Kurt Verlin
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Max Verstappen Triumphs in Imola

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Verstappen, Hamilton, and Norris spray Ferrari Trento
From left: Hamilton, Verstappen, and Norris spray Ferrari Trento, the new official toast of F1
Photo: Ferrari Trento
2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix results

The 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix was worth the unusual three-week wait. After the tightest qualifying session of the turbo-hybrid era, the race started in damp conditions that proved tricky even for Formula 1’s most capable wet-weather drivers.

Max Verstappen, who had started third behind teammate Sergio Pérez and pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton, had a blisteringly good start, pipping both drivers on the run down to the first chicane and, elbows out, muscling his way past the defending champion.

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The first-lap action was only a teaser for what was to come, as Nicholas Latifi made contact with Nikita Mazepin’s Haas F1 car and spun into the wall, bringing out the safety car. The conditions were so treacherous that even behind that safety car, several drivers lost control of their 1,000-horsepower machines and had to skip across gravel, grass, or both to rejoin the track.

When the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix restarted, it quickly became a two-horse race for the win between Verstappen and Hamilton. At first, the former had the measure of the latter, but wore out his tires faster, allowing Hamilton to catch up at the end of the stint. Eventually, a dry line began to form on the track, but some parts remained damp and none of the drivers or teams seemed sure as to when the conditions were right to make the switch to slick tires.

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Ultimately, Red Bull Racing was one of the first teams to pull the trigger, bringing in Verstappen for a tire change as Hamilton charged, hoping to make up time in free air on what was possibly still the faster tire type. Verstappen’s first lap on slicks was not stellar, and it might have been enough for Hamilton to claim the lead had his own stop not been overly slow.

After their stops, Hamilton continued to chase Verstappen as they weaved through a heavy traffic of lapped drivers. Then Hamilton made a crucial error, skidding off the track and banging against a wall. Incredibly, he was able to slowly reverse out of the gravel and rejoin the track; miraculously, the stars then aligned perfectly to put him back in contention for good points.

George Russell, attempting to pass Valtteri Bottas, crashed into the latter’s sidepod at high speeds, sending debris flying everywhere. (For those who like drama, Russell’s reaction in the aftermath has been a hot topic on social media). The red flags came down and the race was halted until the mess could be cleaned up, hurting some drivers’ races and helping that of others.

For example, Charles Leclerc, who had been running in second place, lost the 20-second advantage he had eked out over third-place man Lando Norris. On the other hand, the red flags allowed Hamilton, who had been lapped after his blunder, to get his front wing replaced and restart in ninth place, just a few seconds behind the lead — for free. If I sound upset at this man’s seemingly indestructible plot armor, it’s because I am.

All credit to Hamilton, he’s a man who doesn’t let second chances slip through his fingers. In the next half of the race, he made slow, methodical work of all the drivers ahead of him, eventually passing Norris to claim second place; and then, for good measure, popping in the fastest lap of the Grand Prix to steal the single point that would keep him at the top of the championship table. Without the red flags, he should have been delighted to score half of the 19 points he raked in yesterday.

After the Bahrain Grand Prix, where Verstappen and Hamilton also dueled for victory, people were cautious about getting overly excited for the upcoming season. It could have been a fluke, after all — they do happen fairly commonly in Formula 1. But the 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix seems to show it wasn’t. If these two elite drivers trading blows for the championship is what we can expect for 2021, then sign me up. Just with a little less Hamilton plot armor, please.

Championship standings after the 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix