Formula One’s first visit to Mugello didn’t disappoint, serving up a chaotic grand prix sure to be one of this strange season’s most enduring memories.
On first reading the composition of the podium — two Mercedes drivers and a Red Bull Racing car — is unremarkable, but this was a siege of a grand prix, with only 12 cars made it to the chequered after almost two and a half hours and two red-flag restarts.
Three huge crashes defined this race. The first came on lap one when Kimi Raikkonen rear-ended Max Verstappen into the gravel and retirement at Luco, the Finn having made contact with Pierre Gasly and Romain Grosjean. Gasly was momentarily airborne and was too eliminated from the race.
A safety car ensued, but racing had barely resumed eight laps later when proceedings were again neutralised, this time for an enormous pile-up on the start-finish straight.
Several midfielders had attempted to pre-empt leader Valtteri Bottas flooring it — the Finn was running at a reduced pace til the last moment to try to prevent Lewis Hamilton from gaining a slipstream into the first turn — but madly miscalculated. George Russell appeared to be the first to accelerate, and he was subsequently forced to hit the brakes to stay in line.
It caused a concertina behind him of cars doing the same. Antonio Giovinazzi smacked into the back of Kevin Magnussen and ricocheted into Nicholas Latifi. Carlos Sainz didn’t have time to react, piling into the wreckage. All four were eliminated.
A lengthy red flag facilitated the clean up before a standing restart. Hamilton, having lost pole to Bottas on the first lap, this time nailed the Finn at the first turn to resume the lead and control the race.
The final crash came on lap 43 when Lance Stroll lost control of his car at 270 kilometres per hour through Arrabbiata. He stepped out unhurt, but damage to his car was so severe the wreckage caught fire.
A second red flag and standing restart followed. Hamilton again held the lead from Bottas, sealing his 90th win, while Alex Albon overcame Daniel Ricciardo for the final podium place.
There were glimpses of what should have been a fascinating strategic race amid the disruption, but the on-track action was more than enough to leave the sport satisfied after a marathon Tuscan Grand Prix.
Mugello is better known to the two-wheel crowd as a favourite MotoGP destination, but the open COVID-19 calendar at long last gave F1 a chance to visit the Ferrari-owned track for a grand prix.
The circuit is a proper old-school venue. Undulating, flowing and with close walls and gravel promising to punish mistakes, it challenges the driver to risk it all in pursuit of a result.
In some respects the modern generation of car is almost too quick for this track — almost all of the second sector it flat out thanks to the downforce inherent in these regulations — but that only turned this into a physical and mechanics challenge. The only things under more duress than the drivers’ necks was the Pirelli tyres.
The high-speed bends and abrasive asphalt mean this was a wear-limited race on Pirelli’s hardest tyres. It allowed drivers to push flat on all three compounds but made it a likely two-stop race.
Team would of course attempt to make a one-stop achievable, particularly given the forecasts for difficulty overtaking at a circuit that featured no big braking zones, but recent memories of debilitating tyre wear and failures still hangs close for many.
Ultimately we didn’t get the chance to see a one-stop play out against a two-stop thanks to the two interruptions, but there were hints at what could have been, particularly for Daniel Ricciardo in the battle for third.
Safety car position
Bottas, starting from second behind Hamilton, finally executed a strong start to mug his teammate off the line and seize the lead. With track position decisive when battling in equal machinery, this was the Finn’s best opportunity to make up ground in the title fight for the first time since winning the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix.
But the red flag and subsequent standing restart worked against him. If it’s rare for Hamilton to make mistakes, it’s even rarer than he should make them twice, and at the second time of asking the Briton restored qualifying order with a perfect start.
Bottas’s only hope was to try something with the pit stops, and he radioed the pit wall asking for a different tyre to his teammate at the next change given he would be the second between them to pit. But even this was undone, for having shadowed Hamilton closely in the middle part of the race, his tyres had worn more quickly and required changing sooner.
He was brought in for a set of hards on lap 31, allowing Hamilton to make the same decision on the next lap.
With Verstappen wiped out of the race early, the battle for third was hot between Alex Albon, Daniel Ricciardo and Lance Stroll.
Albon held the place de facto behind Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari ahead of the first restart, but a terrible getaway allowed Lance Stroll through to take the place when Leclerc inevitably tumbled down the order in his slow SF1000.
Ricciardo and Albon followed in the middle part of the race, the Renault driver in particular showing great pace on the soft tyre. Closing to within a second of the Canadian, he undercut on lap 27.
But Stroll stayed out to build a tyre offset, pitting only on lap 30 to pre-empt Albon undercutting him. The strategy worked, putting him behind Ricciardo on marginally newer tyres and keeping him ahead of the Thai when he stopped on lap 32.
The three closed in on each other on medium tyres until less than three seconds split them on lap 43, but Stroll then had his crash, neutralising the race.
Ricciardo restarted in third ahead of Albon in fourth, both on soft tyres, and the Red Bull Racing’s car pace was irresistible in the battle for third.
Could Ricciardo have held third without the interruption? He was adamant he had rubber to burn in defence, and he had better straight-line speed than Stroll, so securing fourth at least seemed likely.
Albon, however, was rapid in that stage of the race, and his five-lap tyre offset likely would have made a difference near the end of the race in a one-stop scenario — Bottas struggled to squeeze 23 laps out of his mediums in Hamilton’s dirty air, which would have made this a marginal battle.
Safety cars and standings restarts were in the spotlight post-race for their roles in shaping the results.
Drivers argued over who was to blame for the carnage on the start-finish straight — some fingered Bottas for leaving the restart til the very last moment, though he was well within his rights to do so, while others blamed the safety car switching off its lights too late — but in the end the stewards reprimanded 12 drivers for gambling on when to gun it.
Red flag regulations have also come in for some flak from some in recent weeks. At the Italian Grand Prix Lando Norris railed against free tyre changes while the race was suspended for ruining strategy, while this week Sebastian Vettel lamented that standings restarts turned the race into a lottery, with those starting on the dirty side of the grid in the middle of a race condemned to launch over tyre marbles and other track detritus.
George Russell also had cause to be disappointed with the restart rules, which allowed Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean to unlap themselves before the field took to the second restart grid. It meant both had warmer tyres for the launch, leaving the then-ninth-placed Russell for dead off the line.
He eventually finished 11th, painfully close to his maiden F1 point after 30 races.
Ferrari had a nightmare 1000th grand prix, its lack of pace ironically exposed by its unexpectedly high starting position. Leclerc rose to third on the first lap from fifth on the grid but inexorably sunk down the order.
Struggling on the soft and then the hard, he made an additional stop for the medium on lap 37, dropping his to 11th with poor prospects, but the safety car preceding Stroll’s red flag, boosted him up the order when the team presciently left him out while everyone else stopped, bringing him up to eighth.
Raikkonen and Grosjean on warm tyres got him at the start. He repassed the damaged Grosjean for ninth but couldn’t pass Raikkonen in the Ferrari-powered Alfa Romeo to recover eighth until the Finn had a five-second penalty applied for an incorrect pit lane entry.
It salvaged him four points to go with Vettel’s single score in another forgettable race for the Scuderia.
Lewis Hamilton: soft (used) to lap 8, medium (new) to lap 32, hard (new) to lap 44, medium (new) to lap 45, soft (used) to lap 59.