For the second grand prix in a row Formula One teams will embark on a race distance without the volume of race simulation data that normally dictates strategy.
Whereas at the Nürburgring bad weather cancelled Friday running, in Portimão it was a series of red flags that robbed teams of most of the valuable second practice session after they’d already surrendered 30 minutes to Pirelli for 2021 tyre testing.
On a freshly resurfaced circuit still sufficiently oily that track evolution is seemingly random and unpredictable, the dearth of practice data means teams and drivers will tackle the race on gut instinct.
Qualifying served to underline the difficulty reading the Algarve circuit. Pole position was fought over between the Mercedes teammates, unusually on the medium tyre. Stranger still was that Lewis Hamilton beat teammate Valtteri Bottas to pole on the second push lap of his yellow compound.
Both drivers felt after Q2 that the medium tyre had more to give, and thus the switch was made after both set provisional times on the soft in Q3. But it was Hamilton’s call to fuel for extra laps that proved decisive, the Briton correctly believing that the extra tyre temperature would offset the extra laps of wear.
This, and the fact Valtteri Bottas’s Q2 lap also on medium tyres was the fastest of the day and the current track record, speaks to the difficulty teams are having getting to grips with these tyres on this surface.
What’s behind it? Despite the soft tyres coming up to temperature faster, they appear to do so less evenly, which can hurt a driver’s confidence. The medium compound is a more workable tyre, and so even though it requires more work to get into the correct operating window, it can deliver better feel, allowing the driver to push harder. But how will these tyres go over a race distance? Without much in the way of race simulation data and with the weather forecast uncertain, we’ll just have to wait and find out.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 4.653 kilometres
Lap record: N/A
Track record: 1:16.466 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2020)
Lateral load: medium
Tyre stress: medium
Asphalt grip: TBC
Asphalt abrasion: TBC
Safety car probability: N/A
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 472 metres (approx.)
Pit lane time loss: TBC
Fuel consumption: 1.67 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C1 (hard), C2 (medium), C3 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.9 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.6 seconds
We already have the seeds of a fascinating strategy battle, with the Mercedes drivers on the front row as well as Charles Leclerc in fourth starting on the medium tyre while Max Verstappen in third starts on the softs.
There are several reasons the medium tyre is an attractive starting compound. First of all, given tyre wear is a bit of an unknown, it offers the most flexibility. A one-stop onto the hards or a two-stop with another set of mediums for a racy final stint on softs would both be available.
There’s also the weather forecast. The risk of will increase through the afternoon from the race start time of 1pm — being able to run longer in the first stint might allow you to stop once onto wet-weather tyres depending on when the rain might arrive.
But for the long-term advantages the medium will struggle early in the race before coming up to temperature, particularly at the race start. Bottas and Leclerc, starting from second and fourth on the dirty side of the grid, will be particularly susceptible given there’ll be no rubber laid down there thanks to the new surface. Don’t be surprised to see Max Verstappen move up to second at lights out.
Graining is also a risk in the cool and low-grip conditions, as some drivers experienced on Friday. Even if they keep ahead off the line, overworking the tyres early in the first stint could leave them down on performance through the graining phase and susceptible to assault from those on softs. This will also be a threat early in any medium-tyre stint.
But despite the potential pitfalls, expect those outside the top 10 to eschew the softs — indeed Ferrari is so adamant the medium is the tyre to start with that it didn’t even give Sebastian Vettel the option to use the soft in Q2, leading to his 15th-place qualification. The durability and flexibility, particularly if the radar solidifies its forecast for rain, is too valuable to pass up.
In the event of rain expect chaos. This surface is still very new and has seen little track action. It remans smooth and oily from the resurfacing process, and the addition of even relatively little water will reduce the little grip already available to something more akin to an ice rink.
In dry conditions expect one-stop strategies to rule. This fast and in parts narrow old-school circuit doesn’t offer too many slam-dunk overtaking opportunities, so the risk of falling into traffic after multiple stops will be unappealing in the event tyre life is manageable.