Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale breaks down the events of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola...
Ambient 17.6° Track 24.6° Humidity 72.3% Wind 0.7 m/s
Overcast skies loomed over the paddock as the race gods, depite rising humidity, deemed once again to deprive humanity of the shenanigans of a randomly wet race, leaving just tyre degradation and the foibles of man and machine (and track limits) to be responsible for the random excitements of the upcoming race. After a brilliant qualifying yesterday, it was Pierre Gasly who had his pre-race routine upset as Honda detected an "anomaly" on his PU which led to a rapid dismantling of cover panels and inspection for the Alpha Tauri driver. Nonetheless, he was on the way to the grid with the rest of the runners as the final, frantic, pre-race preparations finished up and the klaxon sounded its clarion call to clear the grid and start the formation lap.
Along with Bottas, Hamilton and Verstappen, every car from P11 down was starting on the Medium tyre, with the exception of Giovinazzi, who had for reasons elected to start on the Soft. Pirelli strategy had a one stop with Soft-Medium as the way to go with pit window opening around lap 26. Should anyone deign to try the two stop, lap 18ish is thought to be the time to make that low percentage move. Safety Cars could make life fun, and on the way to the grid Bottas gifted himself a flat spot in an effort to get the tyres warmed up for the start. The long run to Turn 2 offers an almost certain overtaking opportunity for some and T2 and T3 an almost certain crunch zone...
Lights Out!!!! Great Start by Bottas but it was Verstappen who nicked Hamilton into Turn 2, having been towed past Lewis by the lead Mercedes, whilst it was Ricciardo who snuck up on Gasly, snatching P4. Magnussen spun it at Turn 7 which did him and his race no favors and early days it was Giovinazzi, betting on the Softs up 6 spots and Stroll in with damage lap 1. Magnussen apparently had minor contact with Vettel prompting his roundabout, and Stroll washed into the rear of Ocon at the start and damaged his front wing.
As the race settled down it was Hamilton, setting fast lap on the third go round and on replay at the start it was Hamilton, taking every bit of the apex that caused Gasly to back off and gave Ricciardo his opportunity for gain. Lap 5 and the top 3 were staying just outside DRS on one another, somewhat unusually. Gasly was in DRS on Ricciardo by the barest of margins and looking down the order it was Albon on Leclerc for P6 and Perez on Norris for P10 that looked to be the likeliest spots for conflict. Norris was in P10 because Sainz sailed by him into the first chicane and it was Ricciardo driving the midfield train in P4 as Gasly sought to find a hole in his defenses.
Lap 9 and Gasly was in for oh, dear, a terminal situation on the car according to his race engineer... Apparently the issue before the start wasn't as fixed as they had hoped... Vicious indeed are the race gods.
The following lap Grosjean was in for a set of Hards because, why not when your car will randomly alter its ride height. According to Verstappen's radio they owned the corners and Mercedes the straights as the race spiraled into lap 11 and light graining was being reported on some sets of tyres.
Russell was next to jump and Alpha Tauri reported it was a loss of water pressure that caused Gasly's retirement. At the front, the gaps had been run out to a second and a half as the tyre management phase of the race got well underway. End of lap 13 and Leclerc, Norris and Ocon all were in for a new set of tyres. Temperatures were a bit colder than qualifying and it may be that the Medium tyre was not working as well as anticipated. This week's Soft being last week's Medium (and this week's Hard last week's Medium) for reference, the C2, C3 and C4 being the compounds on offer. Exiting the pits, Russell had managed to undercut Ocon as the race was going rather away from him. Ricciardo, Albon and Kvyat were next up and of the three, it was Albon who was not able to overcut and Leclerc, trying to take maximum advantage of his hot tyres, locked up into the hairpin of Turn 7 and did himself no favours in his chase of the Renault. Bottas was told to push the next lap and it was Sainz who jumped next, in on lap 18 as Kvyat was having a rather serious go at Albon into Turn 2 and there was a wee bit of contact as the Red Bull driver took to the apex rather hard.
Bottas was in end of lap 19 in response to Verstappen rocking in at the beginning of the lap as Red Bull bet the farm on the undercut and... nope nopity nope, Bottas out ahead of the Red Bull, albeit with the gap shortened to just about a second. Now into clean air, Hamilton was suddenly very happy with his tyres and requested that he be given some extra laps to make hay while his sun shined. Mercedes agreed, after seeing his laptimes and it was looking like he might well have won the tyre management battle as he was still running the same, well, OK even faster, than the cars behind. Damage to the floor for Bottas explained rather a lot as Verstappen was inexorably closing in on the wounded Mercedes.
