Ferrari’s home game in Imola is reminiscent of the Australian Grand Prix. Only with reverse role distribution. Red Bull set the tone for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix. Because the challenger beat or did almost everything better than the locals. The Red Bull was the fastest car, it was more balanced and a nicer touch with the tires.
Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez made fewer mistakes than their Ferrari counterparts. In the beginning, in a duel, in the fastest laps. And the Red Bull command post responded correctly to everything that came out of Ferrari. Charles Leclerc’s second break was not a mistake in itself. He just came at the wrong time. Two laps later would have the same effect, only without the risk of falling behind Lando Norris.
Needless Ferrari rush
Ferrari’s move had nothing to do with the extra point for faster laps. Pit stop in the 49th lap came too early for that. Max Verstappen could have reacted confidently at any time with a 16.2-second lead over Leclerc. The transition to soft tires was also not a reaction to the tire problems that had cost the world championship leader the victory in the sprint. “The tires were good. We just did not see a chance to overcome Perez in the normal way,” said Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto.
In the 48th lap, Leclerc was 2.7 seconds behind the man in second place. After an intermediate sprint, he had reduced the margin by four tenths and thus returned to Perez’s cut window. However, Ferrari did not have to worry that Red Bull would predict a decline.
From Perez’s point of view, the risk of throwing second place was too great. Leclerc would have fallen off the road and then had to complete 28 seconds at Ferrari in 14 laps. A hopeless endeavor. Perez took just 18 seconds from Lando Norris in those 14 laps, despite the soft soft tires.
Ferrari did not need to rush. The strategists took advantage of the first moment that Norris disappeared on paper from Leclerc’s pit stop window. In the 48th lap, the two-time winner of the season was 27.4 seconds ahead of McLaren. Two laps later would be almost 29 seconds. Leclerc was six tenths per lap faster than Norris at the time.
Red Bull has reacted to Ferrari
With a pit stop on lap 51, Leclerc would have returned to the race with a mediocre pit stop ahead of Norris. If Red Bull had not responded with Perez, second place would have been lost anyway. Even with a pit stop two laps earlier. In any case, the remaining distance was too short to cover the time of a pit stop with soft tires.
Red Bull immediately did what Ferrari had hoped for. They brought Perez into the pits a lap later. If Leclerc did not have Norris’s McLaren in front, it would be dangerous for Perez. In the warm-up phase, he would be vulnerable to an attack by his opponent. Leclerc only had to reach the Red Bull DRS area ahead of the Rivazza curve.
In an attempt to cope, the Ferrari driver derailed. Red Bull team boss Christian Horner saw action like this: “The Alta variant was the only curve in which Ferrari was significantly faster than us. That’s why Charles had to risk everything there to catch Checo.”
Ferrari launches gift for Red Bull
The Ferrari loss was actually sealed in the sprint. Leclerc lost the lead two laps from the bottom because his right front tire started to wear out earlier than his World Cup rival. It was the opposite of Melbourne. This time Red Bull found the best car balance. The aerodynamic improvement and reduction of the weight disadvantage over Ferrari gave Red Bull that small advantage that put them in a strong position in the car configuration.
The poor start of Ferrari executives in the main race gave Verstappen another ball. Now he had Perez on his back like a man. Carlos Sainz failed to help Leclerc. As in the second quarter, the Spaniard ended up in the gravel bed. This time through no fault of his own. Sainz did not have a good start either in the beginning.
Binotto pushed him into the nets on the right side of the road, which was wetter than the left. In retrospect, it could also be argued that if Leclerc had defended the lead in the sprint and if Sainz had not started so far due to his mistake on Friday, both could have started on the better side.
Hamilton lost four places in the pits
In the field of pursuit, two moments determined the order. Start and stop time in the intermediate tire pit on medium tires. The early winners were Kevin Magnussen, George Russell, Sebastian Vettel, Yuki Tsunoda, Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon. Carlos Sainz, Daniel Ricciardo and Lewis Hamilton lost. Of the first round winners, only Magnussen failed to hold his place. The Haas driver lost four positions on the track and one at the pit stop.
The change in average tires was done within three laps. Daniel Ricciardo started in the 17th round. Vettel said the Australian got the right lap but he could afford to risk as he was last on the field. Vettel was next in tire service, making a place against Magnussen, which was a lap later.
Pierre Gasly faced Vettel and also created a position. But just because Hamilton stayed 4.6 seconds while the new tires were in the car and Alpine sent Esteban Ocon into his lane when he came out of the pit. The Mercedes driver lost four positions with the delayed stop and then got stuck on a DRS train after Alexander Albon and Pierre Gasly for 44 laps, from which there was no escape.
Mercedes strategists later regretted not being able to persuade Hamilton to stop on the same lap with Ricciardo. “Lewis said he was still very wet. We should have insisted more. That would have made him two places and he would not have ended up on the DRS train.”
Russell with wrong front arm configuration
The pit-stop also went bad for George Russell. The mechanism used to adjust the front wing cover for dry tires did not work because the mechanics interfered with each other. The Englishman struggled with the underdog for the rest of the race. “It cost us two-tenths of a lap and the podium against Norris and Bottas played in his clutches,” the engineers explained and did not shy away from praise: “In the circumstances, it was an extraordinary performance by George.”
From Mercedes’s point of view, it was also clear where the problem lay at Imola. “We exploded our chances in Q2 because we were not able to burn the tires quickly and we did not have the opportunity to do many laps in a row because of the red flags.”
At Alfa-Sauber, too, there was every reason to use post-race sub-ranking. Valtteri Bottas lost 11.8 seconds during the stop in the pit because the right front wheel nut was blocked. The Finn did not lose a place, but important race time. The disaster increased the difference to George Russell from 1.4 to 11.5 seconds. It took 35 laps before the gap with Mercedes closed again. “If Walter had faced Russell earlier, he would have beaten him,” says sporting director Beat Zehnder. “Walter was temporarily the fastest in the middle tires.”
Vettel laid the foundation on a wet road
After switching to slicks, Sebastian Vettel had to draw on the foundation he had built in the wet phase. After stopping at the pies, the Aston Martin driver was in seventh place and had enough air for colleagues in potentially faster cars to stay on points: 5.1 seconds on Kevin Magnussen, 9.7 seconds on Yuki Tsunoda. The group around teammate Lance Stroll was already 10.5 seconds behind. Vettel had nothing to worry about as long as Stroll was able to keep his followers behind him.
Vettel spoke of a “struggle for survival.” In Magnussen he maintained a 4.3 second lead. He had no chance against Tsunoda. Under the same conditions, the Alpha Tauri is the fastest car. Tsunoda’s fastest lap was Vettel’s 0.7 seconds faster. And yet there was no bar against Leclerc’s belated attack.