Imola GP conclusions: Max Verstappen the warbot, McLaren’s progress and more

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen raises his arms in celebration after winning at Imola with a conclusions banner

The challenges of Imola brought out the very best of Max Verstappen

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen claimed his fifth victory of the F1 2024 season in the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola.

Verstappen withstood late pressure from McLaren driver Lando Norris to convert pole position into the win, with Charles Leclerc finishing third for Ferrari. Here are our conclusions from Imola…

Conclusions from the 2024 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

Max Verstappen goes full ‘warbot’ to get Red Bull over the line

The opening months of Red Bull’s F1 2024 season have made for a fascinating insight into the relationship between man and machine in Formula 1.

And truth be told, the humans haven’t come out of it looking too good.

As rumours emerge on an almost weekly basis that arguably the greatest team in F1 history has become a nest of vipers, enough to make Adrian Newey head for the exit, the RB20 has been Red Bull’s saving grace.

With five victories from the first seven races, you simply would not know from the on-track evidence that this is a team some – including the father of the star driver – say is about to “explode.”

The RB20, in all its aerodynamic splendour, is numb to the mood behind the scenes. Much, you might say, like the other machine within the Red Bull garage.

Its name? Max Verstappen.

Must-reads from the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

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It was Jacques Villeneuve who last year came up with the best line anyone has ever uttered to truly capture the essence of Verstappen, describing Max as “a war machine, a robot” in an appraisal of his “hallucinating” relentlessness and consistency.

Often it can be easy to overlook just how essential the stability at Red Bull – stocked with the same key figures who won with Sebastian Vettel more than a decade ago – has been to Verstappen’s development, allowing him to concentrate exclusively on the driving while some of his peers – gifted with roughly similar natural talent – have been stunted by their environments.

Yet with all the off-track developments at Red Bull, Verstappen is just too advanced to let such matters – peripheral through his eyes – penetrate his performances.

Most of his victories tend to blur into one these days – that’s what tends to happen when a driver’s dominance is left undisturbed for too long – yet the Imola weekend demonstrated Verstappen at his irresistible warbot best.

This would already have stood as one of his greatest victories even had he gone on to claim a routine win after his gritty pole lap, magicked up after Red Bull had been nowhere throughout practice.

For rarely does a single lap, delivered at just the right moment, so completely and instantaneously shift the balance of power on a race weekend.

Yet it was his composure under extreme pressure from Norris in the closing laps – with tyres that felt like ice, knowing Lando was coming quick but blocking it out of his mind, concentrating only on what he could control and paying special attention to corner exits – that left on his 59th career win the mark of legend.

It was a throwback to some of the standout triumphs over Lewis Hamilton during his maiden title-winning season in F1 2021, touched by that resilience – that total immunity to pressure – that is so typically Max.

Verstappen said recently that he much prefers to win a race by 20 seconds than to emerge victorious from a close fight.

Yet it is weekends like these and seasons like 2021 – those occasions when he has no option but to go full warbot – that he scales the greatest heights.

The reward, after all, feels so much better when you’re made to work for it.

Whatever cracks that may have developed inside Red Bull in recent times, the combination of The Verstinator and the RB20 is neatly papering over them.

If only McLaren had started F1 2024 with this car…

Just how different would the complexion of the F1 2024 season – and possibly the title race itself – look if McLaren had started the year with this car?

This was the dream over the winter, that after a remarkable recovery from a slow start to F1 2023 the team would make full use of the off-season to produce a car this time capable of pushing Red Bull into uncomfortable places straight out of the box.

So it came as a disappointment when, on the day the MCL38 was launched in February, Andrea Stella confessed that McLaren had not addressed “all the areas” the team had intended to with the new car.

Stella’s point was echoed by Zak Brown, who stressed the need to “remain realistic” despite McLaren clearly emerging as Red Bull’s most consistent threat in the second half of last season.

Boo. That was something nobody – not least those of us desperate for a more competitive season after F1 2023’s Max-a-thon – wanted to hear.

Following the Miami Grand Prix upgrade, though, it is rapidly becoming clear that McLaren now have the crucial aerodynamic efficiency they had been crying out for since the original great leap forward at Austria 2023.

Now they have a car to punish Verstappen when the Red Bull is just outside of its set-up window, as in Miami.

And at Imola this weekend, Max first had to rely on a little help from his friend, Nico Hulkenberg, to be absolutely certain of beating Oscar Piastri to pole position before being hounded all the way to the chequered flag by Norris, shining brighter than ever in the afterglow of his breakthrough win in Miami.

Yet was the winter break the moment McLaren let Red Bull off the hook in F1 2024?

Could this car have turned those fourth, fifth, sixth places in Bahrain, Jeddah and Suzuka into quite comfortable podiums?

And would Norris’s first F1 victory have come a few weeks earlier with the car he has now, giving him just enough – possibly plenty – to overhaul the six-second deficit to Carlos Sainz at the finish in Australia?

All those points add up.

McLaren’s rate of progress over the last 12 months has been astounding – a reflection of good correlation and, above all, good management.

Yet when all is said and done at the end of F1 2024, they might look back on that lost winter – and the subsequent slow-ish start to the season – as a serious missed opportunity.

Is Sergio Perez entering ‘struggle season’ once again?

Why is Carlos Sainz stalling on a very generous offer from Audi in the hope that opportunities will open up at Red Bull or Mercedes for the F1 2025 season?

