Lando Norris, The Star Of Both Halves – 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

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In the first half of the 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Max Verstappen shone as the red lights went out. The second half, without a doubt, belonged to Lewis Hamilton. However, the one driver that shone throughout the race was Mclaren’s Lando Norris. 

“Hopefully a Red Bull wins tomorrow,” said Sergio Perez after the qualifying hour on Saturday. The Mexican’s wish came true after his teammate Max Verstappen clinched victory in a race that saw changing weather conditions add to the excitement. The reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton recovered from a rare mid-race mistake to claim second while Mclaren’s Lando Norris scored the team’s first podium of the 2021 Formula 1 season.

The biggest surprise of the top-5 finishers were the Ferrari drivers – Charles Leclerc scoring a fine fourth place followed closely by Carlos Sainz Jr in fifth. After Verstappen’s mighty 22 second lead at the front, P2 to P5 were separated by only five seconds at the finish line. Daniel Ricciardo scored sixth and positions from seventh to tenth (Pierre Gasly, Lance Stroll, Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso) changed after post-race penalties to Kimi Raikkonen and Stroll.

A Race Of Two Halves

Valtteri Bottas and George Russell’s high-speed crash brought out the Red Flag on lap 33 of the 63-lap race. Thankfully, neither driver was hurt but the blame game continued with Russell’s ‘I asked him if he’s trying to kill us’ statement post-incident. While the FIA exonerated both drivers of fault, it did seem as though Bottas’ move, even though a tad bit late, was fair and left ample width for Russell. However, it was the Williams driver who lost grip and spun into Bottas, taking both of them out of the race.

The resultant Red Flag neutralised the race thereon. It effectively converted the 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix into a race of two halves. In the first half, Verstappen shone as the red lights went out. The Dutchman, who started in second gear due to the wet conditions, had a better getaway and challenged Hamilton for the lead in the entry into Turn 1. After a mid-corner tussle, Verstappen came out on top while Hamilton, who had to ride over the kerbs, held onto second albeit with a damaged front wing end plate. Mercedes revealed post-race that the damage cost Hamilton two-tenths in aero performance.

After snatching the lead, Verstappen built a comfortable gap as the drivers waited for the conditions to change before pitting for fresh rubber. Verstappen was the first to pit among the leading duo and retained his lead after the pit stops. Hamilton, who had a slow stop due to a front right delay, rejoined the race in second place. When the Verstappen-Hamilton battle hit traffic, the Mercedes driver made a rare error that saw him go off track and be stuck on the gravel desperately attempting to retain traction in his rear tyres to rejoin the race.

After a delay, Hamilton engaged reverse gear and managed to join the race albeit a lap down and with extensive damage to his front wing. “I refused to believe that the race was done. I could have obviously just turned the car off and got out but I’m grateful that I didn’t. I’m grateful that I did do a reverse and then after that just kind of getting out the car and trying to switch the anger and turn it into positive energy so that I could get back in and race forwards. It’s an amazing lesson to be sent and experience,” said Hamilton in the official post-race conference.

The intensity of the battle led both drivers to make errors this weekend. At the restart, Verstappen magically kept his lead after a near-spin just as he began to accelerate. It was the Dutchman’s second mistake of the weekend – the first one coming in Q3 of qualifying that apparently cost him pole position. “I had a little moment at the restart trying to warm up the tyres with some throttle but luckily we didn’t spin,” explained Verstappen.

The Second Half

The Bottas-Russell triggered Red Flag came to Hamilton’s rescue. It allowed the team to repair the damage on his car and allowed him to unlap himself and restart the race on the same lap as the leaders. It is without a doubt that the star of the second half of the race was Hamilton. He rejoined in P8 and carved his way through the field to stand on the second step of the podium. In the Drivers’ Championship, Hamilton leads Verstappen by a point, the extra point being added to Hamilton’s tally for clinching the fastest lap of the race at Imola.

