Ten things we learned from F1's 2021 Emilia Romagna GP

Despite Max Verstappen's victory in a thrilling Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, will the weekend still go down as a missed opportunity for Red Bull? We assess the weekend's major talking points, as the race for a top seat in 2022 took an explosive turn, F1's oldest team showed more signs of recovery and 2021's first political spat broke out

Formula 1's second race at Imola in the space of six months offered a vastly different affair to the inaugural Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in November.

A pre-race rain shower left some drivers and teams battling to make it to the grid at all, while the greasy track made mistakes all the most costly once the lights did go out.

A top-two of Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton may point to little changing since Bahrain, yet it is a long way from the true story of how Sunday's grand prix played out.

Here are 10 things we learned from the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

1. Verstappen and Hamilton are in a league of their own

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

After all of the hype that has built in recent months about the prospect of a Verstappen versus Hamilton title fight, it is something of a relief to see it justified in the early part of the season.

Imola may not have been a repeat of Bahrain's race-long slugging match, yet it proved once again that these two drivers are on another level to the rest of the pack right now.

Verstappen nailed the start to take the lead from Hamilton, who was a little overzealous in his bid to stay in front and picked up damage to the tune of two-to-three-tenths per lap, according to Mercedes. The Red Bull then swept around five seconds clear.

But as Hamilton got his tyres up to temperature, the gap stabilised, and he was able to whittle it down. The duo sat over 20 seconds clear of Charles Leclerc in third place. Had it not been for Hamilton's mistake at Tosa that dropped him down to ninth for the restart, we'd likely have seen him and Verstappen scrapping right the way to the finish.

They may benefit from the two fastest cars on the grid, but right now Verstappen and Hamilton are in a league of their own (albeit not of the European Super variety). Hopefully they only push each other to greater heights as the year goes on.

2. Hamilton needs to get away with bad weekends

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes,

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes,

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Stooped in the pit lane under the red flag with his hands on his head, Hamilton was struggling to comprehend the mistake he had made a few laps earlier.

Doing his best to scythe through traffic and gain on Verstappen, Hamilton put his car on a damp patch while running on fresh slicks, causing him to slide off the track at Tosa and into the wall. It looked set to end his race, only for him to reverse back onto the track - satisfying race director Michael Masi that it was done in a safe manner - and continue.

His recovery to second was impressive, but had it not been for the red flag, Hamilton would have found himself a lap down and fighting for P7 at best. The crash between Valtteri Bottas and George Russell ironically worked out for the lead Mercedes, despite having potentially serious implications for Mercedes' upgrade push later in the year.

To escape Imola still leading the championship is a remarkable achievement for Hamilton, all things considered. If his 'bad' weekends still end up with him finishing second, it will do a significant amount of good for his title aspirations.

3. Mercedes remains a step behind Red Bull

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Mercedes may have scored pole position on Saturday and looked more comfortable than it did in Bahrain three weeks ago, but remains a step behind Red Bull for pure performance.

The rear-end instability that blighted the W12 car through testing and, to some extent, in the season-opener has been cured slightly. But tyre warm-up remains a significant problem, leading to Bottas's struggles in both Q3 and the race. And had Red Bull's drivers not made errors in Q3, Hamilton would likely have been beaten to pole position on raw performance.

"We know we've got to make the car quicker," said Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin. "We know that we need to work on all the fine details that I don't think this weekend that we've necessarily done a perfect job of."

But just as Hamilton can be pleased with his 'bad' weekend, Mercedes has again fared strongly despite being on the back foot against Red Bull. With a scrappy race for Sergio Perez leaving him outside the points, arguably for Red Bull it was another opportunity missed as it tries to get in some early big hauls against Mercedes in the title fights.

4. Russell begins to needle Bottas - with a view to 2022?

Marshals clear the damaged car of Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, from the gravel trap

Marshals clear the damaged car of Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, from the gravel trap

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

The dramatic crash between Bottas and Russell was really the story of the race. Thankfully, both drivers walked away unharmed - but it is an incident that could have big implications moving forward.

Both were quick to blame each other, but it was Russell who really went on the offensive, inferring that Bottas would have defended differently against another driver - ie one that is aiming to replace him for 2022.

When Russell's quote was put to Toto Wolff by this writer, the Mercedes team boss called it "bullshit". While he would not apportion total blame to one driver, he made it clear that he felt Russell should have acted differently given it was a Mercedes he was fighting, saying the Briton has "lots to learn".

Bottas made light of the accusation, joking that he'd lost his foil hat, but Russell did not back down a couple of hours later. "Obviously you can take that comment as you wish really," Russell said. "I think it was pretty clear how it was intended."

If the sight of Russell passing Bottas in a Mercedes last December in Sakhir was symbolic, then him doing so in a Williams at Imola would have been even more so.

Nevertheless, the sight of Bottas and Russell crashing together could be one of the lasting images of the season against the context of their fight for a Mercedes seat in 2022.

5. Norris is a proper team leader at McLaren right now

Lando Norris, McLaren, 2nd position, celebrates with Andreas Seidl, Team Principal, McLaren, and his team in Parc Ferme

Lando Norris, McLaren, 2nd position, celebrates with Andreas Seidl, Team Principal, McLaren, and his team in Parc Ferme

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Downbeat after his minor track limits breach cost him third on the grid on Saturday, Lando Norris rallied with a stunning display for McLaren at Imola to bag his second F1 podium finish.

The key to Norris's race came early on when he was trailing teammate Daniel Ricciardo. Norris said he was quicker and asked to be let through - and McLaren duly agreed, with Ricciardo moving aside. Norris pulled out five seconds in two laps on the Australian, paving the way for his run to third.

