Formula 1 Portuguese Grand Prix
Circuit: Algarve International Circuit/Portimato
Portimao is one of the few tracks to have a swimming pool (Monaco being the most famous), which is located in the pit complex…. sadly it isn’t heated, so victory will have never felt colder.
Duncraig Dan 2020, Chapter 12: A weekend in the Algarve
For the first time since 1996, Formula One was officially back in Portugal for a special 2020 one-off, and the heady days of massive crashes on the Estoril pit straight are long gone, because it was time for the rollercoaster of Portimao to join the list of circuits to officially host a round of the World Championship, and the demand for F1 in the country that brought us Tiago Monteiro was so great, that the organisers sold approximately 45,000 tickets for all 3 days in the middle of a pandemic, before the health directorate had to sensibly step in and cap the daily attendance at 27,500.
Still, all the authorities did was cap the number, they didn’t actually seem to enforce social distancing in the grandstands.
The weekend’s events kicked off on Thursday when it was revealed Lance Stroll did in fact have COVID-19 when he sat out the Eifel Grand Prix, then in the evening, Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen both announced they were leaving Haas at the end of 2020, leaving the door open for Mick Schumacher to step up to F1, with the other potential call-up coming for F2 rival Nikita Mazepin, son of Russian businessman Dmitry Mazepin, who had previously bid for Force India back in 2018, but his consortium supposedly never got a look in against Lawrence Stroll’s Canadians.
FP2 was the designated session to test Pirelli’s 2021 prototype tyre compounds, although Renault did make a slight error by mixing up the left front compounds for both of Daniel Ricciardo’s prototype sets, which probably happened because neither sets were colour-coded, which meant most of his data was next to worthless.
Eventually, the drivers got back onto the regular tyres, and the session was red-flagged after Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri spontaneously combusted and ignited.
Then, after a 15-minute stoppage, the drivers barely got a flying lap in before the next incident – Max Verstappen and Lance Stroll collided into Turn 1, after both drivers seemed to misinterpret just who was on a flying lap.
Stroll was going for a second flying lap, Max thought he was going to back off, and the Racing Point ended up in the gravel.
That was something of an indicator that Turn 1 was going to be an issue, as was the pit exit, as Dan found out later into the session.
Then on Saturday, the issue of drain covers popped up again, when a cover at Turn 14 pretty much collapsed when Sebastian Vettel drove over it during FP3, causing Race Director Michael Masi to delay the start of qualifying while the track was inspected.
This issue popped up at Azerbaijan last year when George Russell hit a loose drain cover, there was another at the last visit to Malaysia in 2017 when Romain Grosjean was wiped out in practice, and there was massive problems when Shanghai opened in the mid-2000s, especially when Juan Pablo Montoya hit one during the 2005 Chinese Grand Prix and suffered terminal floor damage.
Craig Scarborough should hopefully explain most of the cause, which is mostly down to the immense levels of suction generated by an F1 car at top speed, which Scarborough describes as “Like sucking a milkshake through a soggy straw” when coming into contact with loose items like drain covers and manholes.
After a 30 minute delay to inspect the track, Qualifying would get underway, and after a fairly run of the mill Q1 in which George Russell progressed again, Q2 would end with Duncraig Dan, who was sitting 10th, getting a tad wide and losing the rear at Turn 11, touching the barrier rear-first, and there was obviously enough damage that he wasn’t able to get out in time for Q3, and started in 10th.
That said, even without that crash, I’d have expected Dan to start around 8th, because Portimao just didn’t seem to suit the Renault at any stage this weekend, despite their recent purple patch.
A strange move from Ferrari was to run Vettel on Medium tyres in Q2, resulting in him starting on the Yellow band from 15th, when his Q1 pace would’ve been good enough to get into the Top 10, although they did the same thing with Charles LeClerc, with the key difference being that LeClerc was fast enough to get into the Top 10 on his Medium set.
Anyway, you know the rest of the story – Valtteri Bottas had been fastest across Friday and Saturday, and was fastest after the opening runs ahead of Hamilton (Both Mercedes ran Mediums) and Verstappen, then Bottas responded to a Hamilton flying lap by setting a 1.16.754, but as time expired, the most successful one-lap driver in living memory would have the last word once again…
And with a 1.16.652, Lewis Hamilton would start on Pole Position for the 97th time, the perfect start in pursuit of Win No.92!
