If Bahrain was ‘advantage Mercedes’ then events at Imola proved an emphatic response from Red Bull to confirm what many fans had hoped for: 2021 will have a genuine two-team battle for the championship.
Max Verstappen produced a near faultless display for his first career win on Italian soil and Lewis Hamilton, who only had himself to blame for going off track midway through the race, knows title No 8 will not come quite as easily as title No 7 did.
There was plenty to unpack from a rain-soaked Emilia Romagna Grand Prix including why there is reason to smile at Ferrari, Mick Schumacher‘s very steep learning curve and why Lando Norris is ready to prove he is McLaren’s undisputed No 1.
Sportsmail picks out seven things we learned from the second race on the 2021 calendar.
Max Verstappen secured his first race win of the season at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix
Verstappen (right) took the lead on the first lap from Lewis Hamilton (left) and later dominated
LEWIS IS HUMAN AFTER ALL
So consistent are his drives, so high-quality in every country he lands in, it is easy to forget that Hamilton is human.
Emilia Romagna was a good reminder that even the best still falter and the seven-time world champion had no one to blame but himself when he spun off track and into the gravel.
Having been passed on the opening lap, Verstappen better off the start line and gaining an inside edge to take command of the race, Hamilton became increasingly impatient in his pursuit of the Dutchman.
Hamilton was left with his head in his hands between sessions after gliding into the gravel
Up he came to the Tosa hairpin at Imola and with conditions treacherous for much of the race, every manoeuvre came with an element of risk.
George Russell in the Williams was there to be lapped by Hamilton and rather than wait for the ideal moment to pass, the Brit got over-excited and skidded off into the gravel, lucky to avoid serious contact with the tyre wall.
For a moment it looked like his race was over but Hamilton would not be beaten and he was able to recover, return to the track down in ninth before fighting back to second place following a red flag for a crash involving his team-mate Bottas.
‘On my side, it was not the greatest of days,’ Hamilton admitted to reporters afterwards. ‘First time I’ve made a mistake in a long time, but I’m grateful I was able to bring the car home still.
‘There was only one dry line, and I guess I was in a bit too much of a hurry to get by everyone.
He could only watch back his first lap bump alongside Verstappen as he settled for second
‘Coming to the inside I could see it was wet and I was trying to stop, but the thing wouldn’t stop, and it sent me off.
‘A bit unfortunate, but I’m really, really grateful that we got to get going again, and to get some points for the team was really important.’
Hamilton knows the error was rare but with the sessions suspended following Bottas’ crash he could only bury his head in his hands.
Verstappen has to force mistakes and pounce on them. He did that at Imola and Mercedes will just hope it was not a sign of things to come.
GOOD LUCK CONVINCING MAX HE CAN’T WIN IT ALL
Verstappen was asked in a pre-race interview how he is managing to remain so calm amid the chaos that is this fierce rivalry with Hamilton.
‘I’m in a fast car this year, so that helps,’ came the reply.
And he’s right. This Red Bull is fast, competitively fast and in Verstappen, Red Bull have a driver that simply cannot be convinced that he can’t win it all.
He has shown a champion mentality since he arrived in the sport as a rookie without a hope of race wins, never mind a championship tilt.
Verstappen produced an accomplished drive in difficult conditions for his first win in 2021
But if the first two races have shown Verstappen and his engineers anything it is that he can go toe-to-toe with Hamilton’s Mercedes.
‘It’s great to be fighting against Lewis, Mercedes who, I think, as a team, they have been so dominant and they’re very difficult to beat,’ Verstappen said.
‘So to be able to sit here now, now two races in a row, we were very, very competitive, that’s very promising but no guarantees.’
This can be an incredibly unforgiving sport and Verstappen’s ruthless drives – tamer and more refined than they were when he first came into the sport – leave little margin for error and he knows he can ill-afford to gift-wrap too many victories, as he did in Bahrain by exceeding track limits, for Hamilton.
Two races have shown F1 fans that this fight is the real deal, the first since Hamilton jockeyed to the final race in 2016 when his team-mate Nico Rosberg won the title.
The Dutchman is flying – and good luck stopping him.
The Dutchman looks more relaxed this season in the knowledge he has a car that can challenge
NORRIS READY TO BE MCLAREN’S MAIN MAN
On lap 17 Norris had finally had enough of playing second fiddle to team-mate Daniel Ricciardo. The big-name summer arrival was ruining his race.
‘I have a lot more pace in me, I can’t use it at the moment. I need clean air,’ he told his engineer.
McLaren agreed. The two cars were switched round and it left Ricciardo ‘swallowing his pride’ to see the British youngster let through to have a crack at the race leaders.
Ricciardo had time to show his pace and didn’t, he even accepted afterwards that the switcheroo was ‘fair enough’.
Seeing Norris drive home for a podium finish, coming in third, will have further frustrated Ricciardo. Norris is flying and is keen to make it clear to his bosses he is the undisputed No 1 in that McLaren garage this season.
Lando Norris is ready to now establish himself as the clear No 1 driver inside McLaren’s garage
McLaren boss Andreas Seidl was full of praise for the youngster, feeling his performance at Imola was significant in his development.
‘Lando is flying at the moment,’ Seidl said, via Sky. ‘He’s definitely made the next step as a driver.
‘Not just here, you could see already in Bahrain [where Norris finished fourth] and over the winter that he’d made the next step both as a driver and a guy.
