Formula One in 2021 is shaping up to be a titanic battle between Mercedes and Red Bull as we came into the third round of the season; held in the Algarve of Portugal. The rollercoaster circuit of Portimao stepped up to the plate in hosting a race last year and delivered history as Lewis Hamilton surpassed Michael Schumacher’s 91 career wins. Rewarded with a return for 2021, it was no less intriguing as it followed on from what we saw at Imola.
Following the race at Imola, we received more glimpses of what is to come later in 2021. The Canadian Grand Prix will not be taking place in 2021 with that race scheduled for June 13th being replaced with the Turkish Grand Prix at Istanbul Park. Given that was the weekend after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku, it is certainly now more logistically friendly for the teams. Like Portugal, Turkey returned in 2020 and delivered an exciting race as well as history as Hamilton secured his 7th title.
There is also the announcement of sprint Qualifying. We knew it was going to be trialled in three Grand Prix weekends this year but we now know the identity of two: Silverstone and Monza. At these weekends, the drivers will race over a 100km distance on Saturday afternoon with the result of this deciding the starting grid for the actual Grand Prix. The starting grid for Spring Qualifying will be decided on Friday afternoon from which point parc ferme conditions apply. It is certainly something different and with a maximum of nine points available, it could have an impact on the eventual outcome of the Championship battle. It will be important though I do wonder how much of an impact it could have on the reliability of the cars as they use their limited number of engine components for more competitive action before the Grand Prix itself.
This sort of format works in the junior formula such as F2. So, there’s no reason to think why could it not work in F1. I hope it does not fall flat. The last time the powers that be in F1 tried to tweak Qualifying they produced that elimination Qualifying farce in 2016 where drivers were eliminated every 30 seconds or so towards the end of the session. It was pointless and teams just kept their cars in the garage. It sounds exciting and it is different but if something is not broken then it does not need fixing.
So, with the conventional three-part Qualifying that we have been used to since 2006, Portimao delivered an exciting edition in 2021. Teams struggled for grip as they tackled the undulating rollercoaster layout and the race produced several eye-catching overtakes but also left us wanting more of the battle shaping up between Mercedes and Red Bull; Hamilton and Verstappen [pictured above in the feature image; image from Autosport].
Mercedes had the upper hand in Portimao as the weekend suggested they had got on top of the issues they experienced in the Bahrain pre-season testing, or at the very least it just likes the circuit. Even then, it was still very fine margins with red Bull as the pace in FP2 suggested and that translated into both Qualifying and the race. The end result though saw Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen share a podium for a record 15th time.
While the end result was ultimately disappointing for him, Valtteri Bottas reminded everyone that alongside Hamilton and Verstappen, he could be part of the title equation. The Finn took his 17th career pole position by 0.007s and held the lead after both the start and safety car restart which would have done wonders for his confidence after Imola. However, he was left with that feeling of disappointment after being passed by Hamilton on lap 20. Struggling with cold tyres on his out-lap contributed to a mistake that allowed Verstappen through for 2nd. An exhaust temperature sensor issue prevented him from fighting back strongly but he did get the constellation of the fastest lap point although having finished 3rd from pole, it feels like an opportunity missed for Bottas.
2021 Portuguese Grand Prix Qualifying
Q1: 1st Valtteri Bottas 1:18.722……………15th George Russell 1:19.797; 16th Daniel Ricciardo +0.042, 17th Lance Stroll +0.116, 18th Nicholas Latifi +0.388, 19th Mick Schumacher +0.655, 20th Nikita Mazepin +1.115
Q2: 1st Lewis Hamilton 1:17.968………10th Pierre Gasly 1:19.052; 11th George Russell +0.057, 12th Antonio Giovinazzi +0.164, 13th Fernando Alonso +0.404, 14th Yuki Tsunoda +0.411, 15th Kimi Raikkonen +0.760
Q3: 1st Valtteri Bottas 1:18.348, 2nd Lewis Hamilton +0.007, 3rd Max Verstappen +0.398, 4th Sergio Perez +0.542, 5th Carlos Sainz +0.691, 6th Esteban Ocon +0.694, 7th Lando Norris +0.768, 8th Charles Leclerc +0.958, 9th Pierre Gasly +1.127, 10th Sebastian Vettel +1.311
Instead, it would be Lewis Hamilton’s day in the race at Portimao again. The reigning champion was disappointed with Qualifying as he just missed out on the 100th pole and will have been even more disappointed after the safety car restart when he got caught out by Verstappen into turn 1. After the early disappointment though, it was a sublime drive from Hamilton as he came back first down the inside of Verstappen into turn 1 a few laps later and then around the outside of his teammate on lap 20. Once he took that lead, race win number 97 was never in doubt as he managed his tyres and pace excellently. While it was a dominant drive after taking the lead, it was a hard-fought battle that he came out on top of and shows he is in the right frame of mind to stay in F1 beyond this year. The final near 30s gap did not do justice just how close it was due to his rivals all pitting to try and gain the fastest lap point.