If there was one driver who starred in both halves of the race, it was Mclaren’s Lando Norris. After being denied pole position on Saturday thanks to his car being a few inches outside of track limits, Norris drove an aggressive race from P7 to score his first podium of the season. En route to the podium, Norris benefitted from Mclaren’s team orders as they asked Ricciardo to swap positions with Norris mid-race.

Explained a jubilant Norris, “Obviously very happy to get a podium. A very well-executed race from the team and from myself. I think I drove very well – I made a lot of good decisions – but it wasn’t easy. The beginning of the race was pretty tough. A bit of contact here and there, not a perfect start but I kept my head cool. I kept focused throughout because sometimes you know you’ve got to expect the red flags and the Safety Cars and think that more opportunities can come towards you later in the race. So, I kept that in mind and solidly came back through.”

Fantastic Ferrari

In 2021, if there’s one team that has impressed, it’s Ferrari. After a difficult year in 2020, the team seems to have regrouped and are inching their way back to the front. The Scuderia are nowhere near the class of the field but spirited performances by their drivers are being rejoiced even though they aren’t for podium positions. In the race, Sainz Jr. recovered well from P11 to P5 – the highest for any driver in the top-10 while Leclerc was in contention for a podium finish.

“On a completely different track and in very different conditions to the first race of the season, this result confirms that the work we are doing is going in the right direction. The fact we are unhappy about not getting at least one driver onto the podium is further proof of that. We can definitely say the outcome of these first two races is a positive one,” said Ferrari’s Team Principal Mattia Binotto.

Elsewhere, Alpine scored double points in the race thanks to Raikkonen’s complicated-to-decipher post-race penalty. It was Alonso’s first championship point after his return to Formula 1. In the treacherous conditions during the pre-race reconnaissance laps, Alonso nearly binned his Alpine, so the start and end to his race was fairly dramatic. Pierre Gasly’s race strategy was hampered by a strategy gamble that didn’t work in his favour. The AlphaTauri driver chose to start the race on full wets, one of four drivers to do so. The extra stop to get him on the correct rubber impacted his final race result. After starting 5th, AlphaTauri and Gasly would’ve hoped for more at their home race.

Disappointments

The biggest disappointments from the race would be Sebastian Vettel, Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas. Vettel’s race was marred by bad luck right from the time the pit lane opened for pre-race reconnaissance laps. The Aston Martin driver had brake overheating issues that led to extensive repair work on the start grid. The team were unable to finish their work and bolt the four tyres before the 5 mins mark and that resulted in a 10 second stop-go penalty in the race. Finally, the former World Champion retired on the penultimate lap with gearbox issues.

Perez, the star of qualifying who edged ahead of Verstappen on Saturday and almost beat Hamilton to pole, had a hero-to-zero moment on Sunday. After losing P2 at the start, Perez went backward in the opening part of the race, losing further ground to Leclerc. To make matters worse, he lost his car briefly under the Safety Car – a mistake that cost him two positions. However, an eager beaver Perez retook those lost positions under the Safety Car itself. The FIA slapped a 10 second time penalty for this infringement. The final in the coffin of Perez’s disastrous race was when he spun while in 4th place and fell out of points contention. “The conditions out there were really difficult today and I made quite a few mistakes that were very costly,” summed up Perez.

Even before his race-ending crash with Russell, Bottas was having a dismal afternoon at Imola. He qualified a lowly 8th place and fought with the lower mid-field cars without making much headway. His race was a stark contrast to Hamilton’s, who was able to regain lost ground and score a podium for Mercedes.

Mercedes’ Toto Wolff said, “Unfortunately, the crash between George and Valtteri was unnecessary. Valtteri had a difficult first 30 laps and shouldn’t have been there but George should have never launched into this manoeuvre considering that the track was drying up. It meant taking risks and the other car is a Mercedes in front of him and in any drivers’ development as a young driver you must never lose this global perspective. Lots to learn for him I guess.”

This post was first published on Firstpost

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