This was Lewis Hamilton’s biggest victory margin of the season, but you wouldn’t have predicted it at the end of the first lap, when he’d dropped to third from pole and was struggling to get his tyres fired up in the blustery, drizzly conditions.
F1 first competitive visit to Portimão for the Portuguese Grand Prix provided yet another interesting challenge for drivers and teams. Not only was Algarve in full swing of an autumnal transition, but recent resurfacing work left the circuit extremely slippery.
Though that combination lost Hamilton places off the line, those tricky conditions also put an emphasis on the driver to carefully and precisely manage the race from the cockpit. The Briton rose spectacularly to that challenge to not simply resume the lead from teammate Valtteri Bottas but turn in his biggest win of the year.
Not for the first time this season F1 has started Saturday without the copious data it ordinarily collects on Friday to help decide set-up and forecast strategy — FP2, the most representative practice session, had been lost to a combination of a mandatory 2021 tyre test and then two red flag periods, leaving just 28 minutes of running for the 90-minute session.
Practice was to be particularly valuable at Portimão. The freshly resurfaced circuit was so new it was still slippery from the oil and barely evolved as the weekend went on, making it particularly difficult to forecast tyre life and adding a randomness to race performance.
The smoothness of the new surface combined with cool temperatures also made tyre warm-up difficult, with several drivers reporting severe graining during practice from working their tyres too hard without bringing them up to temperature.
That difficult keeping the rubber warm would play a key role in the early laps of the race in tandem with the light rain on the first lap. The oily surface meant the momentary precipitation had a disproportionately significant effect on grip and put a greater premium on temperature, and as a result we saw plenty of locked tyres and wide moments from the field as they navigated the tricky conditions.
Hamilton’s path to victory stemmed from his better management of the conditions, though you wouldn’t have picked it looking at his first lap. Both he and Bottas started on the medium tyre, which struggled badly to retain heat for the standing start. Bottas got his rubber fired up marginally better to muscle past Hamilton, but both were passed by Carlos Sainz, whose sizzling start on softs temporarily earnt him the race lead.
But Mercedes would only remain slow for so long. After a handful of laps the medium tyre was into its working range and the two Black Arrows predictably forged forward to retake the first two places, with Bottas leading Hamilton for the opening quarter of the race.
The race progressively came to Hamilton. Noting after the race that each lap he was learning more about the circuit as he experimented with different lines, he began to reel in his teammate and passed him easily on lap 20 to sprint out to a 10-second lead at their pit stops on laps 40 and 41 respectively.
Hamilton was first in for a set of hards, at which point Bottas asked if he could extend to take the soft tyre to create some differentiation. But Mercedes is rigorously neutral in its handling of driver strategies and anyway noted the softs had held up strongly for only a few drivers early in the race, thus Bottas came in on the following tour for the hard compound.
That the gap ballooned to 25 seconds at the flag is testament to Hamilton’s learning of the circuit as he went and better use of the tyres, a perhaps underrated weapon in his formidable arsenal.
Red Bull Racing was never in with a shout of victory in Portugal. The RB16 lack the ultimate pace, but Verstappen also had the disadvantage of starting on the soft tyre, which had proved an inconsistent compound for most.
The team had neglected to try the medium in Q2, when drivers set their starting compound, and Christian Horner afterwards admitted this was a mistake. While the soft won Verstappen a better launch — though a tangle with Sergio Perez at turn four cost him all that momentum — the tyre’s limited life an peak performance wasn’t enough to combat the steadfastly sturdy medium, which look capable of running the race distance on some cars.
It meant Verstappen again could do little but run his own race distant from Mercedes but well ahead of the rest of the field after his sole stop on lap 23 for the medium tyre.
An interesting comparison is with Charles Leclerc, one of the weekend’s standouts. The Monegasque qualified fourth after using the medium compound in Q2, and despite losing four places off the line — in equal parts due to tyre temperature and his position on the dirty side of the grid — the durability of that compound allowed him to run comfortably to lap 34 before switching to the hard, by which time he’d built such a gap over the rest of the field that he lost no places.
He finished with approximately 30 seconds clear on either side of him, the strongest evidence of just about any through the field that starting on the medium tyre was unquestionably the better strategy.
The battle for fifth, de facto head of the midfield thanks to Leclerc’s superior starting tyre, was fascinating to watch, with three drivers battling it out thanks to their superb touch with the tyres.
Sergio Perez was the incumbent for most of the second half of the race, which in itself is incredibly impressive for a driver who was 20 seconds off the back of the pack at the end of the first lap after being spun around by Max Verstappen in their turn-four collision.
Racing Point brough him in at the end of that lap to switch him off his starting softs and onto the mediums, which he duly expertly used through to lap 45, by which time he’d climbed to fifth.
Further, so well had he used the yellow rubber that he lost only one place — and that was to Esteban Ocon, who was then yet to stop. He reclaimed the place back from the Renault driver once he pitted on lap 53.
The only weakness in Perez’s strategy was switching to a used set of softs. Though initially giving him a boost, the red rubber wore out quickly, leaving him susceptible to Pierre Gasly and Carlos Sainz, who both passed him in the final couple of laps to leave him seventh.
It was just reward for Gasly and Sainz, whose races were built on rapid early stints on the soft tyre. Sainz led the race briefly, so quick was he on that compound, but Gasly was able to extract better endurance from them, running two laps longer — nine laps after passing the erstwhile race leader — to ensure he stayed ahead post-stop, cementing their finishing order.
Against the run of recent form Renault played little role in the battle for midfield honours, the team particularly badly affected by the lack of practice. Ricciardo got a great start to move up from 10th to seventh, but he was never able to get the soft tyre working. He was compelled to stop early, on lap 14, for the better medium, but that left him vulnerable to the later-stopping Gasly and Sainz part way through that stint and eventually consigned him to ninth.
His teammate, Esteban Ocon started 11th with the medium tyre and used that extra endurance to run a mammoth 53 laps before switching to the soft compound in a similar strategy to Perez’s. Much like, Ricciardo, however, he couldn’t squeeze any pace from the softs and finished eighth behind the midfield protagonists.
Sebastian Vettel scored his first point in more than a month after a subdued 10th-place finish that had its origins in an erroneous Ferrari decision to leave him on the medium tyres in Q2. His first run on the harder compound had left him in the knockout zone, but so committed was the team to having him start on mediums that it sent him out on another set of the same compound for his final run rather than give him a set of softs to try to ensure his progression.
It meant he qualified 15th and mired among slower cars. His single stop on lap 27 was too early, dropping him behind several drivers running longer first stints, which he slowly slogged through for the entire race just to rise to 10th.
Lewis Hamilton: medium (used) to lap 40, hard (new) to lap 66.