Precisely for moments like the end of Q2 at Imola, upon which decisions in the driver market can turn.

For Sergio Perez, this was a Saturday straight out of 2023 – a silly mistake, coming at a time both he and the team really didn’t need it, followed by a limp early exit from qualifying.

When, requiring a strong final sector to make Q3, Perez approached the Variante Alta chicane, it was only human nature that he would not drive it naturally following his error at the same spot a couple of hours earlier.

And so, after another ungainly clamber over the entry kerb – albeit without the same consequences as FP3 – he was out in 11th place, outqualified by both RB drivers to salt the wound.

His first major qualifying failure of F1 2024 – followed by a trip through the gravel during a disappointing ‘recovery’ drive to eighth – comes after Perez’s encouraging start to the season had slowed over recent weeks, having been beaten to second by Norris in China before almost taking out his own team-mate at the first corner in Miami.

More significantly, however, it has happened exactly 12 months after his F1 2023 season started to come off the rails.

This time of year is struggle season for Perez, when the calendar moves to more traditional driver circuits, where Verstappen’s raw pace advantage tends to balloon, and Red Bull’s development (or so Checo said in 2022/23) gradually moves away from him.

The big difference this year? Perez doesn’t have two victories already in the bank to cling on to or state his case when things get tough.

Red Bull are not in a rush to commit to him yet for next year, with Helmut Marko frequently airing his suspicion – stemming from how his form soon fell off a cliff after signing his most recent contract extension two years ago – that Perez tends to relax and become complacent when his future is secure.

It is a stance almost specifically designed to test Perez’s resolve after weekends like this and why his response over next few races is crucial to his chances of being retained.

So will this weekend prove to be a mere blip? Or does Imola represent the start of Perez’s latest struggle season?

Sainz, for one, will be watching with interest.

Mercedes in ‘no-man’s land’

So why did Mercedes pit George Russell so close to the finish?

The team said concerns that his hard tyres wouldn’t make it to the end left them with no choice; Russell, for his part, said he wasn’t going to “sulk” about losing sixth place.

But he did make the point to media including that having been “comfortably” ahead of Lewis Hamilton throughout the race, he didn’t very much like the end result saying that he finished behind him.

These things matter to drivers, especially at a time Russell is currently trying to do all he can to show he can lead the team when Hamilton leaves for Ferrari.

The debate over Mercedes’ decision will continue all the way to Monaco, yet the main concern is that at the time of Russell’s stop he was eight seconds adrift of Sainz (fifth) and almost 30 ahead of Perez (behind Hamilton in eighth).

It was, as Russell himself put it, the very definition of “no-man’s land.”

It was a comment to provide confirmation that Mercedes have work to do in not just catching Red Bull, but McLaren and Ferrari as well.

Now into the third season of the current rules cycle, their struggles no longer comes as a surprise and talk that a return to victory contention is only ever just one race, one upgrade, one set-up tweak away has dried up.

With McLaren and Ferrari starting to make full sense of the ground-effect regulations, Mercedes risk being left behind this season.

For the meantime, Wolff and co are still seeing enough positives and progress to suggest they can find a way to be on the same sort of level as Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari.

Could Yuki Tsunoda solve Red Bull’s driver dilemma for them?

After yet another Q3 appearance and yet another point picked up for Red Bull’s junior team, Yuki Tsunoda is becoming harder to ignore.

At least for those outside of Red Bull and Aston Martin anyway.

This column explained after the Japanese GP that Red Bull never have and almost certainly never will consider Tsunoda for a promotion to the main team, simply because the risk of the warbot eating him alive – and destroying all his progress over the last couple of years – would be far too great.

And while Honda’s change of team for F1 2026 had led many to believe that Aston Martin could be his next destination, it was obvious even before Fernando Alonso signed his new contract that Tsunoda – Honda backing or not – simply isn’t the right profile for Lawrence Stroll, who has developed a taste for former World Champions.

So unless Lance Stroll (a quietly impressive ninth on Sunday at what has become Alonso’s bogey track) does indeed decide he has had his fill of Formula 1 over the next couple of years and walks away, there will likely be no space for Tsunoda beyond a reserve role at Aston Martin-Honda.

With his reputation at an all-time high, then, maybe now is the time for Tsunoda to take his future into his own hands.

Daniel Ricciardo’s steady improvement since his change of chassis in China has silenced speculation that RB could drop him before the F1 2024 season is out.

Which, with Tsunoda simply undroppable at this stage, has created the very real risk of losing Liam Lawson, whom Helmut Marko recently confirmed is free to walk away from Red Bull entirely if he is not promoted to a permanent seat for next season.

Tsunoda arrived at Imola on Thursday telling media including that he is had “definitely more interest from other teams” this year, which is “matching his target” of showing his value to potential suitors.

That curious little revelation came amid local media reports that Tsunoda is on Audi’s “unofficial shortlist” for F1 2025 – or potentially even sooner – if the existing Sauber team are unable to lure top target Sainz.

And if Audi are taking note of Tsunoda, every other team in the bottom half of the field – Haas, Alpine and Williams – should be closely monitoring him too.

If Tsunoda can see the writing on the wall – that his face simply doesn’t fit at Red Bull or Aston Martin over the long term – he would be well advised to get out while he still can and solve RB’s driver dilemma for them.

He is now strong enough to be able to stand on his own two feet.

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