Lewis Hamilton was forced to follow home in second after an uncharacteristic error left the Dutchman unchallenged at the front and set up a mighty recovery job from the Mercedes man.
With 40 minutes until lights out, the rain that had threatened on the radars materialised in a major way, but only on half the circuit.
From Tamburello to Tosa, the circuit had begun to generate standing water but on the main straight, dry tyres were still the order of the day.
Fernando Alonso was caught out on the reconnaissance lap, sliding into the outside wall at the Tosa hairpin and damaging his front wing. He recovered to the pitlane but it underlined just how tricky conditions were getting.
He wasn’t the only one with issues pre-race. Both Aston Martins were suffering from rear brake issues due to overheating. Mechanics repaired the brake casing on Lance Stroll’s car after fire damage burned through the outer shell but couldn’t finish their work on Sebastian’s Vettel car in time, forcing him to start from the pitlane and incurring a 10sec pitstop penalty for not having the tyres fitted 5min before the start.
Over at Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas suffered a rear-left puncture on the way to the grid. The tyre was changed, but the question was which compound to fit.
The drama continued on the formation lap with Charles Leclerc spinning at Aqua Minerale and into the gravel. He rejoined in short order and was able to retake his position for the start.
When the race finally did start, Verstappen aced his getaway and was immediately alongside Hamilton for the lead. The Mercedes driver braved it around the outside but was forced wide and over the yellow kerbs, damaging his front wing endplate.
It was well-behaved for half the lap until Carlos Sainz repeated his team-mate’s mistake at Aqua Minerale but was able to avoid dipping into the gravel. Nicholas Latifi spun at the same corner and rejoined, only to be spun into the barriers and out of the race at the Variante Alta chicane following contact with Nikita Mazepin. The Haas driver was left with nowhere to go as the Williams squeezed him to the edge of the track and the two tangled up the hill.
The incident brought out the safety car, just after Sergio Perez got out of shape at Variante Alta and allowed Leclerc to slip through for third position.
The appearance of the red Mercedes AMG GT didn’t bring any respite. Mick Schumacher was another to come unstuck early on, spinning under safety car and tagging the wall past the pitlane exit, taking off his front wing. The debris at the end of the pit lane meant the entry was closed and forced the Haas driver to continue around with the damage.
Perez almost dropped it as well under the safety car, sliding wide and into the gravel at Piratella. He recovered his position over Ricciardo and Gasly after rejoining, warranting an investigation that resulted in a 10sec time penalty, a costly one at that with Imola having one of the longer pit lanes on the calendar.
The safety car was withdrawn at the end of lap 6 and Verstappen pulled the pin at the exit of Rivazza. Hamilton tried a move into Turn One but couldn’t force his way alongside once again despite a decent slipstream.
Gasly was under serious pressure heading into the first corner on lap 7, almost ending up three-wide with Lando Norris and Sainz. The McLaren nabbed eighth position from the AlphaTauri on the following lap into the first corner and Sainz slipped by at the inside of Piratella as the Frenchman struggled on his wet tyres.
Stroll tried to clear Gasly into Turn One on lap 10 around the outside and looked to have the move done until he ran deep on corner exit and allowed the AlphaTauri back through.
Verstappen and Hamilton’s first-lap skirmish was noted by race stewards but it was decided that no investigation was necessary. The Red Bull driver’s lead was up to 5sec by lap 11.
Sainz slipped off the road ahead of the final corner and into the gravel but fortunately didn’t lose track position. The Ferrari didn’t get slowed down into the first Rivazza left-hander with drizzle still keeping conditions tricky.
Bottas’s race was hardly going well as he was fending off George Russell for track position but finally cleared the AlphaTauri for P9 on lap 13.
Russell, Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi all cleared Gasly on the following lap as the AlphaTauri driver soldiered on with the clearly slower wet tyres.
Esteban Ocon was sniffing around hoping to make a move but it was Vettel making a move on him instead into the Variante Alta chicane.
Sainz made another mistake as the track slowly dried out, sliding off the road at Tosa on lap 14. Such was the gap behind to Stroll he maintained his seventh place once again.
Gasly finally bailed out of his losing strategy on lap 15, swapping over to intermediates.
Norris had caught the back of team-mate Ricciardo by lap 17 and radioed into his team he felt he could go faster. Ricciardo was ordered to let Norris through and obliged, dropping into sixth. Norris opened up a four-second gap in three laps following the swap over.
Drizzle was still in the air as the leaders hit the backmarkers and Verstappen reported a lack of grip on his intermediates as rubber started to build up on the racing line, making the switchover point to slicks even tougher to judge.
While Red Bull gauged its lead car’s opinion on conditions, McLaren informed Norris it was reluctant to be the first to pit for dries, kicking off a Mexican stand-off throughout the field.
Leclerc radioed that his fronts had gone while, simultaneously, Perez set the fastest lap of the race on lap 21 in fourth.
Vettel was the first to blink on lap 22, pitting from 16th for mediums and serving his penalty.
Nobody immediately followed Vettel’s lead as the four-time champion continued losing time, while at the front the gap slowly started to come down between the leading duo.
