2021 Emilia Romagna GP qualifying report: relentless Hamilton sets up intriguing Imola race


Despite Red Bull's Max Verstappen turning up the heat in FP3, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes pulled another rabbit out of the hat in qualifying

Lewis Hamilton, 2021 Emilia Romagna GP

Hamilton took his 99th pole position after mistakes by both Red Bull drivers

Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

When a driveshaft broke early in FP2 robbing Max Verstappen of most of the Friday afternoon practice hour, Red Bull’s finest could barely have looked more sanguine. It came with knowing you have the fastest car in F1 and there was plenty of time to put things right on Saturday.

The plan looked to be on track come FP3 when Max was 0.45sec quicker than Lando Norris and better than half a second clear of Bahrain winner Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes. There weren’t many prepared to bet against a Verstappen pole.

But that was counting without Hamilton. The Mercedes might have won at Sakhir but neither Lewis nor team-mate Valtteri Bottas was thrilled with the balance and Sunday’s victory owed much to Lewis’s relentless brilliance.

Imola was as different as it could be: high grip, front-limited understeer and low temperatures dictating that the problem was keeping heat in the rubber rather than overheating it. It was still Red Bull and Mercedes setting the pace, but the rest were closer – especially Ferrari, home-team AlphaTauri and McLaren.

Again, Lewis made the difference, an error-free silky-smooth lap breaking the timing beam in 1min 14.411sec against Red Bull’s 1min 14.446sec best. “I didn’t expect us to be ahead of the Red Bulls,” he grinned, “because at times this weekend they’ve been six-tenths clear.”

And how about this: it wasn’t Verstappen closest but Sergio Perez, who achieved his first F1 front row at the 193rd attempt!

Hamilton’s 99th pole at his 30th different circuit means that another fascinating race is in prospect, this time with the tables turned and Red Bull having two cars in the top three as Verstappen qualified 0.05sec down on his new Mexican team-mate with the second Mercedes only eighth! It was the first time that Max has been out-qualified by a team-mate on merit without such as a red-flag intervention, since Daniel Ricciardo in Abu Dhabi back in 2018.

Sergio Perez, 2021 Emilia Romagna GP

Perez out-qualified Verstappen but feels he should have taken pole himself

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Although Perez was focused on improving his soft-tyre one lap pace relative to Verstappen after witnessing his stunning pace up-close for the first time in Bahrain, this was against the run of play.

“I never expected it today,” Perez admitted, “but honestly I should have been on pole because I made a mistake out of the final corner.”

Verstappen was saying much the same thing, his transgression coming earlier in what he called a “messy lap” at the exit of Turn Three.

Perez was happy with his time, obviously, but looking a bit non-plussed as to how he’d done it. He freely admitted he’s not quite there yet with the car. It’s not flowing naturally yet and you wonder about potential repeatability.

“Anything could happen tomorrow,” Sergio admitted. And he’s right. He might be on the front row but, perhaps learning from the lessons of Bahrain, he did not attempt to clear Q2 on the medium compound Pirelli, as Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas all did. That potentially puts him at a strategic disadvantage starting on the red-walled soft, not the starting tyre of choice. But Perez has so often confounded pundits with his tyre management, so it’s still going to be interesting even if Red Bull’s two versus one may not be quite as potent.

Bottas, last year’s pole-sitter and convincing race leader before collecting Ferrari debris, made a couple of errors and was almost half a second from his team-mate’s pace. From there, Valtteri faces a frustrating afternoon.

Imola may not quite be Monaco or Budapest but there is limited opportunity for either overtaking or creative strategic thinking. Last year’s return to the glorious hills of the Emilia Romagna region witnessed just six on-track passes. And, at 528m, the pitlane is the longest of the season and thus a pit-stop the most punitive, at 27-28sec, pushing strategy even more firmly towards a one-stopper. Not a good combination for the Finn.

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Will an extension of the main straight DRS zone to start 60m before the Turn 19 kink instead of at the finish line make much difference? It might do if someone makes an error out of the second Rivazza but, if they don’t, probably not.

Ferrari looked much racier close to home in cooler conditions. Charles Leclerc’s FP2 hot lap on Friday would actually have topped the session had it not been deleted for exceeding the Piratella track limits by just 10cm. He also blotted his copybook when a snap on entry to Rivazza 2 put the Ferrari into the wall while pushing on a long run just a couple of minutes before the end of the session.

But there is no denying Ferrari’s improved underlying pace in both qualifying and race trim. When it mattered Charles matched his Bahrain qualifying performance and put the No16 Ferrari on the second row alongside Verstappen, pipping Pierre Gasly’s AphaTauri by just 0.05sec.

Five-hundredths is not a lot given the disparity in budget/resource between the might of Maranello and the little Faenza team based just 20 minutes and 15.5kms away from the circuit gates, down the SS9.

Gasly reckoned it was the strongest Friday he could remember as he finished FP2 just 0.07sec from Bottas’s session-topping pace, with rookie team-mate Yuki Tsunoda backing him up with seventh.

When Hideki Matsuyama became the first Asian winner of the Masters golf in Augusta last weekend, Yuki got plenty of messages from Japanese fans telling him that it would be his turn next. And certainly, you thought of Tsunoda and his attacking style as you watched Matsuyama go for the green instead of laying up with his second shot to the Par 5 15th as he enjoyed a four-shot lead in the Masters final round with just four holes to play.


