Max Verstappen won a manic wet race in Imola in which pole winner Lewis Hamilton recovered from a lap down to finish on the podium, while Valtteri Bottas and George Russell emerged unscathed from a high-speed crash at Tamburello.
The Dutchman was close to flawless in depriving Hamilton of the lead on the first lap and controlling the race thereafter, dominating the field to claim a comfortable 22-second victory.
Hamilton, on the other hand, lost touch with the lead through a rare clumsy mistake in the damp on slick tires, running through the gravel and plummeting down the order, but a trademark charge through the field in the second half of the race brought the Briton back up to a commendable second place.
Verstappen’s win was underwritten by his sizzling start, taking the apex at Tamburello and forcing Hamilton wide over the slippery curbs to take the lead.
LIGHTS OUT AT IMOLA!
VERSTAPPEN LEADS! Hamilton drops to P2#ImolaGP 🇮🇹 #F1 pic.twitter.com/SDYXOcOb87
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 18, 2021
Hamilton wasn’t the only car to leave the track. Williams driver Nicholas Latifi spun off the track at Acqua Minerale shortly afterwards and upon rejoining collided with Nikita Mazepin’s Haas, sending himself spearing into the wall and triggering a safety car.
Conditions remained treacherous during the caution, with Sergio Perez spinning off the track and receiving a penalty for recovering his place with the safety car on track and Mick Schumacher losing his front wing in the barriers while trying to warm his tires.
At the restart Hamilton got the better launch, but Verstappen again covered the apex at Tamburello to hold position, and the Dutchman used the clean air of the lead to reel off a series of fastest lap and extend his advantage to more than five seconds over the damaged Mercedes.
Lando Norris made hay at the resumption. The Englishman had dropped from seventh to ninth off the line but made a series of decisive passes to recover to sixth behind teammate Daniel Ricciardo on Lap 12.
The two orange cars sparred for five laps, after which Norris insisted that he was the quicker car. The team duly ordered the Australian to cede the position, and after just one lap the younger driver was more than two seconds up the road and in a position to inherit third from the penalized Perez.
Meanwhile the momentum in the lead battle was shifting. On Lap 20, with the circuit drying and the tread worn from the intermediate tires, Hamilton was finding improved pace, and by Lap 26 he was within two seconds of Verstappen.
Red Bull Racing pre-emptively brought in the leader for slicks on Lap 27. Mercedes responded a lap later, but the stop was slow, allowing Verstappen to maintain first place.
But Mercedes’s race was about to unravel dramatically. Hamilton was pursuing Verstappen through lapped traffic when he clumsily slid through the gravel at Tosa and nosed the wall. He took considerable time to find reverse and return to pit lane for a fresh front wing, dropping from second to ninth and a lap down.
Meanwhile Valtteri Bottas was defending against Williams-driving Mercedes junior George Russell for ninth. Russell slipstreamed the Finn through Turn 1 and down to Tamburello, but the pair came together in the middle of the road at more than 205 mph in a monster crash.
⚠️ SAFETY CAR (LAP 33/63) ⚠️
Russell and Bottas have a huge coming together into Tamburello and are both out of the race
Both drivers are out of the car and okay#ImolaGP 🇮🇹 #F1 pic.twitter.com/Y0xWuGm8Mb
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 18, 2021
Each driver angrily blamed the other over team radio, and Russell hauled himself out of his cockpit to remonstrate with the still-seated Bottas, getting the middle digit in return before storming away from the crash site.
A half-hour red-flag period ensued to clean the wreckage, and after lapped cars, including Hamilton, were allowed to unlap themselves the race resumed with a rolling safety car restart.
Verstappen aced his restart — despite momentarily spinning across the grass while in control of the field — and without Hamilton for company he was uninhibited in sprinting off into the distance to record a dominant victory.
“It was very challenging out there, especially in the beginning,” he said. “It was very hard to stay on track, to be honest. It was very slippery.
“Everything went really well today, so I feel really happy with that.”
The battle for the podium went unresolved until the final laps. Norris had used his choice of soft tire for the restart to jump Leclerc for second, but Hamilton was the prime mover from ninth. He made up a place immediately upon the restart and was up to fifth by Lap 42.
The world champion made short work of Carlos Sainz for fourth on Lap 50 and besieged Leclerc and Norris for a place on the podium with 11 laps remaining, getting the job done with DRS on Laps 55 and 60 respectively. Taking a bonus point for fastest lap, it was a strong recovery drive for the Briton to maintain a one-point lead in the drivers championship.
“On my side it was not the greatest of days,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve made a mistake in a long time.”
“I’m grateful I was able to bring the car home … I’m really, really grateful that we got to get going again. To get some points for the team is really important.”
Norris was able to hold on with his rapidly aging tires to claim third, his second podium in Formula 1.
“I’m happy,” he said. “It was a long race, a tough one. I didn’t start so well, but I came back, I had good pace.
“It’s nice to be fighting these guys. It’s nice to be there on pure pace. Hopefully we can have some more in the future.
Ferrari teammates Leclerc and Sainz finished a strong fourth and fifth ahead of Ricciardo in the second McLaren. The Australian, also on wearing soft tires, spent the last part of the race defending against Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll and AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly, who finished close behind in seventh and eighth.
Kimi Raikkonen finished ninth for Alfa Romeo, and Esteban Ocon took home the race’s final point for Alpine ahead of teammate Fernando Alonso.
Perez was 12th for Red Bull Racing after spinning off the track after the restart while running fourth. Yuki Tsunoda was another post-restart spinner on his way to 13th ahead of Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi.
Sebastian Vettel retired in the final laps but was classified 15th ahead of Haas teammates Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin.