Verstappen overtakes Leclerc to win sprint at Imola

IMOLA, Italy (AP) — Max Verstappen overtook Formula One leader Charles Leclerc on the penultimate lap to win the sprint race at the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix on Saturday and reignite his season.

Verstappen started the sprint in pole position after finishing first in Friday’s qualifying, but the Red Bull driver was overtaken by Leclerc’s Ferrari as soon as the lights went out, much to the delight of the “tifosi.”

But Verstappen doggedly pursued Leclerc and swept around the outside of the Ferrari into Tamburello then stormed away to secure victory and top spot on the grid for Sunday’s grand prix.

He finished 2.975 seconds ahead of Leclerc and 4.721 ahead of Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez.

“The start was very bad. I don’t know exactly what happened or why it was so bad but after that we had to stay calm,” Verstappen said. “Initially, it looked like Charles had more pace but I think he ran out of tyres and we could close the gap and make the move.

“I know maybe tomorrow it might be different. But today it worked out for us.”

Verstappen’s one point for the sprint meant he trailed Leclerc by 45. However, Leclerc actually extended his overall lead. He was 40 points ahead of teammate Carlos Sainz Jr., who moved above Mercedes driver George Russell into second in the standings.

“It’s still a front row start,” Leclerc said. “We struggled with the tyres at the end, so we need to analyse that for tomorrow. The main race is tomorrow and we need to make sure that we are ready. We will work and come back stronger tomorrow.”

Sainz started the sprint in 10th after a crash in Friday’s incident-packed qualifying session but finished fourth, just ahead of McLaren duo Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo.

Valtteri Bottas, Kevin Magnussen, Fernando Alonso and Mick Schumacher rounded out the top 10 of the grid.

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton will start in 14th as Mercedes’ miserable weekend continued.

“We haven’t got it right this year but everyone is working hard as they can to correct it,” Hamilton said. “We stick together, we try to motivate everyone.

“We are obviously not fighting for the championship but we are fighting to understand the car and improve and progress through the year. That’s all we can hope for right now.”

Leclerc has won two of the season’s three races and will be hoping to end Ferrari’s three-year wait for a victory on home soil — and at a circuit named after the Italian team’s founder and his son: Enzo and Dino Ferrari.

Imola returned to the F1 calendar in 2020 after a 14-year absence, but this is the first time in three editions that fans have been allowed in because of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 120,000 tickets have been sold for the weekend.

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