the first half of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix showcased how the sport was in the early part of the century. The teams needed to look at tire strategy and undercuts to better their opposition. The twenty drivers were entirely toothless against any competitors in similarly matched machinery.
Those pit stops came earlier in the race than expected, at lap 15. With only one free practice session this race weekend and no relevant historical data to refer to, tire life forecasting meant most teams played it safe on the hard compound.
The aftermath of the stops did create some action, though, with pace differential between drivers on cold and warm Pirellis. Charles Leclerc almost ran into the back of Ricciardo on his fresh but cold rubber, and Daniil Kvyat added to Albon’s misery by pressuring the Thai driver and nearly passing him in the DRS zone.
Back at the front, the luck Mercedes needed to guarantee a win came courtesy of Esteban Ocon’s gearbox failing. With race-leader Bottas pitting to cover Verstappen’s attempted undercut, Mercedes opted to split their strategy and left Hamilton out longer. The decision paid dividends when the race director utilized the virtual safety car to clear the stranded Renault. Hamilton leapfrogged both Verstappen and Bottas thanks to his ‘cheaper’ stop.
A few laps later, Hamilton’s fortuitous lead seemed even more valuable for Mercedes as Bottas ran wide into the downhill first Rivazza corner, opening the door for Verstappen to pass. Verstappen may have had the speed to catch Hamilton, but we’ll never know. His rear right tire failed dramatically at high-speed, sending Max spinning into the gravel before his Red Bull beached itself putting Verstappen out of the race and out of the championship battle.
However, any disappointment for Verstappen was quickly eclipsed by George Russell in the resulting safety car period. Aided by higher runners retiring, together with a lofty starting position of P13 on a difficult-to-pass track, Russell sat in tenth place. His very first F1 point was within reach. But the 2018 F2 champion learned a hard lesson when he lost control of his Williams behind the safety car and nosedived into the barrier, ending his race and extending the SC period.
The late slowdown caused a headache for the teams. They could pit their drivers for soft tires and sacrifice track position. Or they could leave them out and hope whatever grip remained on their tires provided enough defense for their drivers on the tight and twisty circuit. The latter was the right call, and the biggest beneficiary was Daniel Ricciardo, who clinched his second podium in three races behind the two Merc’s.
Ricciardo had to fend off an incredible performance by Daniil Kvyat, who charged his AlphaTauri past Charles Leclerc and Sergio Perez following the restart and will be delighted with a P4 finish. With Kvyat’s future looking uncertain, his impressive passes will remind Red Bull of the Russian’s capabilities. In sharp contrast, Albon, the highly scrutinized Red Bull driver, spun his car to the back of the pack, resulting in his third successive point-less finish.
One can argue that this was a race that Bottas lost through circumstances beyond his control, rather than one Hamilton won. Regardless, a 1–2 finish at the Grand Prix was a fitting way to mark Mercedes’ latest record of seven consecutive titles. Their continued success since 2014 now, statistically, makes them Formula One’s best team. Whoever can stop them in 2021, 2022, or beyond will be ending a juggernaut that is undoubtedly now one of the greatest teams in sporting history.
Originally published at https://www.fortloc.com.