Max Verstappen put paid to a Ferrari party with victory for Red Bull in Saturday’s sprint race for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix but the tifosi’s disappointment was as nothing to the resounding death knell that Lewis Hamilton sounded at Imola. With the seven-time world champion conceding that after three races any hope he and his Mercedes team had of fighting for the world championship was over, it was the end of an era in Formula One.
Hamilton and Mercedes endured a fruitless toil at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari, concluding with a highly surprising admission from the usually circumspect driver that his team had got the concept of their car wrong. “We are obviously not fighting for the championship,” Hamilton said. “Ultimately we haven’t got it right this year but everyone’s working as hard as they can to reverse it.”
Mercedes have won the last eight consecutive constructors’ championships, almost indomitable at the front of the field, but how the mighty have fallen. Hamilton, who has been a title protagonist every season since 2014, said the current car was nearly as poor as the McLaren with which he began 2009, which he described as the worst of his career. McLaren did solve their problems, however the 37-year-old was absolutely blunt that there would be no sudden turnaround in Mercedes’s fortunes.
“It was so painful, there are no words for it,” he said of the sprint race. “Of course I want to be fighting for the world championship but unfortunately that’s not the case, we have to accept the reality of what we are faced with.” Indeed he intimated the extent of the challenge facing Mercedes by noting the team would “have to work hard not be in this position next year”.
Their season has been a trying affair across the first three races and Imola its low point, with Sunday’s grand prix threatening a long slog in a midfield battle they have not had to endure for almost a decade. The last time the team were this far off the pace was 2012. Hamilton and his teammate George Russell could manage only 14th and 11th, from their already unflattering 13th and 11th on the grid.
Verstappen won the 21-lap race and in so doing will start from the front of the grid on Sunday, after brilliantly taking the lead on the penultimate lap, beating Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc into second, with Sergio Pérez in third for Red Bull.
But for Mercedes Imola left them having to face a bitter, bitter reality. This year the title is beyond them. They had difficulty in qualifying with their tyres not coming up to temperature but over the short race here equally struggled to make any headway through the field.
Frustration at their lack of performance is beginning to tell, with Hamilton and the team principal, Toto Wolff, involved in a heated conversation after Friday’s qualifying. “Nobody in the team is anywhere near enjoying the ride at the moment,” Woolf observed, tellingly. Hamilton, who is contracted to Mercedes until the end of 2023, insisted he was fully committed to staying with the team.
The battle at the front then remains between Leclerc and Verstappen. With eight points for the win Verstappen has clawed back a single point to Leclerc, who now leads the Dutchman by 45 points. The race itself was the best of the new sprint format F1 has yet held, excepting Hamilton’s charge in Brazil, with previous events largely being processional affairs. Leclerc made an electric start, jumping the pole-sitting Verstappen, and led until the Dutchman closed in on the final four laps. The pair were nose to tail until Verstappen made a beautiful pass round the outside of Tamburello on the penultimate lap, with Verstappen enjoying greater grip from his tyres. It was a bravura move, perfectly executed and Verstappen has formidable form going into the race.
Equally Pérez did well to move through from seventh to third, an impressive run and vital for Red Bull so he can play his part in the race on Sunday. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz also came through the pack well with decisive moves to take fourth from 10th on the grid.
Norris and Daniel Ricciardo were 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.
Meanwhile, Ferrari have said they are likely to let their Russian test driver Robert Shwartzman participate with the team at F1 meetings using an Israeli licence this season. “At the moment he’s still our test driver and he will remain as that,” said the team principal Mattia Binotto. “If we have in the future any opportunities to let him drive, we will probably let him drive. Robert is born in Israel, he’s got an Israeli passport.”