Max Verstappen's Exceptional Start Leads to an Imola Win

Fred Smith
·4 min read
Photo credit: Clive Mason - Formula 1 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Clive Mason - Formula 1 - Getty Images

In the first race of the season, Lewis Hamilton won when Max Verstappen made a crucial mistake. In race two, it was Hamilton's mistake and Verstappen's win.

The race started in wet-into-drying conditions, with all but two drivers on the starting grid choosing to start on intermediate tires. Verstappen, starting third after a rare head-to-head qualifying loss to a teammate, got off to an excellent start, and used his momentum to dive past both his teammate Sergio Perez and the pole-sitting Hamilton. Verstappen held back an early charge from Hamilton, who went off track rather than lifting and losing more positions and, in turn, took some damage from elevated kerbs in the run-off area. Verstappen jetted out to a significant early lead.

Immediately afterward, a safety car came out and that lead evaporated again.

It was the direct result of contact between Nicholas Latifi and Nikita Mazepin, a crash which forced Latifi to retire. A few laps later, Mazepin's teammate Mick Schumacher crashed on his own under the safety car.

When the race resumed, Verstappen got away to a comfortable lead that eventually ballooned to five seconds. That gap then shrunk to two seconds. After seeing the early returns from drivers further back in the field, his Red Bull team chose to pit him for dry tires relatively early, one lap before Hamilton. By the time Mercedes brought Hamilton in for a relatively slow stop one lap later, the lead had grown back to five seconds.

It was back down to two seconds when Hamilton came across traffic. In the process of lapping those cars on dry tires on the still-damp surface, he made a crucial mistake, locking up a tire and careening off-track. Verstappen's lead was, suddenly, insurmountable. Despite another stoppage and a scary moment before the restart that looked like it could have led to a crash under yellow, he would never be challenged again.

Hamilton, however, still had a long race left to run. A red flag came out on the same lap for a crash between his teammate, Valtteri Bottas, and the driver that filled in for him at Bahrain last season, George Russell. On the restart, Hamilton lined up ninth.

He would finish second.

Despite years of dominant overall pace, Mercedes entries have not been known for their pace in traffic. Hamilton bucked that trend today, methodically catching and passing every single slower car left on track to finish second, take the fastest lap of the race, and come away from a race he could have won with a championship lead despite a back-breaking, wholly unforced mistake.

Lando Norris would complete the podium, grabbing a position from team orders early from Daniel Ricciardo when McLaren saw his significant pace advantage in the damp conditions. He lost a spot to Hamilton late, yes, but McLaren understands fully that their goal this season is to finish as the best of the rest, and a finish ahead of every entry from Ferrari, Aston Martin, Alpine, and AlphaTauri is a successful weekend for both Norris and McLaren.

The story of the season is now firmly what it had always been expected to be. This is a one-on-one battle between Verstappen and Hamilton, one in which their cars seem fairly evenly-matched. Their teammates, meanwhile, have very little reason for optimism.

While Hamilton leads the championship, Valtteri Bottas is an already-distant fifth in the driver's standings after following up a podium at Bahrain with a retirement today. The news is worse for Sergio Perez, who failed to convert yesterday's promising qualifying pace into a single point after careening off track on his own from the top five late today. Paired with a disappointing fifth at Bahrain, Perez is now just eighth in the driver's standings.

A point for fastest lap today means that Lewis Hamilton retains a narrow lead on Max Verstappen in those standings, but consecutive finishes of fourth and third mean that Lando Norris is in a surprising and respectable third. Make no mistake, though: McLaren will have to make significant, race-swinging improvements to their car over the next few months if he hopes to turn that early speed into a championship. This is a battle between Verstappen and Hamilton, and it looks like it could be a close one.

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