Lewis Hamilton dropped to third at the start, but then adopted a brilliant on-the-fly tyre strategy compared Valtteri Bottas and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. Once settled, the Brit delivered a collection of dazzling laps on older rubber to assume control of the Grand Prix.
Hamilton stopped for tyres 11 laps later than Bottas — and with the assistance of a Virtual Safety Car, deployed after Esteban Ocon’s Renault broke down— comfortably emerge with the lead.
His 93rd victory moved him to within striking range of a record-equalling seventh world championship.
Bottas, gradually slowing due to “significant” damage from early-race track debris to the floor of his Mercedes, took second, 5.6 seconds behind Hamilton, with Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo third.
Verstappen had pressured Bottas until Lap 42 when he found a way around the Finn but crashed out from a sure second on Lap 52 following a right-rear puncture.
Verstappen’s retirement led to a safety car with a dozen laps to go. Meanwhile, Hamilton kept his cool at the restart and can now match Michael Schumacher’s all-time tally of world titles by winning in Istanbul on November 15. He is 85 points clear of Bottas with just 104 remaining.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team also wrapped up their seventh consecutive constructors’ championship, displaying the most significant period of dominance by one team ever seen in the sport.
Formula One’s return to Imola, the track which claimed Ayrton Senna’s life 26 years ago, delivered the expected in this most unexpected season even after just one 90-minute practice session.
Once again, the top three qualifiers were Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen. This time, it was Bottas who emerged on top, taking his 15th career pole position ahead of Hamilton — by under a tenth of a second — and Verstappen. It was Mercedes’s 13th pole in as many rounds of a crushing 2020 season.
“You always have to [fight for it], said Bottas. This track, when you push flat out, is beautiful. I found those small gains that we needed, it’s a great feeling when you get those. Definitely had those shakes after.”
Lewis Hamilton was already thinking of Sunday.
“What is unfortunate with this track is that while it is beautiful to drive, I am pretty certain you will see a boring race. Once you get into Turn 2, it is a train from there because there is no place to overtake,” said Hamilton.
“Valtteri and I are within half-a-tenth of each other, so to have an opportunity to get past, I need to gain two seconds on him. It is like Monaco, in terms of the importance of qualifying, but I hope I am wrong.”
Max Verstappen was in danger of being knocked out in Q2, following a spark plug failure. Still, his Red Bull crew rectified the problem, and Verstappen required just one flying lap to haul his car into the final phase of qualifying before slotting into his now-customary position behind the Mercedes drivers, again the usual half a second down.
A victory on Sunday would also give Mercedes its seventh constructors’ championship, providing Red Bull did not outscore them by 35 points. The last time Red Bull managed to do that was in 2016 when Lewis Hamilton and former team-mate Nico Rosberg took each other out on the opening lap of the Spanish Grand Prix.
Valterri Bottas made a perfect launch and hugged the inside of the track on the long haul down to the Tamburello Chicane. Hamilton’s getaway wasn’t good enough to withstand the threat of Max Verstappen, who instantly picked up the slipstream from Bottas and pulled ahead of the championship leader.
It was immediately game on, with Bottas leading but Verstappen able to stick with the Finn while Hamilton wasn’t able to get close enough to attack from third. Pierre Gasly dropped back from fourth, as Ricciardo’s Renault was instantly snapping at Hamilton’s heels.
Magnussen activated a yellow flag in sector one by spinning around backwards at the Tosa hairpin. He recovered.
Stroll dives for the pits after losing his front wing on the right rear of Ocon’s Renault. Bottas already leads by 1.1s from Verstappen as Hamilton trails by a similar gap back from the Red Bull.
By Lap 4 Verstappen closed in on DRS range of Bottas but missed the activation point. In the Dutchman’s wake, Hamilton was already reporting how difficult it was to follow the Dutchman.
Despite his strong pace, his team ordered Pierre Gasly to retire his AlphaTauri with a power unit “terminal situation” on Lap 8. He gave up sixth place.
Verstappen received a standard radio transmission on Lap 10, hearing he’s losing time on the straights but is significantly quicker through the corners. The Dutchman’s playing a high-stakes chess match, waiting for Bottas to telegraph a move or Mercedes to undercut with Hamilton.
Red Bull brought Verstappen in on Lap 18 for hard tyres. Bottas followed on Lap19, taking hards as well. Meanwhile, Hamilton was setting fastest laps and declared: “I am going to pick up the pace, man. Don’t stop me.”
Mercedes permitted Hamilton to extend his stop ten laps. The Brit then turned on the style with a hat-trick of fastest laps on ageing rubber to move more than 28 seconds clear of Bottas by the time he pitted on Lap 31- using the further gift of a Virtual Safety Car caused by Esteban Ocon’s stop on course.
His stop perfectly timed, Hamilton rejoined in the lead. The VSC removed any chance of a head-to-head contest. Now, all eyes were on Bottas vs Verstappen for second place.
On Lap 42, Verstappen was clinging to Bottas when the Finn ran wide towards the end of the lap, putting half his car into the gravel. Verstappen tried a lunge in the second Rivazza, and it didn’t work… but Verstappen got DRS and overtook into Turn 2.
Once in second, Verstappen pulled away.
Ten laps later, Verstappen’s RB16 snapped sideways before braking for the first chicane. Its right rear tyre had had a catastrophic failure, and the Dutchman bounced through the sand before stopping safely.
The late safety car following Verstappen’s accident spiced up a dull affair. Englishman George Russell had been on course to claim the first point of his career but crashed out warming his Williams’ tyres while following the safety car.
Alexander Albon spun out from fifth (and now looks sure to be dropped by Red Bull at the end of a disappointing season). Daniil Kvyat took fourth ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc with Sergio “points-machine” Perez sixth. The McLaren twins, Sainz and Norris, claimed seventh and eighth, followed home by the Alfa Romeo duo of Raikkonen and Giovanazzi.
The Turkish Grand Prix will reappear in two weeks, where Hamilton could secure his record-equalling seventh world title.