It was a frustrating Grand Prix weekend for Max Verstappen, so much so he claimed that he never wants to return to Portimao. The Dutchman was well and truly in contention for pole position having gone quickest in FP3 and would have secured his 5th pole if not for exceeding track limits on his first Q3 effort. It was quick enough and he had to settle for 3rd. He did well to catch Hamilton at the Safety Car restart and would have thought that he could be in contention for the win. However, an error let Hamilton in and while he did well to capitalise on Bottas’s error he just did not have the pace to match Hamilton. To add insult to injury, after taking a ‘free pit stop’ to try and get the fastest lap point, track limits was his nemesis again as he left Portimao 8 points behind Hamilton and not seven.
Sergio Perez had a much improved Grand Prix weekend in the sister Red Bull car but there is still room for improvement for the Mexican as he gets more comfortable in the car. Just a tenth behind Verstappen, Perez qualified 4th but a poor opening lap after the restart saw him fall behind Norris. While he eventually got past on lap 15, ‘the damage had already been done’. Perez had strong pace as he used his renowned tyre management skills to take a set of Mediums to lap 50 in a bid to hold up Hamilton-it a sign of how much stronger Red Bull are this year Hamilton thought he was lapping him when he passed for the lead on lap 51. On the story tyres though, he couldn’t use the fresh ribber well enough to take the fastest lap point for himself nor challenge Bottas for 3rd.
Lando Norris continued to be one of the star performers in the early rounds of 2021. The Brit feared he would struggle this weekend after a difficult Friday practice but he did well to get into Q3 and qualify 7th while his teammate did not. In terms of the midfield battle, I think McLaren are the strongest in race trim and that is where the points are collected. He had a strong start with an incredible opening lap pass on Ocon and pulled off an equally stunning opening lap from the restart to get ahead of Perez and Sainz to be briefly 4th. It was not a headline-grabbing podium for Norris but his pace was strong enough as he finished 5s ahead of the Ferrari of Leclerc for 5th,, his third successive top 5 finish to start the season and a consistent result that keeps him ahead of Bottas for 3rd in the Drivers Standings after three races.
2021 Portuguese Grand Prix Race Result
1st Lewis Hamilton 1:34:31.421, 2nd Max Verstappen +29.148, 3rd Valtteri Bottas +33.530, 4th Sergio Perez +39.735, 5th Lando Norris +51.369, 6th Charles Leclerc +55.781, 7th Esteban Ocon +63.749, 8th Fernando Alonso +64.808, 9th Daniel Ricciardo +75.369, 10th Pierre Gasly +76.463, 11th Carlos Sainz +78.955, 12th Antonio Giovinazzi +1 Lap, 13th Sebastian Vettel +1 Lap, 14th Lance Stroll +1 Lap, 15th Yuki Tsunoda +1 Lap, 16th George Russell +1 Lap, 17th Mick Schumacher +2 Laps, 18th Nicholas Latifi +2 laps, 19th Nikita Mazepin +2 Laps, Kimi Raikkonen DNF
Fastest Lap: Valtteri Bottas 1:19.865
The Qualifying struggles befell his teammate instead. Daniel Ricciardo was the big-name casualty in Q1 after struggling to ‘get any clean laps in’. From 16th, he had a far better race being ‘…able to do what I set out to do and overtake some cars, have some battles and get rid of some anger from yesterday, so that was good’. From 16th, he made up six places in the opening 20 laps and managed his tyres well to get to lap 41. His pit stop could have been better as missing his marks slightly cost him a couple of seconds. It would not have made much difference to him coming out in 10th. He got ahead of Gasly but couldn’t get as much of his second set of tyres as Alonso did and finished behind the Spaniard in 9th. There is the feeling he is still struggling to get to adjust to the McLaren.