Further back it was a tale of two strategies, as Perez, now up to P4 thanks to the pitstop lottery, was running much faster on his Mediums than Ocon, who had started on the same strategy, now stuck behind Russell and indeed, the Racing Point faster than Ricciardo behind on the fresher tyres. Hamilton, who had just about cleared the Bottas/Verstappen train was asked to rock another 10 laps and he had no issues whatsoever with giving it the old college try. Magnussen, meanwhile, the last of the runners to stay on the Mediums and go long, was in the process of destroying Ricciardo's race, to the utter delight of Perez, who happily boxed on lap 28 and emerged ahead of his Renault rival.
But the real excitement was behind with Leclerc making a lovely pass on Magnussen into Turn 7 followed by a fierce battle with Albon all the way up to the top of the hill. Renault's day got worse as Ocon stopped the car and pulled off to the side with a clutch problem and sure enough, Virtual Safety Car and Hamilton was in, lap 31, even as the VSC was lifted. He was out on the Hards 3.5 seconds up on Bottas. The FIA did their best to not advantage Hamilton further and thanks to the parking job done by Ocon it was cleared in less than 30 seconds but it was still very much a case of Hamilton and Mercedes making their own luck by taking care of the tyres well in the management phase of the first stint.
Vettel, Raikkonen and Latifi were the last drivers left after Hamilton's stop, and it was looking like a P10ish for the Ferrari driver in P4 for the moment. Ahead, the wounded Merc was breathing its last in defense of P2 as the aero damage, now rated "significant" by the team, was beginning to extend and Verstappen was exerting his utmost to try and take advantage of a small off. Close, closer and then Bottas managed to close the door for the moment, and it was status quo for the moment. Vettel was in lap 40 and out in P14 with a tyre advantage and not much else as it looked as if a massively borked pitstop, 13 seconds stationary, was responsible for the utter destruction of his race.
Trying to help their driver overtake Bottas, Max was told to switch to mode 8 and his reply was that it was the worst ever mode. Despite that, by lap 42 he was once again on the gearbox of the Mercedes over the top of the hill and into the left hander of Turn 17 Bottas locked up and went into the gravel. Seizing his chance with both hands, teeth and a pair of pliers he had lying around, Verstappen blew past Bottas and easily took the position away into Turn 2.
This left just Raikkonen to pit, which would put Russell terrifyingly close to the points in P11 or P12 depending on how well Alfa managed his pitstop. Magnussen was on the radio complaining of a headache caused by upshifts and on replay, it was clear that the sync wasn't working correctly and the car was literally walloping him in the back of the head everytime he shifted up the gears. Which, was rather a lot in this race.
Lap 48 and Raikkonen was still out and now perhaps it was the Soft tyre that Alfa was holding out for, but Perez had finally closed the gap and was in DRS of the Finn. That was the team had been waiting for and they brought him in and out just behind Russell, with a set of Softs to play with to the end of the race. Magnussen was brought in and retired on lap 40 and with 13 laps to go the major question was looking to be whether or not Raikkonen could use his tyres to get back into the points before the laps ran out.
The following lap, Raikkonen was into DRS and just as he was about to make the leap the Safety Car flag jumped up on the timing screen and a quick scan of the track map showed Verstappen off into the gravel between Turn 5 and 6. On camera, his right rear was destroyed and according to Max something on the car broke. On replay it was clear the tyre went on the straight and it was bad news for Hamilton, as the Safety Car picked him up and he lost the chance to pit. Behind, Bottas had no such issues and was in for some Softs, along with a fairly large pack of drivers. Staying out were Ricciardo, Leclerc and Albon with Perez being pitted and back out in P7 which is a hmmmmm choice to be sure. Hamilton was able to get in the following lap but must have been flirting with his speed as there came a frantic call of Delta Delta Delta Delta Delta from Bono.
AND THEN, on the way to lap 11, Russell, trying to warm the tyres, absolutely put it in the wall and took himself out of a chance at any points. It was now looking much better for those that opted to stay out and maintain track position as the laps available were going to disappear rather quickly as the mess created by the Williams was cleaned up.
