Jolyon Palmer: Why Hamilton’s rare mistake at Imola was really caused by the title threat from Verstappen
If there was already a thought that the 2021 season would boil down to a Hamilton vs Verstappen title fight, then I think that perception was solidified even more after the two drivers were the undoubted class of the field on a tricky day at Imola, where their respective team mates faltered.
The pace of both drivers throughout almost the entire Grand Prix was stunning, as they initially raced clear of the field into a flat out dual for the win. Then at the half distance both made errors which had differing consequences and which changed the outlook of the race.
Hamilton’s error was unusual for him as he ran off through the gravel, into the wall at Tosa, trying to lap George Russell’s Williams.
The factual reason for the crash was simple, he got onto the wet part of the track, trying to lap the Williams, just after the field had all switched to dry, slick tyres. Even though he actually braked earlier and more gently than the lap before, he just had a fraction of the grip on the inside, and slithered wide.
It’s crucial in these races to stick to the dry line once you have switched to slicks. They are tyres that aren’t designed to disperse water unlike the grooved wets or intermediates, and therefore if you start driving on the wetter part you can just skate straight on and be out of control easily, as the tyre loses proper contact with the tarmac.
Slicks are so much faster than intermediates as soon as there is a dry line because of this reason too. The grip level is higher on a non-grooved tyre so long as the surface is useable, and this is why as soon as it looks like slicks are quicker, there is a rush to the pits for everybody to change.
Beyond the factual reason for Hamilton’s crash though, is the mindset of the driver, who knows the risks of driving on the wet part, but deemed it worth taking the risk in order to apply pressure on the race leader – his championship rival.
Verstappen never left the racing line to lap the string of cars that Hamilton was also approaching (Russell, Stroll and Bottas) – and it cost him a chunk of lap time to the Mercedes behind. He was cautious.
Hamilton undoubtedly saw the race leader getting closer and closer ahead and was desperate to keep the pressure on, and in doing so took a risk, which didn’t pay off.
He also took a huge risk at the start of the race to try and hold off Verstappen at the Tamburello chicane, only to inevitably be forced wide onto the kerb and damage part of his front wing.
At Imola we saw Hamilton take risks he hasn’t had to do for years, because of the competition he is up against this season. If Lewis was leading the race, or even chasing Bottas or Vettel in a Ferrari, I don’t think we’d be seeing him take the risks that he did on Sunday, but he knows the Verstappen threat in 2021 will probably be his toughest yet as a Mercedes driver.
Verstappen had his own moment though where the race almost got away from him, just a few laps later at the restart.
With huge steering lock, he booted the throttle to try and get a bit of heat into medium tyres at Rivazza, but overcooked it and ended up half spinning on the grass.
This was so close to being a clanger for Max, who would have missed an open goal as his main rival by this point was out of contention for the win.
Through a mixture of luck and skill he managed to pull the car round and somehow not even fully leave the track, which could have cost him track position to Leclerc or Norris behind.
He hit and then released the brakes at the perfect moment as he was spinning across the grass and it seemed to correct the slide and pitch him right – back onto the track.
On the face of it this seems like pure luck in this situation, and it certainly was lucky that he didn’t fully leave the track by the skin of his teeth. But I’ve seen Max control a spinning car on the brakes a few times now and quite often he can pull of these miraculous saves. Think back to Brazil 2016, or even Turkey last year where hitting the brakes and releasing at the optimum moment has saved him.
This must be a purely instinctive thing for him as it’s not really something a driver can practice for particularly, but once again he managed to wrestle the car back from a position where I’m sure many others would have spun completely.
Hamilton had his own bit of luck with the timing of the red flag. It couldn’t have been better for him. Still, he had to make the most of that though, and delivered a fine recovery drive to finish second with fastest lap.
I’m sure at the chequered flag, Max would have been gutted to see Lewis in second, knowing that he was on the fringes of the top 10 at the red flag, but in a race where both drivers were superb, and got away with one, the championship remains neck and neck and the excitement continues.