The fact both McLaren and Ricciardo did not think twice when Norris asked to be let past shows the confidence they have in him. As much as Ricciardo has been vaunted as taking McLaren to another level, Norris has been more than his equal in the early part of their time as teammates.

It may take Ricciardo a bit of time to get up to speed with his new team - much as we saw at Renault - but Norris's early-season performances mean McLaren is hardly hurting because of that.

6. We shouldn't read too much into Perez's qualifying result

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Perez's charge to P2 in qualifying on Saturday looked like a significant moment in what has of late been a tragic tale for Red Bull's second car. It was the first time Verstappen had been outqualified on pure pace by a teammate since Ricciardo's last race for the team in 2018, and put Red Bull in a strong position for the race.

Perez admitted after qualifying that he was surprised by the result, saying he still felt "miles away" from where he could be with the RB16B car - and it showed in the race. Badly.

A mistake repassing two cars under the safety car following a slide off the track copped him a 10-second time penalty, but even so, Perez was far off the leading trio of Verstappen, Hamilton and Leclerc as he struggled in the damp conditions. A spin after the red flag dropped him back from fourth, resigning Perez to P11 at the chequered flag.

Team boss Christian Horner leapt to Perez's defence after the race, saying he was still lacking seat time, which is true. All of the drivers that switched teams for 2021 are taking time to get up to speed.

Perez could yet come good with Red Bull. But Imola was the kind of race where he'd typically excel, capitalising on tricky conditions to snare a big result. Instead, it was an opportunity missed for Red Bull on a day when only one Mercedes finished.

7. Ferrari is long past its rock-bottom point

Italy was not a happy hunting ground for Ferrari in 2020, but the team went a long way to right some of those wrongs with a strong display at Imola, proving it is past its rock-bottom point. While it may still be a step behind McLaren in the battle to lead the midfield, Ferrari proved at Imola that it is solidly in the mix.

Sporting director Laurent Mekies said after Leclerc's charge to fourth in qualifying that the team wanted to see if the race pace drop-off it experienced in Bahrain was a recurring problem. Although rainy conditions make it harder to assess, the fact both Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr looked strong in all conditions and weren't swallowed up by the pack on the restart after the red flag is encouraging. The team was unfortunate not to come away with a podium - something we could rarely say last year, if at all.

Ferrari can also take comfort in the struggles Alpine and Aston Martin are facing in the early part of the year, as well as the missed chances for AlphaTauri - who may be its closest rival for pure pace - in the early part of the year.

It is already 26 points clear of AlphaTauri in the championship, comfortably sitting fourth overall - a result that would surely be considered as a successful season.

8. Vettel's Imola cat curse still has not lifted

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR21

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR21

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

One of the stars of the Imola race weekend has been the paddock cat, Formulino, who shot to fame last year after blessing Lewis Hamilton with his presence.

But after calling Formulino "overweight" last year, Sebastian Vettel seemed cursed by the cat - and his performance in last weekend's visit to Imola did little to suggest that curse has lifted.

An issue with overheating brakes on the grid meant Vettel had to start from the pit lane, and a push to capitalise on the changing conditions by being the first driver to switch to slicks was undone by a 10-second stop/go penalty for the team not having the tyres fitted on the five-minute signal on the grid. A gearbox problem ultimately forced Vettel to retire one lap from the end.

It's been a rough start to life at Aston Martin for Vettel. He admitted after qualifying on Saturday that he was still lacking total confidence in the car, but felt a good step forward compared to Bahrain. It may take time, but he is at least moving in the right direction.

And if we return to Imola in the future, one would hope he asks Formulino to lift the Imola cat curse once and for all.

9. The track limits debate is really, really tedious

George Russell, Williams FW43B

George Russell, Williams FW43B

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

There we were, thinking all of the hoo-ha over track limits had been done to death in Bahrain after all the Turn 4 shenanigans. And then Imola happened.

An 'old school' track with grass and gravel wasn't enough to stop track limits once again becoming part of the race weekend's narrative. A tiny breach cost Lando Norris third in qualifying, while Yuki Tsunoda - who had a nightmare of a weekend all-round - landed a time penalty in the race for too many breaches at Turn 9 and Turn 15.

Yes, track limits need to be policed, bu the debate just seems to be getting tedious. Calls of "just put a wall there" might seem fatuous, but it would at least stop track limits becoming something we constantly have to talk about and keep an eye out for. It's a bit like VAR in football - you're second guessing possible moments of greatness for the sake of millimetres.

Portimao's run-offs means we'll probably have similar debates again in two weeks. Yawn. Surely there's better things for everyone to be quibbling over?

10. Aston Martin is again at the centre of F1's political fights

Mechanics with Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR21,

Mechanics with Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR21,

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

We didn't even get to the second race before F1's first political scrap of the year kicked off, with Aston Martin again at the centre of proceedings.

Team boss Otmar Szafnauer made his frustration over the impact of the downforce cuts known in Bahrain, but went a step further at Imola, saying he wanted to know the involvement of the commercial rights holder in the regulatory process and what the rationale was.

The downforce cuts may have been pinned on safety grounds, but the way in which Mercedes has been pegged back shows the wider impact - and frankly, the fact it's so close at the front is exciting.

But Mercedes has never been overly angered by the move. Annoyed, perhaps, but it is relishing the challenge. While Wolff said he respected Aston Martin's right to ask the FIA about the decision-making process, he added the team was "collateral damage" in something targeted at Mercedes.

Horner went a step further, labelling Aston "naive" to expect any further changes could be made to redress the competitive order

The decision to pursue the Mercedes design concept in 2020 cuts both ways - you reap the rewards, but can also get penalised. And this does not seem like a fight Aston Martin is going to win.

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Series Formula 1
Event Emilia Romagna GP
Author Luke Smith
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