‘It’s normal that these young guys make these steps – but it’s just great that he’s pulling it off. What he did today was great.’
RUSSELL V BOTTAS FELT PERSONAL
‘What the f*** was he doing? Honestly. Is he a f***ing p***k or what?’ asked George Russell.
The Williams driver was left furious when a routine overtake of Valtteri Bottas went wrong and the two collided for a dramatic crash that saw a red flag bring the race to a temporary halt.
A crash at that speed and that severe an impact ruined both of their races and frustration was inevitable – but this felt personal on both sides.
Russell is a member of the Mercedes junior academy and he is hopeful of a promotion from Williams to the world champion team from next season. Right now Bottas is the partner to Hamilton and while the future is unclear for both at Mercedes, perhaps Russell views Bottas as his biggest obstacle to that 2022 seat.
George Russell has hopes of earning a promotion from Williams to Mercedes in the future
Russell leaned into Bottas’s car as he walked off the track and the young Brit hit the Finn on his helmet with Bottas gesticulating back with a finger at the Williams driver.
Both felt the other was at fault, as is often the case in incidents such as these where the camera angles were inconclusive, but one man who was less than impressed is the man both Russell and Bottas need to keep sweet – Toto Wolff.
‘You need to see that there is a Mercedes and it bears a certain risk to overtake,’ Wolff said. ‘The odds are against (Russell) anyway when the track is drying up.
‘I don’t want him to try to prove anything to us because one thing I can say knowing Valtteri for five years, he’s not trying to prove anything.’
Russell may well still be irritated from his one drive with Mercedes last season in which a pit-stop ruined his chances of victory.
His time will come but getting into a war with Bottas is not going to help his cause.
The race was brought to a halt on lap 34 as officials tried to clean up the debris from the crash
NOT EXACTLY A NEW LEASE OF LIFE FOR VETTEL
‘Maybe we’ll have a bit of rain that could help us,’ Vettel said prior to Sunday’s race.
The rain came down heavy but it didn’t help – at least it didn’t help Vettel and Aston Martin.
When his brakes overheated on way to the starting grid it set a tone for what was another dismal showing for the four-time champion.
Looking back at what Vettel said following a disappointing qualifying session on Saturday brings into sharp focus just where he is at right now.
‘I was happier with the feel of the car, but still missing maybe that last bit of confidence,’ he said.
Sebastian Vettel is shy on confidence and it shows as he produced another disappointing day
Confidence. It’s clearly something he has been without for some time now after a chastening five years with Ferrari.
When the decision was made ahead of the final lap to bring Vettel’s car back into the garage for a DNF, there must have been gallows humour down on the Aston Martin pit-wall.
This was supposed to bring about a new lease of life in the German, provide him with a car capable of contending for podiums and see where his unquestionable talent can take him.
But this, as it was last year at Ferrari, is painful to watch a once-great champion chunter his way around, lapped by many of his rivals to really ram home his woes.
FERRARI ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL
Vettel’s woes will come as no surprise to his former employers but from their perspective, new season, new Ferrari.
Things are looking up for the Prancing Horse and finishes of fourth – Charles Leclerc and fifth – Carlos Sainz – saw the Italian constructor leave Imola as one of the winners from the weekend.
‘The relief is to see that we are developing the right direction,’ Team Principal Mattia Binotto explained after the opening race in Bahrain.
‘I think it’s important to see that simulations, wind tunnel and track now are correlating certainly better compared to what it was in the past, and that gives confidence in the tools and our design capacity for the future. That I think was the most important and I think that respect is a relief.
Ferrari are continuing to make big strides on last season’s performance and there is optimism
‘Certainly the fact that the car is performing better so we can have a better result at the end of the race weekend is important. We often said that our performance of last year was not acceptable for a Ferrari brand. So we knew that this year is for us important still showing developments in all the areas. So again, I think the performance is certainly a relief.’
He will have been particularly encouraged by the way Sainz navigated a fiercely competitive midfield battle to rise to fifth.
Leclerc has every right to be frustrated at Ferrari’s straightline speed, that, truth be told, remains an issue but this horse needs to walk before it can run again.
While others are sweating at issues that are already rearing their head, Ferrari have lots of reason to be optimistic.
STEEP LEARNING CURVE FOR SCHUMACHER
‘To be honest, I don’t really know what happened,’ Schumacher said when asked why he was driving round Imola without a front wing.
How, under a safety car, had he got it all so wrong?
‘My driving afterwards was quite driven by my anger – I don’t know if you saw it on the feed but I had a few lock-ups and went into the gravel and stuff.
‘Overall, I think that’s something we have to learn from.’
Mick Schumacher got a reality check at Imola after making an error only a rookie would make
The Haas rookie has pedigree, he won the F2 championship last year, but F1 can be incredibly unforgiving and this was a reality check in what will, as many can already tell, be a long, long season for Haas.
This, by Schumacher’s standards, was the error of a rookie, born out of lacking experience and he will be better for it.
Spinning off under a safety car, hitting the barrier with some force to rip his entire front wing off caught everyone – including his engineers by surprise.
Team-mate Nikita Mazepin continues to look reckless but Schumacher has promise – even if the weight of expectation is unfairly heavy on his shoulders.
He collided with the wall under a Safety Car and ripped off the entire front wing of his Haas