Ferrari were again the third quickest team over the course of a single lap in Qualifying but this time it was Carlos Sainz taking 5th. It was the best Qualifying of the season so far for the Spaniard who beat teammate Charles Leclerc for the first time. His race would be undone by Ferrari deciding to put him on the Mediums for 45 laps until the end in an attempt to undercut Norris and whether it be through poor tyre management or the Ferrari being harder on the tyres, it did not work out. He fell away in the closing stages and ultimately finished outside the points in 11th. Charles Leclerc did not have the best of weekends in Portimao by his own high standards. Qualifying 8th and behind his teammate was slightly disappointing but his race pace was stronger on the Hard tyre but having got past the Alpine of Ocon and his teammate, he was unable to get closer than 5s to Norris for anything better than 6th.
It was a fairly strong Grand Prix weekend for Alpine who will be hoping their 7th and 8th place finishes in Portugal kick start their season. Esteban Ocon had another strong showing as he out-qualified two-time champion, Fernando Alonso, again and this time taking 6th in Q3. While he lost ground to Norris and Leclerc in the opening exchanges he had the pace to remain 7th and came home ahead of Alonso for another strong personal result. Alonso was disappointing in Qualifying as he failed to get out of Q2 and was almost nine-tenths slower than Ocon. From 13th he had a solid opening stint but getting his tyres to lap 40 saw him reap the benefits in the closing stages with blistering pace matching that of the front runners as he fought his way past Gasly, Ricciardo and Sainz to finish 8th. He will be hoping to build on that and improve on Qualifying in particular in his home Grand Prix next time out.
Alpha Tauri looked to have a quick car at Bahrain and Imola but they struggled more at Portimao. They will be hoping it was a circuit-specific issue as both drivers struggled. Pierre Gasly got the most out of the car as he finished ahead of his teammate in both qualifying and the race. The Frenchman got into Q3 and struggled for pace in the race salvaged the final point on offer with a last-lap move on the Ferrari of Sainz. Coming away with a point was a positive for the team. Yuki Tsunoda meanwhile struggled with grip, balance and relative speed throughout the Grand Prix weekend as he qualified 14th; four tenths down on Gasly. After a difficult tart in which he fell back in the opening laps he never higher than that starting spot as the Japanese driver finished a lap down in 15th.
2021 Portuguese Grand Prix Points
Drivers: Lewis Hamilton 25, Max Verstappen 18, Valtteri Bottas 16, Sergio Perez 12, Lando Norris 10, Chalres Leclerc 8, Esteban Ocon 6, Fernando Alonso 4, Daniel Ricciardo 2, Pierre Gasly 1
Constructors: Mercedes 41, Red Bull 30, McLaren 12, Alpine 10, Ferrari 8, Alpha Tauri 1
After a slow start to the weekend, Alfa Romeo showed some promise even though they left with no points and are still yet to score in 2021. Callum Illott looked solid in his FP1 appearance and while Antonio Giovianzzi lost track time, it did not matter n the event as the Italian beat Raikkonen by six tenths in Qualifying and finished the race where he started in 12th. It was an average result but arguably the Italians best performance of 2021.
For Kimi Raikkonen, it was a painful weekend as he was beaten in Qualifying by Giovinazzi despite having more track time. The Iceman made a strong start passing two cars on the opening lap but that was undone as he committed the cardinal sin along the start/finish straight; making contact with his teammate. The contact cost him his front wing and was the only DNF of the race. Post-race, the appeal against his 30s penalty from Imola was unsurprisingly rejected by the stewards.
Aston Martin had a similarly disappointing Grand Prix weekend. They had a car finish 7th at Portimao in October but finished 13th and 14th in 2021. Sebastian Vettel had his best weekend for the team since joining as he got into Q3 for the first time in 15 attempts while his teammate Lance Stroll; who also had the update this weekend failed to get out of Q1. It was a step in the right direction for the four-time world champion even if he is one of seven yet to score in 2021 but Aston Martin clearly aren’t where they want to be performance-wise as he fell back in the race and finished 13th. Stroll finished right behind him after being unable to get past cars ahead on fresher tyres having done an impressive 39 lap stint on the Softs. He sportingly gave the place back to his teammate but it was not a strong weekend for Stroll or the team.
