Formula 1: How the lead drivers proved their worth

As Formula 1 prepares to move onto round three, it was another high-class show put on by many drivers, no more so than Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. But it was the lead drivers as a whole who gained control.

Round two of the 2021 Formula 1 season, the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, raised the entertainment levels for all watching. With rumors of rainfall for race day, the sun decided to shine throughout the morning until just 30 minutes before lights out.

At that point, the heavens decided to open at sector one, throwing strategy up in the air and increasing the anticipation two-fold.

Yet it was the title antagonists who reigned supreme, one definitely more than the other. Max Verstappen got revenge from round one in Bahrain while Lewis Hamilton filled in the second position, but that does not tell the whole story. Amid a rare Hamilton mistake, safety cars and a red flag, it was Verstappen who flexed his muscles, despite him doing his best Gilles Villeneuve impression before the final restart after the red flag.

Verstappen showed his feathers, Hamilton showed how to recover, and McLaren’s Lando Norris put his name in the box for “lead McLaren driver”.

Verstappen’s new teammate, Sergio Perez, surprised the Formula 1 world by outqualifying the Dutchman to become the first teammate to fairly beat him in a qualifying session since Daniel Ricciardo did so for the 2018 Mexican Grand Prix. But the race was a very different story.

While Verstappen dominated out in front, Perez had an interesting and messy race, to say the least. He was jumped by his teammate at the start and then mugged by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc just a few corners later at the Variante Alta chicane. It was not the ideal start.

Then it got worse. An off for the Mexican during the first safety car period very early into the race dropped him by two positions. This is seemingly before he forgot the rules, as he swiftly made his way past those two cars under safety car conditions for some reason — who knows why he did that. Anyway, an obvious penalty was handed out.

From that point forward, he never recovered. The lead Red Bull remained out in front after the red flag restart, while car number 11 found itself in more trouble. Restarting on soft tires, Perez had the chance to recover from his poor opening stages. That chance was also thrown in the bin shortly thereafter. Losing the rear after the Villeneuve chicane and ultimately facing said chicane in the gravel trap summed up his day. Verstappen led the team.

A similar thing can be said for Mercedes. As Toto Wolff correctly stated, Hamilton saved them yet again. A rare and crucial mistake all but eliminated his chances of fighting Verstappen for the win after a multiple-lap game of cat and mouse. A mistake while lapping a backmarker, Williams’ George Russell, on the wet tarmac sent him into the gravel and facing the wall.

Despite impressively reversing his Mercedes out of the gravel, Hamilton found himself down the order and a lap off the lead lap. Of course, he was fortunate with the ensuing red flag, meaning he was able to get back onto the lead lap. But he still had work to do, that “work” notably being a fight with both Ferrari drivers and Norris.

Well, he did that. He rallied from ninth place and passed Norris for second with less then a handful of laps to go and set the race’s fastest lap, keeping him on top of the driver standings by a single point over Verstappen. But the other side of the Mercedes garage was frankly a shambles.

A poor qualifying performance backed up by a poor race performance was not what Valtteri Bottas had in mind.

All that came to a head on lap 32 during a high-speed incident between Bottas in the Mercedes and Russell in the Williams. Bottas was defending for position into turn one against Russell. It got messier after the accident itself, as Russell accused Bottas of multiple things, and the Finn bit back.

All entertaining, but a mess. Russell has probably not helped himself, especially after he watches the incident and realizes his accusations were a bit out in left field. The “he wouldn’t have done that if it were another driver” jab leaves multiple stings into the backs of many people.

When all was said and done, Hamilton led the team again.

Norris and Pierre Gasly also made statements. With his strong performance throughout the weekend, topping it with a podium finish, Norris made a direct statement about being the lead McLaren driver, especially with Ricciardo still adjusting — and that was pretty clear to see throughout the weekend. Norris was pretty much untouchable, bar the top two drivers, and led the team.

Gasly’s performance flew under the radar. A strong fifth place effort in qualifying was quickly washed away in the spray of the other cars, as he started the race on the full wet tires. What a mistake that was; early on, he was lapping nearly 10 seconds a lap slower than the leaders, creating a very impressive train behind him.

He impressively recovered to a points finishing position despite a horrid first stint, as he crossed the line in eighth place and was promoted to seventh after a penalty was handed to Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll.

How did he lead the team? Yuki Tsunoda, after an impressive debut, faced a whole different challenge at Imola, and he could not keep his car facing forward. Seriously. A shunt in qualifying and mishaps in the race, including a spin immediately after overtaking Hamilton on the restart, proved that he still has a lot to learn. An official 12th place finish left him wailing in his errors.