Sprint Qualy: Verstappen pulls one back on Leclerc

Michelle Foster
Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen handshake. Imola April 2022

Max Verstappen lost the lead off the line but regained it with two laps to go, passing Charles Leclerc to break the hearts of the tifosi at Imola.

Although Leclerc led from the start to the end of lap 19, getting a better launch than Verstappen, it was the Red Bull driver who had the better pace in the final few laps and worked his way into DRS range.

That made for a simple overtake, the reigning World Champion racing to victory and adding a much-needed eight points towards his title quest.

He will also start Sunday’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix from pole position ahead of Leclerc, with Sergio Perez P3.

Despite starting P2 it was Leclerc who made the best start off the front row, metres ahead of Verstappen into Turn 1 with Lando Norris all over the back of the Red Bull driver. “Lovely gear sync that”, was Verstappen’s sarcastic comment about his getaway.

Kevin Magnussen, although starting on the medium tyres, was holding on to his P4 – but with a black-and-white flag on his record for weaving on the straights – ahead of Perez and Daniel Ricciardo.

And then the madness was neutralised as Zhou Guanyu and Pierre Gasly collided, the Alfa Romeo out of the race and the AlphaTauri in need of a new front tyre. It was Zhou’s fault if one were to apportion blame, which Gasly did with a “what the f***!”

As for the Mercedes drivers, George Russell lost a place to Mick Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton fell to 15th place.

The racing resumed on lap five of 21, perhaps all those starting on the soft tyres breathing a sign of relief for the Safety Car period as it prolonged their tyre life, with Leclerc immediately putting space between himself and Verstappen, while the other Ferrari of Carlos Sainz tried to pass Fernando Alonso as the Alpine went squiggling over the kerbs but instead remained car two in a 10-car queue.

Sainz eventually passed Alonso on lap seven, around the outside into the Tamburello chicane, with Perez using DRS to fly by Magnussen. Such was his closing speed that he was through even before the corner. And Hamilton overtook Lance Stroll for P14.

At the halfway point it was Leclerc just out of DRS range from Verstappen, Norris five seconds behind the Red Bull, Perez shaping up to pass the McLaren, followed by Magnussen, Ricciardo, Sainz and Alonso for the points-scoring positions.

Between lap 11 and 14 Perez took Norris, Ricciardo passed Magnussen, Sainz did too and then the Ferrari driver took P5 off Ricciardo down the main straight for good measure. The DRS effect was massive, so much so that Leclerc was doing everything he could to stay out of DRS range of Verstappen.

With five laps to go, Magnussen was told by Haas his time was coming on his medium tyres and that his rivals’ softs would start to drop off. Schumacher took 10th place off Sebastian Vettel but Magnussen was struggling to close the gap on Ricciardo’s McLaren.

Back at the front it was getting spicy as Verstappen got within DRS range of Leclerc. The first lap by he used it to close the gap, the second it was down to 0.6s and the third it was up to 0.7, and then it was a mere 0.2 with Verstappen all over Leclerc’s rear wing. It went from negative to positive for the Dutchman as he overtook Leclerc around the outside into the chicane to lead the sprint at Imola.

But doing so on the penultimate lap, he left the door open for Leclerc to potentially fight back. He could not. Verstappen took the sprint win, and pole position for Sunday’s grand prix, ahead of the championship leader. Perez was third.

Sainz finished fourth ahead of Norris, Ricciardo, Valtteri Bottas and Magnussen, the top eight all scoring points.

As for Mercedes, Russell was P11 and Hamilton P14.

Result

1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1:19.951 21 laps
2 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 2.975s
3 Sergio Perez Red Bull 4.721s
4 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 17.578s
5 Lando Norris McLaren 24.561s
6 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 27.740s
7 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo Racing 28.133s
8 Kevin Magnussen Haas 30.712s
9 Fernando Alonso Alpine 32.278s
10 Mick Schumacher Haas 33.773s
11 George Russell Mercedes 36.284s
12 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 38.298s
13 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 40.177s
14 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 41.459s
15 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 42.910s
16 Esteban Ocon Alpine 43.517s
17 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 43.794s
18 Alex Albon Williams 48.871s
19 Nicholas Latifi Williams 52.017s
20 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo Racing DNF