Valtteri Bottas took pole by just 0.007 seconds at the Portuguese Grand Prix, but such is the closeness of the frontrunners that Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen can both make valid claims to P1.
Verstappen was the most visibly aggrieved at the end of the hour-long session after having his quickest time deleted for exceeding track limits. His best effort was 0.139 seconds quicker than Bottas’s ultimate pole time, but a snap moment of oversteer in the high Algarve winds sent him off the track at turn four and required him to try again.
Ironically the effort required to save himself from running over the gravel probably cost him a tenth of a second, but rules are rules.
But Lewis Hamilton set the afternoon’s quickest outright time, albeit in Q2. Similarly to last year, Mercedes is finding its car responds better to the slick Portimao circuit on the medium tyre, and Hamilton used that unusual synergy to set a time 0.38 seconds faster than Bottas would later set for pole.
Strangely, Mercedes tried the medium tyre again for both its drivers’ second laps in Q3 hoping to find that same performance boost but neither charge could better his soft-tyre time.
The unusualness of the pole battle only emphasises the tricky challenge facing teams and drivers to adjust to the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve.
The principal difficulty, as was the case when F1 visited here late last year, is that the track is newly resurfaced. Then the tarmac had been laid only weeks before the race, but even today, after months of maturation, grip levels have barely improved even if the greasiness has subsided.
Asphalt will cure faster in warm weather, so if F1 were to find itself visiting a third time in 2022, a summer cycle might have the surface yielding a more enjoyable level of grip.
But there’s also the issue of high wind. The famously undulating circuit is exposing drivers to strong gusts, particularly in the final sector, the first part of which is set at the highest elevation, which had made setting up the car difficult.
Combined with a cool ambient temperature, it all lends an air of improvisation to the race forecast.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 4.653 kilometres
Lap record: 1:18.750 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2020)
Track record: 1:16.466 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2020)
Lateral load: medium
Tyre stress: high
Asphalt grip: TBC
Asphalt abrasion: TBC
Safety car probability: 0 per cent (after one race)
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 473 metres
Pit lane time loss: 22.6 seconds
Fuel consumption: High
Tyres: C1 (hard), C2 (medium), C3 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.8 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.4 seconds
The battle for pole was obviously close, and Friday practice data suggests race pace is similarly contested.
Though Mercedes was quicker on average on the medium tyre in FP2, Valtteri Bottas’s leading stint was shorter than that of Max Verstappen, which would swing the analysis towards Red Bull Racing.
But then Mercedes found damage on both cars on Friday evening that both cost the car time and also put Hamilton out of sorts on his run, which muddies the results further.
However you cut it, the two teams are close, which makes the prospect of the four cars starting on the two front rows on the same tyre a fascinating blank canvas.
Bottas, Hamilton, Verstappen and Sergio Perez all start on the medium compound, and based on practice running and last year’s race the yellow tyre is durable enough to run most of the race, which means we’re locked in for a one-stop race, particularly given the long pit lane, which makes stopping more than once time consuming.
We can point to a couple of factors that will affect the timing of the stops.
One will be the weather, which will influence how strong the undercut will be. The cool conditions on Friday suggested the medium and especially the hard compounds required running in before reaching top performance, but a warmer tarmac will bring strategy towards making an early stop.
The hard compound is unlikely to make an appearance given its 0.8-second deficit to the medium, which is performing with sufficient endurance anyway. But warm weather may offer a team or driver the opportunity to roll the dice with an early switch from medium to hard if a suitable traffic window emerges or in the event of a safety car in the first third of the race.
On the other hand warm weather will disadvantage those starting on the soft — the rest of the top 10 less Charles Leclerc — as it will give them less of a warm-up advantage off the line and reduce the compound’s longevity.
It will also push teams to extend an opening stint on mediums before bolting on the softs — which means any driver confident of squeezing a long stint out of the soft could win an advantage by stopping earlier and forcing his rivals to follow him in.
There’s also the spectre of team orders hanging over this battle. Though we’re at only the third race of the season, Bottas and Perez are already 28 and 34 points off Hamilton’s championship lead, with Verstappen only one point in arrears.
One would think it unlikely, but would either Mercedes or Red Bull Racing orchestrate strategy or issue team orders to have the leading drivers finish ahead of their teammates? And if that were to happen, how would they react?
The Portuguese Grand Prix promises a rare two-car straight fight between our two evenly matched frontrunners. However the race pans out, the result will be a fascinating chapter of the 2021 season.