Elation, crushing disappointment and a mighty display of fighting spirit, the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix ran the very gamut of visceral sporting emotions. Such theatre, such drama was on show at Imola, the most human side of this technological arms race given glorious centre stage.
Max Verstappen’s win was a masterclass in execution in tricky conditions while Lewis Hamilton exhibited an exceptionally rare moment of his own weakness, only for the world champion to follow it up with a brilliant, relentless comeback to claim an unlikely second place.
As if Imola, this classic, magnificent circuit, had not delivered enough with the two rivals for the title now separated by just one point in Hamilton’s favour, there was a marvellous cameo too for McLaren’s Lando Norris. The young British driver threw himself around the fast-flowing track with wonderful abandon to return third place, equalling his best finish yet in what was perhaps the finest race of his career.
That the championship is likely to be a close-fought, nip-and-tuck affair this season could not have been better illustrated than by the contest between Verstappen and Hamilton. Nor equally could it have better demonstrated just how hard both these drivers will push to finish on top in what is looking set to be a titanic struggle.
The win was rightfully the Dutchman’s. Just as the regal peacocks roam free in the parkland of the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari, Verstappen strutted the track in full magnificent pomp. Bursting from the line where he muscled Hamilton out of the lead in turn one, he followed with a definitive display of exquisite control in trying wet and dry conditions.
He barely put a foot wrong, his only misjudgment a moment when he almost spun out on the final restart but which he just held and about which he was able to laugh afterwards. He was far from taking anything for granted with only two races done but his beaming grin told its own story on how much this victory meant. He looks increasingly like the finished article. Weaknesses early in his career, misjudgments, unforced errors and a tendency to overreach have been replaced by a control and maturity beyond his 23 years. Given the chance to lead from the front he executed in exemplary fashion for the 11th win of his career.
In contrast, Hamilton, whose recent career with six titles from seven seasons has been one of almost unblemished success, was left ruing a tiny but costly mistake that revealed him as all too human but, in owning his error, big enough to accept it and move on. Which he did in no short order.
He had stayed with Verstappen after conceding the lead and the pair were matched for pace, five seconds apart up to the midway point, when on fresh, cold, slick tyres he went off the dry line to pass George Russell’s Williams at Tosa on lap 31. His grip gone, he careered straight on into the barrier and damaged his front wing. Tense moments passed as he struggled to get his car into reverse and he might have thrown in the towel. Sterner spirit prevailed and he managed to get the car going but had dropped to sixth.
Then, as there must be in all great drama, a place for fate too and fortune favoured Hamilton. Moments later Russell’s car and Valtteri Bottas’s Mercedes came together in a high-speed impact at turn one causing the race to be stopped, with debris strewn across the track. Hamilton was fortunate the race was stopped and he was able to resume in ninth with the field gathered together but his shot at the win had gone.
How Hamilton felt in those moments was clear. He was left contemplative in the pit lane, crouched on his haunches in silent, lone consideration of how it had got away from him as the race prepared to restart. The pose was one recognisable from his last similarly crushing disappointment in F1, when his engine failure in Malaysia in 2016 all but cost him the title. Yet those moments to reset reignited his indomitable spirit.
“It wasn’t the greatest of days,” he said. “First time I’ve made a mistake in a long time, but I’m grateful I could bring the car home. I was just trying to get over the gutting feeling when you make a mistake and moving on from it and learning from it, then get back into racing spirit.”
So he did, charging from the restart more than aware that every point dropped to Verstappen might be vital in the title fight and determined to relinquish none of them. He moved through the field with determination and skill, up to fifth within 10 laps, and passed Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari for third by lap 55.
Norris, who had driven with verve and control to second, was his final obstacle. He defended staunchly but could do nothing as Hamilton swept past with four laps remaining before concluding the recovery by sealing the fastest lap of the race to maintain the slenderest of title leads while Verstappen rightly took the plaudits for a great win.
Nothing could be decided in the title fight in Imola but as Hamilton noted, and Verstappen is more than aware, had the world champion failed to finish, dropping 25 points would have left a mountain to climb even this early in the season. Instead the rivalry F1 has long anticipated was given full rein and it delivered on so many levels.
From Verstappen’s dance to a virtuoso victory to Hamilton’s recovery, this championship looks set to ebb and flow to the rhythm of these athletes’ hearts rather than the pounding of their engines.
Leclerc was in fourth and his Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz fifth. Daniel Ricciardo was in sixth for McLaren and Pierre Gasly in seventh for AlphaTauri after Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll was penalised one place for an illegal overtake. The Alpines of Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso were promoted to ninth and tenth after Aston Martin’s Kimi Räikkönen was dropped to 13th for a safety-car violation.