Verstappen storms to win at Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

Red Bull driver cuts Leclerc’s championship lead to 27 points on miserable day for Ferrari

Max Verstappen won the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix with a commanding drive for Red Bull from pole position, with his teammate Sergio Pérez in second. Ferrari's Charles Leclerc made a costly mistake in the final stages, dropping him from third to a sixth-placed finish and allowing Verstappen to take a huge chunk out of his championship lead. McLaren's Lando Norris took third.

The race was one to forget in difficult circumstances for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. The seven-time champion started in 14th and finished in the same position in a car that has been an absolute handful to drive all weekend, but his teammate George Russell will take heart in a gutsy fourth. Alfa Romeo's Valtteri Bottas was in fifth.

Verstappen led the way at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari, untroubled out front in a flawless run that reaffirmed his place as absolutely still in the title fight with Leclerc. Ferrari could not match the pace of Red Bull and much as Leclerc pushed he was held back with relative ease by Verstappen and Pérez.

The win has tightened up the fight for the championship after four rounds with a planned 19 still to go. Leclerc remains leading but Verstappen is in second, now only 27 points back, having been 46 in arrears going into this weekend.

On Saturday, after a difficult sprint race in which they made no headway through the field Hamilton conceded any chance they had of fighting for the title had gone. He also intimated that at best Mercedes had to hope there was a solution to the issues plaguing their car. Hamilton is the only F1 driver to have won a race in every season he has competed, since his debut in 2007. After Imola it is a remarkable achievement that is under real threat of coming to an ignominious end this season.

Design error

He has conceded his previously all-conquering Mercedes team might have made a fundamental mistake in the design of their car. “In Barcelona testing, the question was put to me: ‘What happens if you get it wrong?’ And I said: ‘We don’t do that, we don’t get things wrong, we’re world champions.’ But the fact is, with all the possibilities out there, we may have.”

Hamilton has said there is no fix in the pipeline and worse still Russell appears to be able to extract more from the car in its current form.

This is Verstappen's 22nd win and his second at Imola, having also won here last year. After suffering the disappointment of being forced to retire in the first round at Bahrain and then at the last meeting in Melbourne, his title charge is now back in full flight, albeit with the task to catch Leclerc remaining a formidable one.

The race opened on a wet track after earlier heavy rain and the drivers started on the intermediate wet tyres. Verstappen made a good start from pole but Leclerc was slow away, passed by Pérez and Norris through turn one, where Carlos Sainz was nudged off by Daniel Ricciardo ending his race in the gravel and bringing out the safety car.

Russell, meanwhile, made a superb start and benefiting from the incidents in front, moved from 11th to sixth on the opening lap. Hamilton too moved up two spots to 12th.

Racing resumed on lap five, Verstappen holding his lead with his wingman Pérez on his tail. The conditions remained tricky as the track began to try in places as Leclerc was finally able to make a pass on Norris on lap eight but only when Verstappen had already opened up a three-second lead out front.

Leclerc was six seconds in arrears, while Russell found his Mercedes race pace that has been absent all weekend. All over the back of Kevin Magnussen, after a fine tussle the British driver made it stick on lap 12 to take fifth but Hamilton made no progress from 11th.

Slick tyres

Verstappen, however, was in control in front with a five-second lead and seven seconds up on Leclerc. With the track drying Pérez pitted for slick tyres on lap 19, as did the Mercedes drivers. Verstappen and Leclerc followed a lap later, all taking medium rubber but Leclerc’s stop was slow and Pérez passed him on the out lap to reclaim second.

Hamilton too dropped places with a slow stop, emerging in 14th. Verstappen was maintaining a solid lead and setting fastest laps at his leisure while Pérez kept Leclerc in check behind him in what had developed into a somewhat processional affair.

Hamilton was lapped by Verstappen on lap 41, a moment that will only have brought the unpleasant reality of Mercedes's place in the pecking order home with brutal reality, as the British driver struggled to so much as pass the AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly.

Ferrari then pitted Leclerc for a late stop to take a shot on the soft tyres but was swiftly matched by Red Bull, who pitted Pérez then Verstappen to cover it off. However, Ferrari’s gamble went horribly wrong, Leclerc pushed for Pérez but went too hard, spun off at Variante Alta on lap 54 and took front-wing damage forcing him to pit again and dropping him to ninth. A huge unforced error from which he could recover only to sixth as Verstappen romped to victory.

Yuki Tsunoda was in seventh for AlphaTauri, Sebastian Vettel in eighth for Aston Martin with his teammate Lance Stroll in 10th. Kevin Magnussen was in ninth for Haas. – Guardian