Tsunoda paid the price for pushing and will start from the back of the grid

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The ball went in the water and Matsuyama scraped across the line by one shot! Yuki wasn’t so lucky. His similarly gung-ho approach to the chicane kerbs at the top of the hill put him into an irretrievable tank-slapper and damagingly backwards into the tyres. He starts tomorrow from the back…

While Leclerc had his Friday best deleted, poor Lando Norris lost his best lap when it mattered – in Q3.

McLaren was either downplaying its hopes or was as surprised at its ultimate pace as Perez. Both the team and Norris admitted that Imola had been a challenge last year and figured it might be more of the same. But there, P2 on Saturday morning was Lando, who had been a decent bit quicker than team-mate Ricciardo from the off.

He proved it was no fluke with a Q2 time just two-thousandths behind Perez’s session-best (both on the soft tyre) but, heart-breakingly, after two purple sectors and a lap that would have qualified him third, Lando’s efforts were scratched by the narrowest of track limit excesses at Piratella.

“We didn’t start well but we got the car into a better window and it came alive in qualifying,” he explained. “The team did an awesome job. A better job than me. I’m pretty annoyed with myself…” It means that after scratching for two days relative to Norris, Ricciardo will once again start ahead of him, five-hundredths quicker and just 0.03sec behind Gasly.

Esteban Ocon did a strong job to put the first Alpine ninth on the grid. “We brought an upgrade package that gave us some performance gains and I think P9 was the maximum for us. It was a good session, a lot more straightforward than Bahrain (where he was marooned in Q1 by a yellow flag ruining a decent lap).

Team-mate Fernando Alonso, uncharacteristically, was some way behind – 0.48sec adrift in Q2 in which he was 15th, on an identical time to Nicholas Latifi’s Williams.

“I wasn’t fast enough today and didn’t maximise the performance,” Alonso admitted. “I’m disappointed in my result and let’s hope we can still get something tomorrow.”

Lando Norris, 2021 Emilia Romagna GP

Norris would have lined up third but fell foul of track limits on his final Q3 lap

Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Carlos Sainz did not enjoy his first qualifying session in Italy as a Ferrari driver. He was 0.39sec down on the flying Leclerc in Q2, a margin that was the difference between fourth and crashing out 11th, so close is the midfield.

Not only did Latifi match Alonso but, for much of the two days, looked like he had more pace than George Russell, which is not something that can oft be said! It looked like Mr Saturday might finally lose his 100% qualifying record versus team-mates since arriving in F1. But we shouldn’t have worried: when the chips were down he found another three tenths to put the No63 car 12th on the grid.

In the lead-up to the race, Sebastian Vettel revealed that he’d been doing some ‘work experience’ to further his interest in Eco-farming. Which he might find to be a happier place than Aston Martin, where he was again bested by Lance Stroll (who made Q3 but had both his laps deleted for track excess).

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The team had a new floor and aero mods at Imola and Stroll making the top 10 shoot-out was promising, with Vettel a quarter of a second down and 13th on tomorrow’s grid.

The paddock word is that the team is seeking a rule change to counter the perceived unfair advantage that the 2021 diffuser changes have given high-rake cars versus their low-rake counterparts. Aston Martin seems to be questioning whether the FIA (F1’s regulator) did actually make the changes on safety grounds at Pirelli’s behest to slow the cars, or whether there was some Formula 1 influence to alter the pecking order.

Team principal Otmar Szafnauer says that the team will have discussions to find out what happened and why, and what can be done to make it more equitable.

Commenting on the situation, his Red Bull opposite number Christian Horner responded, “I’m slightly surprised. On a sample of one (race) Mercedes (low-rake) had equal or better tyre deg in Bahrain and look mighty impressive here. But ignoring all of that, there is a process for regulation change and they were voted unanimously before going through the F1 Commission and the World Council.

“A couple of years ago, a front wing change really hurt us. We voted against it but you just have to accept it. It would seem a little naïve to suggest that rules are going to be changed after a sample of just one race after the process has been fully followed. I’m struggling to get my head around that.”

Tomorrow’s race is so finely balanced that predicting a winner is a mug’s game. But if Hamilton roughs up Christian’s men for a second successive weekend when the team has had the fastest car, he might be struggling to get his head around that, too!


2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix qualifying results

Position Driver Team Time (Q3)
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1min 14.411sec
2 Sergio Perez Red Bull 1min 14.446sec
3 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1min 14.498sec
4 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1min 14.740sec
5 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 1min 14.790sec
6 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 1min 14.826sec
7 Lando Norris McLaren 1min 14.875sec
8 Valtterri Bottas Mercedes 1min 14.898sec
9 Esteban Ocon Alpine 1min 15.210sec
10 Lance Stroll Aston Martin No time
Q2 times
11 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 1min 15.199sec
12 George Russell Williams 1min 15.262sec
13 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 1min 15.394sec
14 Nicolas Latifi Williams 1min 15.593sec
15 Fernando Alonso Alpine 1min 15.593sec
Q1 times
16 Kimi Räikkönen Alfa Romeo 1min 15.974sec
17 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo 1min 16.122sec
18 Mick Schumacher Haas 1min 16.279sec
19 Nikita Mazepin Haas 1min 16.797sec
20 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri No time