The stage is set for this season’s Formula One. Although we are only one race through the 23 races we saw enough at the opener in Bahrain a fortnight ago to have an educated guess as to what to expect going forward.
In a nutshell: the Mercedes of seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton against the Red Bull of Max Verstappen. All the other drivers on the grip are racing fro the bottom step on the podium.
The famous Imola track returned to the F1 calendar amid the Covid-19 changes of 2020 and the 2021 race, takes place over 63 laps of the 4.959km Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, former home of the San Marino GP, on Sunday, 18 April.
Hamilton got his season off to the perfect start by winning in Bahrain, his 96th F1 victory. But he only won by 7/10th of a second ahead of the Dutchman, who was forced to hand back the race lead in the closing laps after passing the champion with a move that had taken him off the track and beyond the limits.
As expected, Hamilton and Verstappen delivered an exhilarating exhibition of racing as they stormed to the flag – the pair leaving third-placed Valtteri Bottas, in the second Mercedes, to finish adrift by 37 seconds.
Nothing suggests, barring accidents of course, that we’re going to see a different pattern for most of the 22 upcoming races.
Hamilton has dominated F1 over the past few years but many believe Red Bull are in a strong position to give Verstappen the tools to change that this season. Mercedes have been the team to beat ever since Red Bull’s last Constructors’ Championship in 2013.
Three-time world champion Nelson Piquet reckons that Verstappen is a champion-in-waiting, perhaps as soon as this year. “It’s not that Hamilton isn’t good,” Piquet said. “But he has an inferior driver by his side and the previous one [Nico Rosberg] was even worse.
“First of all, we have to consider that F1 is a category with different cars, so it’s very difficult to make a direct comparison between two drivers if they are not on the same team. But if Max were driving for Mercedes, I’m sure that he would smash Hamilton.
“Things are too easy for Hamilton to win it all with [Valtteri] Bottas by his side as a second driver.
“Max is more aggressive. He may make mistakes more frequently due to this aggressiveness, but in my opinion he’s better than Hamilton.”
So, as we head to Imola this weekend, what will unfold. Will youth deliver over experience or will Hamilton simply swat away another challenge as he has done over the years.