Were willpower alone enough, the seething mass of tifosi gloriously once more in evidence packing out the natural ziggurat of the Rivazza corner at Imola would surely have swept Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc to victory. However, for all their hope they were powerless against the unstoppable force that was Max Verstappen and Red Bull storming to victory at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.
Instead the full-throated roar of Ferrari support was silenced by calamity as Leclerc fell to his own over-ambition in the dying stages, making a huge error that has seen his championship lead cut in half and reignited a thrilling title fight.
Sergio Pérez was in second for Red Bull while Leclerc’s late, unforced error in spinning off dropped him from third to a sixth-placed finish. McLaren’s Lando Norris took third.
For Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes the race at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari was also one to forget. The seven-times champion started in 14th and finished only one place higher in a car that was a handful to drive all weekend. But his teammate, George Russell, managed a gutsy fourth.
Nonetheless such is the obvious sense of disillusionment at Mercedes now that the team principal, Toto Wolff, took to the team radio after the race to apologise to Hamilton. “Lewis, sorry for what you had to drive today,” he said. “I know this is undriveable.”
Adding insult to injury, Hamilton was lapped by Verstappen, a moment that will have brought the unpleasant reality of Mercedes’ place in the pecking order home with visceral brutality. “We are not good enough for a world champion and we just need to fix the car,” Wolff said.
On Saturday, after a difficult sprint race in which they made no headway through the field, Hamilton conceded that any chance they had of fighting for the title had gone. Hamilton is the only F1 driver to have won a race in every season he has competed, since his debut in 2007. After Imola it is a remarkable achievement that is under real threat of coming to an ignominious end.
He has admitted that his previously all-conquering Mercedes team might have made a fundamental mistake in the design of their car. “In Barcelona testing the question was put to me: ‘What happens if you get it wrong?’ And I said: ‘We don’t do that, we don’t get things wrong, we’re world champions,’” he said in Imola. “But the fact is, with all the possibilities out there, we may have.”
Hamilton has said there is no fix in the pipeline. “A weekend to forget, that is for sure,” he said. “I am out of the championship. There’s no question about that. I will still keep working as hard as I can and pull it back together somehow.”
However for Verstappen, Hamilton’s former title rival and a clear contender again this year, the win represented a consummate drive. He was untroubled, flawless out front with a commanding performance worthy of the reigning champion and a clear sign that wresting the title from his grasp will be no easy task.
Better still it was proof of how good the Red Bull is when it is reliable. This is the team’s first one-two since Malaysia in 2016 and it was thoroughly deserved with Pérez giving one of his best performances as wingman. It has brought the title fight alive again in no short order. Leclerc’s lead over Verstappen was 46 points going into this weekend. Now it is 27 – a gap that could be almost closed with one DNF.
It could have been a greater lead still and a crestfallen Leclerc, who had wanted so badly to deliver at Ferrari’s home race, was more than aware he carried full responsibility. Verstappen and Pérez had the first two slots sewn up in the final stages, with Leclerc lacking the pace to challenge. Ferrari took a perfectly reasonable chance on pitting him for soft tyres to give him a chance to attack on fresh rubber and, though Red Bull pitted both drivers to cover him off, the Monegasque driver still flew.
Closing on Pérez, he must have felt the adrenaline. Onward he edged until in a split-second it was gone. He overcooked it into Variante Alta, took too much kerb, spun off, damaged the front wing and was forced to pit. It dropped him to ninth and sixth was as much as he could recover.
He admitted he had wanted it too much, held up his hands and apologised to the team. “We didn’t have the pace for much more and I was too greedy, paid the price for it and lost potential points. It is a shame and this shouldn’t happen again,” he said.
Ferrari may face criticism for not banking the third place but their bravery should be applauded. They will not win this championship by bet-hedging against a Red Bull team on this form.
“It’s easily done. He was pushing hard to fight Checo. It’s painful but he knows that himself and it is a long championship. He didn’t do it on purpose,” Verstappen said. “As a team we did everything well and I think this one-two is well deserved.”
On a day that started with heavy rain and presented a tricky, treacherous track, it was indeed Red Bull that weathered this storm with deceptive ease. They proved their potential and in so doing applied real pressure on Leclerc and Ferrari, who were found wanting; Leclerc left to consider what might have been as the red smoke from the flares drifted forlornly away from a rapidly emptying Rivazza.
Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas was in fifth. Yuki Tsunoda was in seventh for AlphaTauri, Sebastian Vettel in eighth for Aston Martin with his teammate Lance Stroll in 10th. Kevin Magnussen was in ninth for Haas.