by Daniel Roodt
F1 fans were treated to their first “It’s lights out and away we go” this year, but that wasn’t the only treat on offer this weekend. The race was exhilarating and was certainly befitting of a season opener.
There were some intense battles throughout the pack, summed up by an enthralling fight for the top spot of the podium between Hamilton and Verstappen. And if this is a sign of what is to come this season, then we are looking ahead at one of the most competitive seasons in a while.
The opening Formula 1 weekend started on Friday afternoon with a now-shortened FP1 with four new drivers and two new teams on the grid. Rookies Nikita Mazepin, Yuki Tsunoda, and Mick Schumacher, Michael’s son, all made their F1 debuts this weekend after being promoted from F2. The first race also marked the return of two-time world champion Fernando Alonso after two years out of the sport.
Max Verstappen dominated all three practice sessions in what appears to be an incredibly fast Red Bull car. While Mercedes seemed to have recovered from their testing mishaps, Hamilton and Bottas still found themselves behind the flying Dutchman on the timesheet.
Red Bull’s dominance was reflected during qualifying as Verstappen managed to put his car on pole in what was his fourth pole position of his career. He was backed up by Hamilton in second, Bottas in third and Charles Leclerc in fourth.
Unfortunately for Red Bull, his teammate Sergio Perez didn’t have the same qualifying luck, and he could only manage to start in 11th after failing to make it out of Q2. It went from bad to worse for the Mexican as he had car troubles during the formation lap and looked like he wouldn’t even start the race.
Luckily for Red Bull, he was able to restart his car, however he had to start last and in the pit lane as a result of this. This didn’t prove to be an issue for him though, as he put in a solid performance and ended up finishing the race in fifth behind Lando Norris, who had an excellent race.
Unfortunately for some drivers, the opening race of the season didn’t go to plan. Nikita Mazepin lasted three corners on his F1 debut as he was a bit eager on the throttle and ended up ploughing into the barriers just after the race started.
Pierre Gasly suffered front wing damage at the start and was near the back of the pack throughout, and didn’t end up finishing the race. He was joined on the ‘did not finish list’ by Nicholas Latifi and Fernando Alonso, who retired after suffering from brake issues.
It was also a bad start for Sebastian Vettel in his first race for Aston Martin. He started 20th after receiving a grid penalty for failing to respect yellow flags during qualifying. The race didn’t go much better for the German, who finished 15th ahead of Mick Schumacher in a very slow Haas.
However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom and we were treated to some exhilarating racing on Sunday. Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton both led the race for extended periods, with Lewis Hamilton breaking Michael Schumacher’s record for the most laps led in F1.
However, the really exciting part came towards the end of the race, and if it’s a sign of what’s to come this season, then we’re in for one of the closest seasons in a while. Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton scrapped out for about the final six laps with Verstappen behind the British driver but on newer tyres.
He looked to make this advantage pay and continued to inch closer and closer to Hamilton. The Red Bull driver managed to catch up by lap 49 and began attacking Hamilton and looking to get past at every opportunity. He continued to put pressure on the Mercedes man and eventually passed him on lap 53, just four laps before the end of the race.
Unfortunately for Verstappen, it was not to be, as he was informed that he exceeded track limits by going entirely off the track at turn four. As a result, he could have either let Hamilton pass him or face a five-second penalty at the end of the race. Much to Verstappen’s frustration, his team opted for the former, and he was ordered to let Hamilton pass him.
From then on, he struggled to challenge Hamilton. However, it would be remiss not to mention a brilliant spell of driving by the recently knighted driver. He kept Verstappen at bay, and never opened the door for him to attempt a proper overtake and managed to hold his lead to win his 96th Grand Prix and his 75th for Mercedes.
It was a nail-biting race, and it showed how close Red Bull appear to be to last year’s champions. Whatever happens this season, it looks like we have a proper title fight on our hands, and personally, I cannot wait.
Bring on Imola!