Red Bull’s Max Verstappen dominated the wet-dry Emilia Romagna Grand Prix to revive his championship hopes as rival Charles Leclerc threw away his certain third place with a costly error.
Max Verstappen’s return to competitiveness ticked all the boxes at Imola. He was on superb form throughout the weekend, winning the Saturday sprint race before easing to victory in Sunday’s Grand Prix while claiming the extra point for fastest lap.
Ferrari’s fearless Leclerc was on a charge to pass Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez for second place after a late pit stop when he took way too much curb and lost control at the Variante Alta chicane. His F1-75 touched the barriers, but Leclerc carried on with new tyres and nose.
However, he immediately knew that he had thrown away a significant portion of the points advantage he had gained due to Red Bull’s poor early-season reliability.
Leclerc had to pit for a new front wing and fresh tyres, dropping to ninth. He managed to recover to finish sixth. His mistake also allowed McLaren to take its first podium of the year, with Lando Norris grabbing third place behind the Red Bulls.
The Monegasque’s error enabled Verstappen to slash his deficit to Leclerc from 45 points to 27, moving the Dutchman up from fifth in the championship to second.
After struggling for performance throughout the weekend, George Russell salvaged fourth place for Mercedes after holding off Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas in the final laps. Leclerc rallied to finish sixth after passing Yuki Tsunoda, Sebastian Vettel and Kevin Magnussen following his pit stop. Lance Stroll took the last point. The now ever-suffering Lewis Hamilton finished 13th for Mercedes.
Saturday’s 21-lap Sprint Race introduced a new points system. Last season’s points-paying positions offered three points for a win, two points for second and one point for third place.
For the 2022 season, points have been extended to the top eight to create more competitive racing away from the top end of the grid. From now on, eight points go to the winner, with the remainder scaled down from there.
There was plenty of action up and down the field, with Max Verstappen proving triumphant with a penultimate lap overtake of Charles Leclerc of Ferrari. The Dutchman, who started on pole, once again had a sluggish launch at lights out but then spent the next 18 laps reeling in his rival before launching his attack.
The Dutchman’s win delivered eight championship points, though that barely scratched Leclerc’s lead in the overall standings, as he picked up seven for his second place.
Race day afternoon would reveal an entirely different picture.
A heavy downpour a couple of hours before the start had coated the track in water, meaning everyone started on intermediates.
The Red Bull squad leapt off the line at lights out as Verstappen sailed into the lead while Perez passed Leclerc for second within 50 metres of the start.
Leclerc fell back behind Norris.
Ferrari’s afternoon became much worse when Carlos Sainz, running in fourth, was spun around by Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren going into the first corner. The Spaniard’s F1-75 was instantly beached in the gravel and retired.
A brief safety car period bunched the pack up for the restart on Lap 5, but Verstappen comfortably kept his lead, with Norris still third, but not for long.
Leclerc passed Norris under braking on Lap 8 for third and began his hunt for Perez, who was already seven seconds behind Verstappen. Kevin Magnussen easily kept George Russell’s Mercedes behind him in sixth.
By Lap 15, Leclerc was nearly within DRS range of Perez, but as the stewards hadn’t yet activated DRS, it went for nought.
Yet, with the racing line rapidly drying, teams faced pitting soon for slicks or staying on the intermediates, as the FIA had forecast further rain about 20 minutes after lights out.
Daniel Ricciardo pushed the solution on Lap 17. The Australian had recovered from his first lap incident with Sainz and was the first man in for slicks. He instantly began turning the timesheets purple.
By Lap 19, Verstappen leads Perez by 6.9s, with Leclerc in third, within a second of Perez. The Dutchman pulled out of the lead for tyres on the next lap, and Leclerc followed. Chaos ensued as nearly the entire field followed them in for tyres.
Verstappen easily holds the lead, gaining a full second on Perez. Moments later, Leclerc takes Perez at the Villeneuve Chicane.
Fighting aero “porpoising”, Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes struggled with tyre warm-up, and lost a place to Albon’s Williams.
Verstappen led Perez by seven seconds. Leclerc trailed Checo’s Red Bull by 1.5s as Ferrari’s new Ace searched for speed.
By Lap 45, Leclerc could have decided to settle for third. Seeing his lack of pace to pass or even harass Perez, a “different driver” might’ve stroked to the finish. With the points advantage he had in the standings, Leclerc wouldn’t have felt too disheartened.
But, that is not Charles Leclerc “Series 2022”.
On Lap 49, Leclerc streaked into the pits for soft tyres, thus keeping Red Bull under pressure while bidding for the single point for the fastest lap. He re-entered behind Norris, ready to recapture that position.
Perez came in a lap later, followed by Verstappen on Lap 51. The Dutchman risked victory with a slow stop, but he rejoined in the lead, ready to steal the fastest lap point from the now rapid Monegasque.
Leclerc was right on the back of Perez by Lap 52. Despite currently having set the fastest lap, he radioed Ferrari that he should have fitted mediums.
On the other hand, the Dutchman seemed willing to build his battery charge for the final couple of laps. Amazingly, it wasn’t necessary.
On Lap 54, Leclerc took way too much curb at the entry of the Variante Alta chicane, bounced in the air and slid into the barriers. He would pit and return, finishing a lonely sixth.
Asked later about his faux pas, Leclerc didn’t hedge. “I gave it all, but went over the limit at the end,” he admitted.
“Sorry to the team and to all the tifosi that supports us. Instead of a P3, it ended up in a P6. We’ll come back stronger.”
“But everyone is right that Red Bull did a better job in that respect. So we will certainly review and understand why we couldn’t do as well such a good job.”
Red Bull’s Christian Horner thinks their fight with Ferrari will continue to be “horses for courses” this year, swinging back and forth due to the minuscule margins involved.
“Ferrari have got a great car, they’ve got great drivers,” Horner said.
“They’ve been unlucky at this race. But for sure, they’re going to be super competitive in two weeks’ time. And I think it’ll be like that for the whole season.”
We’ll see in Miami.