The marshals of Imola most deservedly earned a warming glass of red wine as darkness fell after qualifying for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, such was the frequency of the demands on them to wave red flags during a torturously slow, rain-afflicted session. By its close Red Bull’s Max Verstappen had earned “pole position” but such is the equally painful structuring of this format, while his pole counts statistically in the record books it is only for Saturday’s sprint race which will decide the literal pole for Sunday’s GP.
Verstappen beat Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc into second and McLaren’s Lando Norris into third. But for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes the rain, the flags, the wretched format paled into insignificance next to the excruciating discomfort of his team’s performance at Imola as they fell to their worst showing in almost a decade.
Hamilton only narrowly made it into Q2 and finished in 13th place with his teammate George Russell in 11th. They were unlucky in that the rain prevented them setting better times in Q2 but they were clearly already struggling, their car suffering with a severe form of the porpoising that has afflicted them all season. It is the first time a Mercedes has not made it into Q3 since the Japanese GP in 2012.
Hamilton was seen in a lively discussion with team principal Toto Wolff at the back of the Mercedes garage afterwards and perhaps in a sign of his frustration was unusually critical in his assessment.
“It wasn’t a great session, naturally it’s disappointing,” he said. “We underperformed as a team today. There are things that we should have done that we didn’t do. We will just keep working hard, but each weekend is a rescue.” He pointedly also declined to explain the subject of his conversation with Wolff. “It was all internal stuff,” Hamilton added. “I do not want to share what was said.”
At the sharp end Mercedes once ruled with an iron fist, it was swiftly clear qualifying would be decided by the two title protagonists Verstappen and Leclerc. It had opened on a damp but drying track at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari but heavy rain returned midway through to make for tricky conditions at the business end of the session, which was interrupted by five red-flag stoppages. Leclerc set the pace on his opening hot lap in Q3, mighty through the second and third sectors but he was only two-hundredths clear of Verstappen with a time of 1min 28.778sec.
The drivers kept lapping as the clock ticked down and Verstappen pipped his rival with a 1min 27.999sec lap just before another red flag as Valtteri Bottas ground to a halt on track. The pair might have seen once more on a final hot run with three minutes remaining but as the rain became heavier the session was brought to a suitably anticlimactic finale, put out of its misery with another red flag as Norris too went off.
“It was a hectic, long qualifying,” said Verstappen, who was nonetheless pleased F1 was racing at Imola. “We’re very happy to be here. It’s an amazing track. It really punishes you if you make a mistake you can go in the wall. That’s what we like to make it really hard and difficult.”
The serious business remains however. Saturday’s 21-lap sprint race will not only decide the grid for Sunday’s race but world championship points will also be awarded to the top eight finishers on a scale from eight to one. Securing the win now has genuine weight. Pole gives Verstappen the chance to claw back points in the title fight which Leclerc leads on 71, with the world champion, who has retired twice this season, in km on 25.
The sprint race was trialled last year and the format has been tweaked but the most significant issue around it remains unsatisfactory. This year F1 have decided that for statistical purposes the quickest driver on Friday will be deemed to have taken pole position but the sprint race will still decide the grid for Sunday’s grand prix. At which point a driver will be on pole, yet not acknowledged to have taken pole. F1’s byzantine, semantic war on the senses deems that said driver will be referred to as having taken “P1”. A confusing muddle likely to satisfy neither drivers nor fans.
Leclerc’s teammate Carlos Sainz was an early casualty, caught out in Q2, going too hard and losing the rear at the second Rivazza corner, he finished in 10th. Kevin Magnussen was in an excellent fourth for Haas, Fernando Alonso in fifth for Alpine and Daniel Ricciardo in sixth for McLaren. Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez was in seventh, Bottas in eighth for Alfa Romeo and Sebastian Vettel in ninth for Aston Martin.
Mick Schumacher was 12th for Haas, Guanyu Zhou in 14th for Alfa Romeo and Lance Stroll 15th for Aston Martin.
Alex Albon retired from Q1 after a brake disc caught fire and exploded on his Williams and he will start from the back of the grid. His teammate Nicholas Latifi was in 18th. Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly were in 16th and 17th for AlphaTauri, with Alpine’s Esteban Ocon in 19th.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism