Lewis Hamilton won his second race of the season in commanding fashion to take an eight-point championship lead in arguably Mercedes’s most convincing weekend of the year.
Of course the Briton’s half-minute margin of victory over Max Verstappen was exaggerated by the Dutchman’s decision to pit late for new tyres to have a crack at fastest lap, but it’s also true to say that Red Bull Racing entering the fight for the bonus point spoke to the fact it a step behind Mercedes in the race.
Indeed the same could be said for the Milton Keynes-built car all weekend, even if the margins were fine. Though Verstappen felt he’d been robbed of pole after having his best Q3 lap deleted for a track limit infringement, Hamilton was actually fastest overall in qualifying with an impressive Q2 lap on the medium compound before Valtteri Bottas sealed the deal in the final shootout.
Further, while Verstappen looked punchy early in the race, mugging Hamilton for second and harassing Bottas for the lead in the opening 10 laps, when the Mercedes car got its tyres up to temperature it was a different beast, first with Hamilton the race-starting mediums and later even with Bottas on the hards, albeit too late for the Finn, who tumbled to third behind the Dutchman early in his second stint on cold rubber.
These are early days for a championship still scheduled to go 23 rounds, but the trajectory of Mercedes’s improvement since its lacklustre preseason testing form may be giving Red Bull Racing cause for concern.
All that said, there are some reasons we may not want to consider the result of the Portuguese Grand Prix as indicative of a trend, principal among them being that conditions were far from representative of the average Formula 1 race.
As was the case last year, the circuit was extremely slippery. The track was resurfaced shortly before the 2020 race in October, and though the worst of the oily bitumen had washed away, a new surface sees its most significant maturation in the heat of summer, meaning Autódromo Internacional do Algarve yielded little grip.
Part of that is also a function of the smoothness of the surface, which translated into minimal degradation and wear. Lap times got faster as the race went on, speaking to the consistency of the tyres’ performance as the cars got lighter.
Finally, the weather played a key role in car set-up and tyre performance. Winds were high throughout, making consistency a challenge, and the increased temperature from Friday to Sunday meant tyre warm-up and performance, particularly for the hard tyre, were uncertain during the race.
THE DECISIVE MOVE
Much like it was last season, Hamilton seemed to have a greater understanding of the Pirelli tyres in the difficult conditions.
The key to keeping the rubber in the sweet spot was momentum. At Portimão, where grip and wear is low, the Pirelli tyres want to be pushed — a rare change from the conservatism ordinarily required to keep them alive over a stint length — and the more consistently you can push them, the more reliably they’ll serve you.
Getting past his rivals quickly was therefore crucial to maintain momentum. He dropped to third behind Verstappen at the safety car restart but got back past only three laps later with a gutsy pass on the inside at turn one from the dusty part of the start-finish straight off the racing line. It was a move aided by a mistake by Verstappen exiting turn 14, where the wind was at its worst.
Bottas took only 10 laps to deconstruct. The Finn couldn’t coax the medium compound into life like Hamilton could, and at the Briton’s first opportunity he launched an audacious move around the outside of his teammate to leave Bottas to deal with the pursuing Verstappen.
With clear air Hamilton was able to unleash, and though his advantage at the end of the stint was only small — reflecting the closeness of the cars — it was certainly decisive. Four seconds was all he needed to keep himself out of undercut range, particularly given the time needed to put heat into the hard tyre, and after his first stop he cruised untroubled to the flag.
“That was such a tough race physically and mentally,” Hamilton said, explaining the concentration required to push hard and stay consistent through the race. “Just keeping everything together … it was very easy to put a foot wrong.”
THE PODIUM BATTLE
Bottas’s struggles in the first stint left him vulnerable to Verstappen at the pit stop window, which Red Bull Racing opened on lap 35 with the hard compound. Bottas covered him easily on the following tour because of the time required to warm up Pirelli’s C1.
But the battle wasn’t done. Bottas slid wide through turn four on his cold hards, which opened the door to Verstappen on his warmer rubber to pass him at the hairpin and relieve of him second place.
Bottas has struggled to warm the tyres rapidly so far this year. In Imola he was markedly off the pace in Q3 because he didn’t have the time to run an extra preparation lap to bring the rubber into the zone, and in Q2 here in Portimão he was similarly substantially off Hamilton’s segment-topping pace on the medium tyre before proving a key weakness in the race.
Once the rubber came to him, however, he hauled himself back into the conversation for second place and closed to within a second of the Dutchman, but rectifying an exhaust sensor problem cost him five seconds before he could make a move, ultimately dropping him out of contention.
His late stop for fresh softs at least salvaged him a consolation point for fastest lap, though it required Verstappen to have his best time deleted for exceeding track limits after Red Bull Racing did the same with the Dutchman.
BATTLE FOR THE MIDFIELD
Ferrari was the decider of some key battles in the midfield by triggering a round of stops on lap 21 when Carlos Sainz was brought in to switch from softs to mediums. Lando Norris, then running ahead of him in fourth, covered easily on the following lap, as did Esteban Ocon in eighth to hold position.
But it was a curious move from Ferrari. Charles Leclerc had started the race on the medium compound, and though he passed Esteban Ocon for seventh, he struggled badly with graining in the opening stint, so much so that he was stopped on only lap 25 for the hard compound when the medium should have been good for at least another 10 laps.
The same proved true for Sainz, who plummeted inexorably down the field through the second stint to finish a pointless 11th.
Leclerc, on the other hand, though not quick enough on the hard tyre to challenge the medium-shod Norris, slipped past his teammate into sixth early in his second stint to hold position to the flag
It begs the question: why was Sainz given mediums rather than the new set of hards he had in his allocation?
STRONG RECOVERIES FROM ALONSO, RICCIARDO
Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo started out of position in 13th and 16th respectively and had the cars beneath them to score strongly. Both opted to start on the medium tyre and Ricciardo in particular opened his race aggressively, making up five places in the opening seven laps. Alonso caught up to the back of him after most of the rest of the midfield made their stops and attempted to undercut him on lap 40 by switching from mediums to hards.
Ricciardo covered him on the following tour, but the stop was slow. He lost three second in the pit lane, and although it didn’t cost him a place to the Spaniard at the time, it did get him caught in 10th behind Pierre Gasly for five laps. Whether that lost him momentum or whether he just wasn’t at home on the hard tyre, he was then passed by the faster Alonso and recovered back to ninth only as Sainz dropped down the order later in the race.
THE WINNING STRATEGY
Lewis Hamilton: medium (used) to lap 37, hard (used) to flag.