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Max Verstappen put paid to a Ferrari party with victory for Red Bull in Saturday’s sprint race for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix but the tifosi’s disappointment was as nothing to the resounding death knell that Lewis Hamilton sounded at Imola. With the seven-time world champion conceding that after three races any hope he and his Mercedes team had of fighting for the world championship was over, it was the end of an era in Formula One.
Hamilton and Mercedes endured a fruitless toil at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari, concluding with a highly surprising admission from the usually circumspect driver that his team had got the concept of their car wrong. “We are obviously not fighting for the championship,” Hamilton said. “Ultimately we haven’t got it right this year but everyone’s working as hard as they can to reverse it.”
After Leclerc topped FP1 the rain subsided well before Friday’s qualifying session and the field emerged on soft tyres for Q1, in which he again set the fastest time to go half a second ahead of Verstappen. Q2 saw a greater threat of rain, Verstappen topping those timesheets before Sainz crashed from P2 – and then the clouds unleashed.
Intermediates would have to be donned for the final shootout and it was there that Verstappen set the early benchmark of 1m 27.999s – just as Valtteri Bottas crashed to bring out the fourth red flag of the afternoon with three minutes remaining.
WATCH: Dramatic brake fire curtails Alex Albon’s qualifying in Imola
Nearly eight-tenths off, Leclerc had one last chance to pry provisional pole away from the reigning champion but was left second and 0.799s off after the red flag. Norris took third for McLaren but slid off track in the final seconds of Q3, while Kevin Magnussen finished a fine fourth for Haas and Fernando Alonso rounded out the top five for Alpine.
In sixth was Norris’s team mate Daniel Ricciardo while Sergio Perez could only manage P7 for Red Bull, ahead of Bottas – who was eighth before crashing his Alfa Romeo. Vettel, managing Q3 in his Aston Martin, took P9 to leave Ferrari’s Sainz in a de facto P10 after crashing out of Q2.
Mercedes have won the last eight consecutive constructors’ championships, almost indomitable at the front of the field, but how the mighty have fallen. Hamilton, who has been a title protagonist every season since 2014, said the current car was nearly as poor as the McLaren with which he began 2009, which he described as the worst of his career. McLaren did solve their problems, however the 37-year-old was absolutely blunt that there would be no sudden turnaround in Mercedes’s fortunes.
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“It was so painful, there are no words for it,” he said of the sprint race. “Of course I want to be fighting for the world championship but unfortunately that’s not the case, we have to accept the reality of what we are faced with.” Indeed he intimated the extent of the challenge facing Mercedes by noting the team would “have to work hard not be in this position next year”.
Their season has been a trying affair across the first three races and Imola its low point, with Sunday’s grand prix threatening a long slog in a midfield battle they have not had to endure for almost a decade. The last time the team were this far off the pace was 2012. Hamilton and his teammate George Russell could manage only 14th and 11th, from their already unflattering 13th and 11th on the grid.
Verstappen won the 21-lap race and in so doing will start from the front of the grid on Sunday, after brilliantly taking the lead on the penultimate lap, beating Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc into second, with Sergio Pérez in third for Red Bull.