Oddly, the way it worked out Raikkonen wound up in P10 anyways and it was Perez with the most work to do to make his strategy work out, with Albon, Leclerc and Ricciardo to get round and pick up the podium that was currently occupied, once again, by Danny Ric. Lap 57 of 63 and still no word as to whether the Safety Car was coming in and a tasty battle was brewing. End of lap 47 and it was ON!!!
Perez was all over the back of Albon as Hamilton kicked it all off and it was 3 wide as Kvyat went up the inside into Turn 2. Albon spun on the way to Turn 5, possibly with contact. On replay the answer was no contact and it was Kvyat, by Leclerc as well heading round the outside into Turn 8 and battling for a podium with his future as yet undecided. Perez was by Sainz for P6 and riding right up the gearbox of Leclerc with just 3 laps in the race.
Ricciardo was maintaining the gap at about a second as Kvyat wasn't quite able to get close enough when it mattered, but it was quite the gap back to Leclerc in P5 now 3 seconds back. Lap 61 and the Hards looked to be back back up to temperature and it was looking less and less likely with each passing turn that Kvyat could pull it off. By the final lap, Perez was just 0.3 seconds back of Leclerc but unlike Kvyat, completely unable to surprise the Ferrari driver. Ahead Hamilton had rocked in a fastest lap leaving Bottas the final bite at the apple.
Into the final lap, it was Leclerc, again fending off the attack of Perez and across the line it was Mercedes, with Hamilton in the lead, winning the Constructor's for the 7th time (in a row) thanks to the retirement of Verstappen, quite the present for Toto Wolff who had overseen the era of unprecedented returns for the Silver Arrows.
Massive day for Mercedes, and there's no reason to think that any team on the grid had more to celebrate, lacking just a Driver's Championship to match and some signed contracts to cap off this rather extraordinary year. Also unreasonably exuberant was Renault, who after their earlier strategy call had gone somewhat awry, was given a shot at redemption and correctly called the Safety Car gambit, leaving it in the hands of Ricciardo to defend their inherited podium, who did so in style, easily extinguishing the agony of Ocon's earlier retirement. As exciting as their second podium (in three races no less)of the season was, it was a big fat no from Cyril on the subject of a second tattoo. Alpha Tauri found themselves in similar circumstances, the pain of Gasly's retirement eclipsed by Kvyat's charge to the finish, balked only by a lack of laps to make good their Soft tyre bet.
Any time a Ferrari is in the top 5 these days it has to be considered an exceptional achievement, and Leclerc's finish, therefore counts but the joy has to be a bit more diffuse as the disaster that was Vettel's pitstop. It kept them from a likely double points finish and was, well, not a good look at all regardless of how checked out the relationship between team and driver is.
McLaren was also gifted a pair of spots, directly to the spin of Albon and retirement of Verstappen and they will think themselves lucky to walk off with P7 and P8 as they were at the tail end of the points prior to the Safety Car. Still, it keeps them in the fight to best of the rest and that's the best to be hoped for at the moment, as they search to finally extract the full potential from their updates.
And a moment of glory for Alfa Romeo, who had really been having a rather undistinguished season as their newly confirmed drivers pulled off a double points finish, confirming their top of the bottom status, with Raikkonen in particular winning a particularly lucky roll of the dice after the Safety Car looked to have utterly ruined his strategy prior to Russell's self destruction. And hey, a quick shout for Latifi who given the ummm, unexpected retirement of Russell managed to rock home in P11, giving Williams a faint ray of sunshine.
It's amazing to think that P6 would look like a savage disappointment, but if you are Sergio Perez and Racing Point, that's exactly what it was. After dominating the race for best of the rest up to the Safety Car, their decision to pit for new tyres dropped Perez from P3 to P6 and with the blinding restart of Kvyat that's exactly where he stayed to the end of the race. Perez did his best to be stoic about it, but his best was not that good to be honest, and it was clear that he did not approve of the call, which he said was made very last minute, in his post race interviews. On the bright side, the front jack mechanic that Stroll punted was declared unharmed...
Finally, until the moment Verstappen's right rear tyre departed this vale of tears, it was a reasonable race for Red Bull, with Max in P2 thanks to the chunk of Ferrari bodywork Bottas' car had swallowed, and Albon in the mix for P5. But from the moment Max left the track it was a catastrophe sandwich for the team from Milton Keynes, who were left comforting themselves with the upcoming twisties of the Turkish Grand Prix and not much else. Thankfully they, and the rest of the teams, will have 2 weeks burn the midnight oil and sort out their woes and another track they've not visited in a while to prepare for...