Williams looked like they could challenge for Q3 and even points in Portugal judging by the practice pace of George Russell. Mr Saturday produced again in Qualifying but fell agonisingly short of getting into Q3 with Williams for the first time. Qualifying 11th, he was in contention for points but Williams pace in the race deserted them. Instead, Russell described it as ‘an incredibly challenging race. Our car does not suit’ the windy conditions at Portimao. Nicholas Latifi struggled even more with a half a second gap to Russell in Qualifying and even though he got past the brit in the early stages he struggled for the majority of the race. His pace was not great as he made a mistake having been chased down by Schumacher in the slower Haas and ultimately finished behind. That was poor from the Canadian.
Haas started the weekend on a sour note as they mourned the death of team member Martin Shephard. On the track, it was another difficult weekend for the team with the slowest car on the grid but there were some positives. Mick Schumacher who we can only judge against his teammate, on a personal level had a strong Grand Prix. The German beat Mazepin in qualifying by half a second and finished the Grand Prix in 17th ahead of a Williams. There’s not much more he could do than that. As for Mazepin, despite Gunther Steiner’s assertion he ‘made progress, as much as the result may not show it’ had another difficult Grand Prix. After being half a second adrift of Schumacher, he finished the race almost a full minute adrift of the next nearest car and earned the wrath of the stewards with a five-second time penalty for ignoring blue flags.
2021 Portuguese Grand Prix Ratings
Drivers: Lewis Hamilton 9, Max Verstappen 7.5, Valtteri Bottas 7.5, Sergio Perez 7, Lando Norris 9, Charles Leclerc 8, Esteban Ocon 8, Fernando Alonso 7.5, Daniel Ricciardo 7.5, Pierre Gasly 7, Carlos Sainz 6, Antonio Giovinazzi 7, Sebastian Vettel 6.5, Lance Stroll 6, Yuki Tsunoda 5, George Russell 6.5, Mick Schumacher 7.5, Nicholas Latifi 5, Nikita Mazepin 4, Kimi Raikkonen 5
Constructors: Mercedes 8.5, Red Bull 7.5, McLaren 8, Alpine 7.5, Ferrari 7, Alpha Tauri 6, Alfa Romeo 6, Aston Martin 6, Williams 6, Haas 5.5
After Portimao, Lewis Hamilton remains the leader of the Drivers Championship with an eight-point lead of Max Verstappen in 2nd who is enjoying his best-ever start to an F1 season. Lando Norris who is also enjoying his best start to an F1 season remains 3rd on 37 points and five ahead of Valtteri Bottas who leapfrogged Charles Leclerc for 4th. The Finn has 32 points to the Ferrari mans 28. Sergio Perez is now 6th in the standings on 22 points after his 4th place finish, climbing above Daniel Ricciardo in 7th on 16 points. Carlos Sainz remains on 14 points after failing to score at Portimao while Esteban Ocon (8pts) climbs to 9th in the standings with the top 10 rounded off by Pierre Gasly (7 pts). Lance Stroll drops out of the top 10 and is now on the same points as Fernando Alonso (5pts). Yuki Tsunoda remains on 2 points in 13th. Sebastian Vettel, Antonio Giovinazzi, Kimi Raikkonen, George Russell, Nicholas Latifi, Mick Schuamcher and Nikita Mazepin are the seven yet to score points.
In the Constructors Championship, Mercedes (101pts) have opened up an 18 point lead over Red Bull (83pts) in what could change very quickly. McLaren have 53 points representing their best return after three races since 2012 as they extend their lead over Ferrari in the battle for 3rd to 11 points. Ferrari are comfortably 4th ahead of Alpine (13pts) whose double points finish lifted them above Alpha Tauri (9pts) and Aston Martin (5pts) and into the top five. Alfa Romeo, Williams and Haas remain without a point in 2021.
I enjoyed Portimao hosting the Portuguese Grand Prix but it will remain to be seen if it could stay on the calendar once the pandemic is over and the market for hosting races reopens. For the time being, it is a quick turnaround as F1 moves on to the second leg of its Iberian peninsula double bill. The circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, a mainstay since 1996 did not host pre-season testing this year but given how much data the teams have on the circuit, this will be the first real test for us to see where the cars have improved since the start of the season. It is the Spanish Grand Prix up next for round four!