Firstly, with all this talk around the "no track being safe and could be replaced," let's just say that the Emila Romagna Grand Prix will always hold a special place in our hearts.
This is the circuit where both Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger tragically passed away on the same weekend and the reason why F1 went on the safety crusade that helped shape it today. The sheer beauty of the track is something of a time warp to a forgotten era. Its undulations and narrow width with its blend of classic corners that've been serving up action since 1953 make this track special.
Corners named Tamborello Chicane (completely rechanged after the Senna Crash), Rivazza and Piratella will inspire the Italian in you and cause you to accentuate a fake Italian accent like a bad extra from the Sopranos. Removing it based on money-making would be sacrilege. Some things need to remain sacred and Liberty Media (F1 licence holder) is going to need to tread carefully here.
It was the first sprint weekend on the calendar with rain in qualifying shaking up the situation and naturally, strategies. If the technicality of the course served a purpose combined with the rain, it was that drivers needed to actually drive, and that sort of experience is invaluable and great for everyone to shake off any issues regarding the aerodynamics of these new cars.
It seemed like a continuous struggle for the drivers, but from a spectator's point of view, it makes for something edge-of-your-seat. Carlos Sainz went second fastest, only then to connect with the wall at the exit of Rivazza causing a red flag. Haas’ golden boy Kevin Magnussen also went off after clipping the white line around Acque Minerale. Not following the “Brilliant basics” from the “racecar-driving-in-the-wet” playbook. Even Alonso suffered from the same brain fade. It seemed monkey see monkey do with Norris also commiting the same error but only after securing 3rd behind Leclerc and Verstappen. Both Mercedes cars failed to qualify for Q3.
The first sprint race delivered the spice it needed to. The middle chunk of the race saw exactly what the organisers wanted… plenty of overtaking across the field. Even Mick Schumacher passed Sebastian Vettel with a wry smile, we’re sure, under the helmet of the Aston Martin driver, given the relationship. Leclerc lost out to DRS at the end with Verstappen taking advantage at the final moments. What we wanted from this season was a fight and not to have Leclerc just run off with a sure win as it initially seemed after the Australian GP. Box ticked then. Onto Sunday’s GP.
For Ferrari, it was a homecoming they'd prefer to just forget with Ricciardo getting touchy with the steering into the first corner causing him to accidentally take out Sainz. The Spaniard’s weekend went from bad to hopelessly bad. It was a gamble against the weather with Ricciardo being the first to opt for slicks causing a mass frenzy to follow by every other team.
The big moment came on lap 53 when Charles Leclerc made a mistake around Variante Alta causing a spin after attempting to chase down the Red Bulls. A moment that showed the lack of big match temperament of the young driver and something he's going to need to work on as the pressure is only building. Verstappen knows this.
Read between the lines – the tongue-in-cheek reaction of the teams and commentators to not being allowed to question race direction had a spotlight shone on it… even brighter when many questions were raised around the lacklustre approach to the timing of DRS activation. A decision which could have swung the entire race around had it been made earlier. A bunch of could have/would have/should haves flung around and the reasoning could be debated. My take on the delayed green light for DRS, though, is that it's a primary tool for overtaking and with it possibly going to be removed in the future, any real-life scenario testing would be taken full advantage of. Still, a difficult pill to swallow if your name is Charles Leclerc.
On a positive note, if you're looking at the mid-pack, Aston Martin seems to enjoy a change of pace with both drivers scoring points and closing the performance gap. This makes the mid-pack fight just that more exciting. It's a promising scene for everyone considering the earlier struggles of the British racing team.
Take nothing away from the convincing nature with which Max has fought back at Imola. It's been great to see the silencing of the critics, yet something must be said about the poor performance of Lewis Hamilton compared to teammate George Russel. Lewis is struggling, yes, but George's consistent performance even with the same car is food for thought. Has Lewis' return this year come with baggage he can't get rid of? Regardless of whatever the reasoning is, if this continues there will be more questions asked.
With Sergio Perez finishing in second behind Max and Lando Norris finishing in third, it's Max who claims bragging rights, cementing the full-points haul of 34 to bring him within 27 points of Leclerc. The world’s most expensive travelling circus heads over to Miami for the first GP on American soil that will see one of the most American stunts at a circuit, a fake marina with boats and fake water. Yes, people… say it with me. ‘Murcia. All we can say is that a possible title fight between Verstappen and Leclerc is the type of Miami Heat we're looking for. ***Takes a sip of that virgin pina colada.
Words: Brent Van Der Schyff