Verstappen’s 5sec lead slipped to 3sec as Hamilton reported his tyres were coming back to him on lap 25. Hamilton lost the majority of the time he’d made back in a matter of corners lapping Vettel. The Aston Martin driver stuck to the racing line, not daring to stray onto the damp surface on his slicks.
Having been left well behind by Norris, Ricciardo’s race grew even worse on lap 26, losing sixth to Sainz who’d recovered from his various offs to seize the position into Turn One.
Yuki Tsunoda was the next to switch over to dry tyres, sticking mediums on his AlphaTauri.
The lead was down to 1.9sec on lap 27 as Red Bull pulled the trigger to pit Verstappen for dries. A 2.2sec stop and swap to mediums and he rejoined into clear air in third place.
Hamilton was told he had one lap to make it happen as Mercedes responded immediately. A 4sec stop with a sticky front right ended any hope of an overcut and it was the same order out front following the stops with Leclerc maintaining third a further 15sec back.
Bottas was lapped on lap 31 and lost a place in the process to Stroll, falling to ninth position but it was made even worse for Mercedes as Hamilton slid off the road at Tosa on lap 32.
The Mercedes driver was negotiating a big train of traffic that Verstappen had just moved clear of and having moved to the inside of Russell and into the wet line, sliding into the barriers. It took an eternity to recover to the track and he dropped down to ninth place, one lap down on Verstappen.
While one Mercedes was in the barriers, the other was out of the race just as quickly as Bottas and Russell had a heavy collision into Turn One.
Russell caught the grass having made it alongside the Finn and was pitched into the side of Bottas’s car at 180mph. Both drivers were out of their cars under their own power but the huge amount of debris necessitated a red flag.
Ahead of the restart, the lapped cars were allowed to gain their lap back before things got back underway.
The order at the lap 35 restart was: Verstappen, Leclerc, Norris, Perez, Sainz, Ricciardo, Stroll, Räikkönen, Hamilton, Tsunoda, Giovanzzi, Alonso, Ocon, Gasly, Vettel, Schumacher and Mazepin.
Räikkönen spun on the reconnaissance lap, dropping out of the top 10 and Verstappen almost dropped it out of Rivazza on the restart but retained his lead rolling onto the restart. Norris immediately pulled a move for second into Turn one on Leclerc.
Hamilton made a move on Tsunoda but the Japanese driver spun on the exit of the Tamburello chicane and into the gravel. He dropped down to 15th.
Verstappen stretched the lead to 1.5sec after the first lap back underway but team-mate Sergio Perez was the next to make an error, spinning from fourth down to 14th place out of the Villeneuve chicane.
Hamilton made quick work of Stroll’s Aston Martin, taking sixth on lap 39 with DRS assistance and set a fastest lap immediately.
Ricciardo followed on lap 42 into Turn One, Hamilton passing around the outside of the McLaren driver. Now in fifth, he was 12sec back from the race leader.
Despite the three cars in between them, Verstappen and Hamilton continued to trade fastest laps as the Mercedes tried to limit the damage as much as possible.
Lap 48 and Perez was attempting to make up for his error and passed Vettel for 12th but on the damp line into the first corner, sailed deep and across the kerbs, allowing the German driver to nip back past him.
Hamilton made it into DRS range of Sainz on lap 49 but the Ferrari driver showed him the wet line into Turn One, forcing the Merc to back out to avoid suffering another trip into the gravel.
Another dose of DRS and Hamilton made the move stick the following lap, leaving only Leclerc and Norris and a 15sec-gap separating the title rivals.
Leclerc, having DRS via the soft-tyred Norris ahead, kept the Ferrari out of reach of Hamilton for a handful of laps but on lap 55 the Ferrari dropped out of the one-second window and Hamilton seized third into Turn One.
The Mercedes moved to within DRS of Norris immediately afterwards but took several laps to get within passing range. Laps 57-59, Norris defended the inside line perfectly to keep Hamilton at bay.
Lap 60 and the defence of second place came to an end, the Mercedes surging around the outside of the McLaren for second place.
In the meantime, Verstappen had notched up a 20sec lead in all the clear air. Hamilton claimed the fastest lap now that he was in clear air on lap 61, a crucial point that kept the title lead in the Mercedes driver’s hands.
The Red Bull driver took the top step though with a brilliant drive to bounce back from his disappointment in Sakhir.
Hamilton’s recovery and fastest lap was good enough for second while Norris made his soft tyres last until the end to beat both Ferraris to the line.
Leclerc headed up his team-mate while Ricciardo slipped to a distant sixth position. Stroll held off Gasly for P7 while Räikkönen and Ocon rounded out the points positions.
2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix race results
|1||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||63 laps||25|
|7||Lance Stroll||Aston Martin||+51.909sec||6|
|9||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo||+1min 04.773sec||2|
|10||Esteban Ocon||Alpine||+1min 05.704sec||1|
|11||Fernando Alonso||Alpine||+1min 06.561sec|
|12||Sergio Perez||Red Bull||+1min 07.151sec|
|13||Yuki Tsunoda||AlphaTauri||+1min 13.184sec|
|14||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||+ 1 lap|
|15||Sebastian Vettel||Aston Martin||DNF|
|16||Mick Schumacher||Haas||+2 laps|
|17||Nikita Mazepin||Haas||+2 laps|
*Includes additional point for fastest lap