Max Verstappen has wasted no time in proving Red Bull’s 2021 F1 title credentials, claiming his first Grand Prix win of the year at just the second time of asking.
The Dutchman was less than a second adrift of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton at Bahrain, but cashed in on an uncharacteristic display from the seven-time world champion at Imola to comfortably win the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.
Meanwhile, Daniel Ricciardo was thoroughly outdriven by McLaren teammate Lando Norris all weekend, but there’s more than one reason to be optimistic about the Australian’s season.
Here’s five things we learnt from the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.
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‘IMPATIENT’ HAMILTON SHOWS RARE WEAKNESS
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Lewis Hamilton said he went through a “rollercoaster of emotions” on Sunday after salvaging a second-place finish at Imola.
While the recovery by the Mercedes driver was impressive, it was an uncharacteristically untidy performance on race day.
Despite being among the best wet weather drivers of the modern era, Hamilton was slow off the line, and powerless to stop losing first place to Max Verstappen at Turn 1.
Later, he was overly-conservative entering the pits, which cost him more time, before he almost ended his race trying to catch Verstappen.
After pitting for dry tyres, Hamilton pushed too hard on a slippery track at Tosa corner and ran across the gravel before bumping into the wall. He was eventually able to engage reverse, stop for a new wing, and continue his race.
From there, Hamilton drove well to limit the damage to a second-place finish.
Nonetheless, it was a day in which Hamilton — who so rarely makes a mistake on race day — was left to rue multiple errors.
“I want to acknowledge and congratulate Max, he did a solid job today to not make mistakes in the trickiest of conditions,” Hamilton told Sky Sports.
“Obviously, I lost position to Max at the start which made it tricky, but then I was catching there and so it was getting exciting but there was only one line and I was probably a bit too impatient I would say, which is rare for me.
“Just got caught out on the wet patch, off towards the wall and I was there for a long time.”
Hamilton vowed to learn from the experience.
“I’m just really grateful today and for the lesson and for the battle,” he said.
RED BULL FINALLY THE REAL DEAL
There have been plenty of pre-season false dawns for Red Bull, but this finally appears to be the real deal.
In fairness to Red Bull, talks of a resurgence were usually perpetuated by those on the outer, including Mercedes who have often refused to accept their superiority before race one.
But while Mercedes is still the team to beat, it’s becoming clearer that 2021 will indeed be its closest battle of the hybrid era, with the possible exception of 2018’s against Ferrari.
Verstappen was just 0.746 seconds adrift of Hamilton in Bahrain, while he won comfortably at Imola. Hamilton lost a significant chunk of time after leaving the track and nudging a wall, although it’s likely Verstappen would have had untapped pace as he cruised towards the line with a big advantage.
“I surprised myself. We worked really hard to make that better. In these tricky conditions we did a great job,” Verstappen said after the race.
The one-lap pace of the Red Bull also appears to be up to standard; Hamilton beat Sergio Perez to pole by just 0.035 seconds at Imola, while Verstappen comfortably claimed pole in Bahrain by almost four-tenths.
We could finally have a tight contest on our hands.
TOO EARLY TO JUDGE RICCIARDO
While Daniel Ricciardo was still growing accustomed to life at McLaren, Lando Norris was stealing the show at Imola.
On Saturday, Norris was millimetres away from putting his car on the front row before his time was invalidated for narrowly breaching track limits.
On Sunday, he climbed from seventh on the grid to the finish on the bottom step of the podium, claiming driver-of-the-day honours in the process.
His surge to third-place included overtaking teammate Ricciardo, who suffered the indignity of being issued team orders.
It’s an unfamiliar place for Ricciardo to be in. The Australian has historically dominated his teammates, while he was at least level-pegging with Verstappen at Red Bull.
Nonetheless, he’s only two races into his chapter at McLaren where he is being forced to adapt his driving style, which will take some time.
“I try not to say as excuses from the past, but there are probably still some old habits that I need to still flush out a little bit, and things that perhaps don’t work as well for this car,” Ricciardo said before the race.
“I think each lap I turn it is getting better. So when will I perfect it? Hopefully sooner rather than later, but I think naturally the more laps I do, the faster and faster I’ll get.”
Speaking after the race, Ricciardo said he was under no illusion that driving for a third team in four seasons was going to be an easy task.
“I don’t think I underestimated it, I was well aware of this when I left Red Bull for Renault, but it’s just unfortunately going to take a bit of time,” he said.
“But the season is long, it’s only race two, of course I want to be quicker already but if I look probably by race seven and I look back at race two, I’m probably giggling because panic not.”
For all his teething issues at McLaren, Ricciardo has still picked up a handy 14 championship points.
What he could achieve once fully adjusted is a scary thought for his rivals.
RICCIARDO JUMPING SHIP THE RIGHT CALL
Ricciardo wasn’t at his best in Bahrain or Imola, but it hasn’t taken long for his shift to McLaren to look like the right call.
Spending just two seasons at Alpine F1 (formerly Renault) raised some eyebrows, particularly as the team made big strides in 2020, in which Ricciardo racked up 119 points — 14 more than McLaren’s Carlos Sainz and 23 more than Norris.
But after two races in 2021, Alpine drivers Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon look well off the pace with just three championship points.
The same can be said for Aston Martin’s (formerly Racing Point) Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll who have five points.
In 2020, the difference between McLaren in third and Renault in fifth was razor thin at just 21 points.
McLaren now looks set to blow its mid-table rivals out of the water — and Ricciardo will be on the winning side of the battle.
FERRARI GETTING BACK TO WHERE IT BELONGS… ALMOST
With the resources at its disposal, Ferrari could hardly be expected to stay down for long.
And unsurprisingly, Ferrari has shown signs of life in the early stages of 2021.
Charles Leclerc improved on his sixth-place finish at Bahrain to come fourth at Imola, Ferrari’s unofficial ‘home track’ near its Maranello base.
It was Leclerc’s best result in 15 Grands Prix.
He was at one stage running in second but saw his advantage swallowed up by a red flag, while the Ferrari was more vulnerable in drier conditions later in the race.
That left the Monagasque with mixed feelings, although he’s pleased with the direction the team is heading in after a disastrous stretch.
“I’m very happy and I think we should all be happy as a team,” Leclerc said. “We are coming from a long way back and we are step after step doing the right step in the right direction and it’s looking good for the future.
“So for that, I’m very happy. There is still a lot of work to do but that’s what we’re doing.”
Ferrari has 34 constructors championship points after two races, just seven behind McLaren.