Verstappen wins Imola sprint with late pass from Leclerc


Max Verstappen won the first sprint race of the season after passing Charles Leclerc for the lead with two laps to go.

The defending champion started from pole but started poorly, giving Leclerc the lead and allowing him to control much of the race.

But the 21-lap sprint was in the upper endurance range for the soft compound tyre, and the Ferrari struggled more than the Red Bull machine in the final five laps.

Leclerc was struggling particularly with the graining of his front left tyre, and as the lap counter ticked away his margin dropped from 1.5 seconds to just 0.5 seconds as the Dutchman felt his opportunity.

His first shot came late on lap 18, but an oversteer snap through Rivazza’s southpaws cost him momentum in the DRS zone.

He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, and at the end of the next lap he stayed clean coming out of DRS, regaining the lead and power out of the distance, taking the checkered flag by 2.975 seconds to lock in pole position. . for the grand prize.

“It took a while to try to put the pressure on, but I think we were a bit better on our tires at the end of the race,” said Verstappen.

“Of course I’m happy with today, but I know that tomorrow with other tire compounds coming into play, it might be a bit different. But we had a good day.

Leclerc wasn’t disappointed to finish second as much as he was to discover his car seemed to be weak around this track, and he sounded a note of caution ahead of Sunday’s grand prix.

“We struggled with the tires at the end so we have to analyze that for tomorrow,” he said. “We have to make sure we are ready.”

Sergio Perez finished third after a strong comeback from seventh on the grid. The Mexican skipped two riders off the line but was methodical and patient to get on the podium, using the powerful DRS to his advantage in a series of clean moves.

The straight-line speed of his car, combined with potential degradation issues for Ferrari, sparked optimism for Red Bull at the grand prix.

“I think we’re in a good position for tomorrow’s fight,” he said. “It will be ideal to get a one-two – it will be great for us but probably not for the tifosi. But we will try.

Carlos Sainz was an equally impressive driver throughout the race after crashing out of qualifying in 10th. He also jumped two cars off the line, and after beating Fernando Alonso on Lap 7 without DRS, he chose Kevin Magnussen’s Haas and the two McLaren drivers to get into the lead frame for Sunday.

Lando Norris finished fifth ahead of teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who held off the quick Valtteri Bottas by just 0.3 seconds.

Magnussen finished eighth for the last point of the sprint, dropping four places thanks to what turned out to be the wrong decision to start on the medium compound. The Dane was one of only three drivers to start with the yellow-striped tire, but he struggled to turn it on fast enough to stop the midfielder from swallowing it.

Fernando Alonso finished ninth ahead of Mick Schumacher in the second Haas.

George Russell finished where he started in 11th, keeping Yuki Tsunoda and Sebastian Vettel at bay. His Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton lost two places at the start and regained just one to finish 14th ahead of Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll, while Esteban Ocon could not progress after the first lap en route to the 16th place.

Pierre Gasly finished 17th after a first lap crash with Zhou Guanyu. The Frenchman was pinched at the top at Piratella and suffered a front right puncture, while the Chinese rookie spun into the barriers and retired with significant damage to the rear of his car.

Williams drivers Alex Albon and Nicholas Latifi were the last of the finishers in 18th and 19th.

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