Formula 1 finally served up a sprint race that at least deserved the title. Max Verstappen won the opening scoreboard of the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix in spectacular fashion by overtaking Charles Leclerc on the penultimate lap. Behind him, Lewis Hamilton sounded the death knell for any hopes Mercedes had of challenging for the world championship.
Mercedes endured another fruitless slog at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari, with Hamilton conceding that any outside chance of a title challenge was now gone and – in a very surprising admission by the usually wary driver – that his team had had the concept of their evil car.
Their season has been a frustrating affair in the first three races and Imola appears to be their low point, with Sunday’s Grand Prix threatening to be a long slog in a midfield battle they haven’t had to endure since. almost a decade. Hamilton and team-mate George Russell could only manage 14th and 11th from their already unflattering 13th and 11th on the grid.
“Obviously we’re not fighting for the championship,” Hamilton said. “But we are fighting to understand the car and to improve and improve throughout the year. That’s all we can hope for now. A lot of work happens in the background. In the end, we weren’t successful this year, but everyone is working as hard as they can to turn the tide.
Verstappen won the 21-lap race and in doing so will start from the front of the grid after brilliantly taking the lead on the penultimate lap, beating Ferrari’s Leclerc into second with Sergio Pérez third for Red Bull.
But for Mercedes, Imola forced them to face a bitter reality that the eight-time consecutive champions have not tolerated for so long. This year, the title exceeds them. They struggled to qualify with their tires not warming up but, on the short course, also struggled to progress through the field. Frustration over their lack of performance is starting to set in, with Hamilton and team principal Toto Wolff embroiled in a heated conversation after qualifying.
“Lewis and I shared the frustration that we weren’t able to extract the performance,” Wolff said. “It was basically the same view and pure anger. No one in the team is about to enjoy the ride at the moment. This weekend is a complete surrender and, beyond the fact what we learn is another humbling experience.
With Mercedes out of the picture, the battle up front remains between Leclerc and Verstappen. After claiming eight points for the win, Verstappen salvaged a single point from Leclerc who leads the Dutchman by 45 points.
The race was by some measure the best of the new sprint format, with previous events largely being processional affairs. Leclerc got off to an electric start, leapfrogging Verstappen who was on pole into the first corner. He led until Verstappen shut down in the final four laps and began to put Leclerc under pressure.
The duo were neck and neck until Verstappen made a fine pass outside of Tamburello on the penultimate lap, as the Dutchman benefited from better grip from his tyres. It was a gesture of bravery, perfectly executed, and Verstappen closed out the win, pointing out that he was in terrific form heading into the main race.
Pérez also did well to move from seventh on the grid to third, an impressive and vital run for Red Bull so he can play his part in the race. Carlos Sainz made impressive and decisive moves to take fourth place after starting in tenth place on the grid.
Ferrari said it was likely to let its Russian test driver Robert Shwartzman take part with the team in F1 meetings using an Israeli license this season. “At the moment he is still our test driver and he will remain so,” said team principal Mattia Binotto. “If we have opportunities in the future to let him drive, we will probably let him drive. Robert was born in Israel, he has an Israeli passport.
Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth and sixth for McLaren. Valtteri Bottas seventh for Alfa Romeo. Kevin Magnussen and Mick Schumacher eighth and 10th for Haas and Fernando Alonso ninth for Alpine.