Lewis Hamilton led a Mercedes one-two to earn his team a seventh consecutive drivers championship and put himself on the cusp of his own septuple of titles, but he needed a considerable slice of luck to get the job done.
Championship leader Hamilton was arguably the less impressive Mercedes driver this weekend. Bottas had not only got pole, but the Finn’s perfect getaway ensured he was best place to lead what was a largely processional race to the flag at his own pace. Hamilton, on the other hand, dropped to third off the line behind Verstappen and struggled early in the race to make an impression on the Dutchman.
But from lap two the Bottas’s race began unravelling. Running over some debris on track that damaged his floor and became lodged among his bargeboards, the race momentum shifted dramatically in Hamilton’s favour, who needed no second asking to assemble the broken pieces of Bottas’s race into a ninth victory of his own.
Imola hosted F1’s first official experiment with a two-day format comprising only one practice session on Saturday morning before qualifying later in the day. Though teams faced a similar scenario at the Nürburgring due to inclement weather, this race presented a substantially greater unknown element owing to its 14-year absence from the calendar.
Teams had essentially no working data to use in approaching this race, and thus every scrap of data on offer on Saturday had to be made use of. Rarely was the circuit quiet during the 90-minute practice session as teams evaluated the tyres and honed their set-ups.
Though there wasn’t enough time for detailed evaluation of the compounds, the high-grip surface and mild temperatures meant all three appeared to be working well, with only graining on the softs a potential problem, as transpired to be the case.
Aside from the technical aspects of the weekend, the lack of practice — particularly on a new circuit — meant qualifying rewarded drivers prepared to risk more than their rivals. Few had pushed to the limit during practice owing to the high price a crash would exact so near to qualifying, and those who dared to reach for the edge of grip in qualifying won big.
Bottas took pole with a lap that left him shaking afterwards whereas Hamilton wasn’t able to piece his final flyer together. Max Verstappen qualified third to complete a top three all starting on medium tyres.
Among other teammates the divergence in confidence was starker: Daniel Ricciardo and Charles Leclerc started seven places ahead of Esteban Ocon and Sebastian Vettel respectively, while Sergio Perez was four places ahead of Lance Stroll.
Bottas seemed certain to carry that momentum through to a race that was forecast to feature little overtaking owing to the high-speed nature of the narrow track, and his perfect getaway should have been 90 per cent of the job done, especially when Hamilton alongside him suffered too much wheelspin that dropped him to third behind Max Verstappen.
But from lap two his race began to fall apart. He ran over a broken part of Sebastian Vettel’s front wing, snapped off in a lap-one crash with Kevin Magnussen, that damaged his floor and lodged itself among his bargeboards, costing him as much as 0.75 seconds per lap.
It wasn’t significant enough to prevent him from leading Verstappen and Hamilton away from the midfield at around a second a lap, but it left him unable to break away from the Dutchman, who kept himself stubbornly within two seconds of the lead.
On lap 18 Red Bull Racing, feeling held up, decided to shake down the Finn, bringing in Verstappen for an early switch to the hard tyre. With the damaged car leaving him unable to respond to the fresh tyres, he had no choice but to cover him immediately to maintain track position over the RB16.
He rejoined ahead of Verstappen, but the side-effect was to grant Hamilton clean air in the lead of the race, and the Briton duly unleashed a series of fastest laps to break away from his rivals. Lap by lap he edged towards the 28-second advantage he needed to make a pit stop without conceding first place.
By lap 25 he just about had it, and after clearing some traffic he was aiming for a stop a little past lap 30 assuming his medium tyres continued holding up, but the knockout blow came on lap 30 itself when Esteban Ocon stopped at the side of the track with a clutch problem, triggering a virtual safety car.
Hamilton dived into the pits, and though the caution didn’t last the duration of his stop, it was enough to earn him a few extra crucial seconds to ensure he rejoined the race with the lead, which he never relinquished.
Bottas was shortly afterwards passed by Verstappen for second, earning the place back only when the Dutchman’s right-rear tyre failed in a suspected puncture, promoting back up to the runner-up position.
With Verstappen out of the picture the battle was on among the midfielders for a rare podium place.
Daniel Ricciardo was best of the rest early in the race, but graining on the softs meant he had little choice but to join the undercut train of his fellow soft-tyre starts by stopping on lap 14. He rejoined the race ahead of Charles Leclerc, Alex Albon, Daniil Kvyat, Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, but crucially the lot of them became stuck behind Kevin Magnussen, who was embarking on a long opening stint on the medium tyre.
Meanwhile Sergio Perez, starting 11th with the medium tyre, was promoted to head of the midfield for a typically well-judged long run on the medium compound. Combined with his rivals stuck behind Magnussen, he gained enough time that his stop on lap 27 lost him no places, keeping ahead of Ricciardo.
The podium was therefore his to lose when Verstappen crashed out of the race — and lose it he did when Racing Point brought him in for new tyres behind the safety car on lap 51, dropping him to sixth at the restart.
There was some logic to the move. The team was concerned that its car was too easy on the tyres to give Perez decent warm-up on the hard compound at the restart, which would make him vulnerable to attack.
There was also the not unfair assumption that with those immediately behind him having been on the hard tyre from lap 37 would be tempted to switch off them given tyre longevity was unknown.
But keeping track position at a track around which passing was evidently difficult should have easily trumped both in the decision-making process — indeed Charles Leclerc, having been asked by Ferrari whether he wanted to stop, responded in the negative for exactly this reason.
That said, Daniil Kvyat, who likewise stopped and for softs behind the safety car and restarted seventh behind Perez, showed what was possible with fresh rubber, passing three cars to spend the last five laps harrying Ricciardo for the podium place, albeit unsuccessfully.
Perez, on the other hand, was able to pass only Alex Albon to finish sixth and five seconds from what could have been his first podium since 2018.
Alfa Romeo, with Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi starting 18th and 20th, played a blinder at Imola to capitalise on problems ahead and score its first double points finish of the year.
Giovinazzi’s race was built on the foundation of six places gained on the first lap. He banked that with an early stop on lap 10 to run to the end of the race on the medium tyre, crucially untempted by a second stop behind the safety car, to rise to 10th.
Raikkonen ran the opposite strategy to finish ninth, running long on a starting set of medium, but there could have been more on offer the Finn. He left his sole stop to lap 48, just three laps shy of the safety car that would have allowed him a free pit stop and an opportunity to battle for a top-five finish.
The drivers’ long stints left them well placed to capitalise on misfortune ahead, in particular Pierre Gasly’s early car failure and Alex Albon’s spin at the restart.
They were also crucially aided by George Russell’s crash behind the safety car — the Briton was running ahead of both at the time — and Sebastian Vettel’s botched lap-39 pit stop. The German was running in fourth when he made his stop for mediums and should have emerged between Sainz and Norris, but problems on the left-rear and right-front corners meant he plummeted to 14th and out of points contention.
McLaren had a quiet race in the lower reaches of the top 10 after an underwhelming qualifying performance and average start left them stuck in a DRS train they couldn’t escape from.
But the team also risked little in trying to break free from a race-long hold on places nine and 10 — which became seventh and eighth thanks to misfortune ahead. Carlos Sainz extended his opening stint on softs relative to Norris, but only by four laps, which gained him no places.
Both drivers also stopped for fresh rubber behind the safety car despite Norris staying out for two laps, momentarily promoting him to sixth.
Though the team scored decent points when both Renault and Racing Point had only one car finish in the top 10, it never ventured for more.
Lewis Hamilton: medium (used) to lap 30, hard (new) to lap 52, soft (used) to lap 63.