So both Mercedes cars locked out the front row on the Mediums, Verstappen occupied ‘Verstappenth’ on the grid, LeClerc did a fine job lining up 4th and with the Medium tyre, followed by Sergio Perez and Alex Albon, the McLarens of Sainz and Norris, with Gasly’s AlphaTauri literally rising from the ashes to start 9th alongside Ricciardo’s Renault.
Race (66 Laps)
As Sunday afternoon arrived, it was overcast, high winds, there was drizzle down the back of the circuit…..
So in chronological order, here’s everything that went down on a wild opening Lap.
Hamilton led off the line, Verstappen was caught wide against Bottas at Turn 3, and an ambitious Perez tried going around the outside of Verstappen at Turn 4, only to get sent into a spin by the Red Bull, narrowly avoiding the wall and carrying on in last place – He pitted for Mediums to end the lap.
In the tricky conditions, Bottas used his Finnish rallying instincts to claim the lead at Turn 11 from Hamilton, who was struggling to build heat in the Mediums, drivers were locking up everywhere, Verstappen went wide again and lost 3rd place to Carlos Sainz, who was absolutely flying on the Soft tyre, and was soon ahead of Hamilton into 2nd!
Lando Norris also had a fantastic start and was briefly ahead of Verstappen, LeClerc lost out and dropped to 6th, Ricciardo was up to 8th….
But the most remarkable part of all, Kimi Raikkonen, on a new Soft tyre, had risen 10 spots from 16th to 6th!
You’d expect a start that brilliant from a Merc or a Red Bull…. Kimi did it driving a lawn mower branded as an Alfa Romeo.
In the space of one lap, I’d seen enough – Portimato is a fantastic F1 track.
And, just keeping the rollercoaster going, SAINZ PASSED BOTTAS FOR THE LEAD ON LAP 2!
As it was with Kimi, I think that’s the mark of driver with a rallying background, absolutely not afraid to attack in the varying conditions – Carlos Snr (Himself a 2-time WRC Champion and a 3-time Dakar Rally winner) would’ve absolutely loved seeing it.
Obviously the major reason for those events was that the Softs clicked instantly, whereas the Mediums were taking about 5-6 laps to warm up, but once they did, regular business resumed with a flurry, as Bottas and Hamilton effortlessly sent the McLaren back to 3rd place, Verstappen passed Norris, while LeClerc’s Medium tyre was starting to work, as he passed Ricciardo and Raikkonen for 6th.
After some 7 laps, the advantage of the Medium tyre really started to kick in, while Soft tyre performance seemed to do a Thelma and Louise off a cliff face.
Verstappen was back to 3rd by Lap 8, LeClerc passed Norris to start Lap 9, just behind them Ricciardo passed Raikkonen for 7th place, and it became apparent the Alfa Romeo’s fun in the sun was coming to an end when Pierre Gasly flew straight past.
Now up to 10th place, Lance Stroll became the first driver to receive the black and white flag for track limits on Lap 10, and with his tyres turning into rotting carcasses, Verstappen couldn’t match the pace of the Mercedes, falling 5 seconds behind Hamilton by Lap 12, while Gasly seemed to be the best driver on the Soft tyre, as he passed Ricciardo and Norris to move up to 6th, and the AlphaTauri still had plnety to give, as he set off after Sainz’ McLaren.
A noteworthy straggler was Alex Albon in the Red Bull, who had fallen back from 6th to 11th, and was making no headway on Esteban Ocon in 10th place, which really did feel like a continuation of the last 3 races, in which he’s scored just 1 point.
Ricciardo was one of the drivers losing time on the Softs, and after losing out to the Medium-shod Stroll, Renault brought the Australian in at the end of Lap 14, crucially emerging back ahead of Raikkonen, as it seemed like the race was going to be dependent on how far the drivers could stretch the Medium tyre, contrary to the predictions of a 2-stop race.
Meantime, Perez was operating very nicely ‘Off Broadway’ after the opening lap spin, climbing back up to 16th having completed his tyre change, and he was right within the pit windows of the likes of Sainz and Gasly, which would be a great recovery.
Stroll had now closed up to Norris in 7th place, but after getting the DRS into Turn 1 on Lap 18, the Canadian got a bit too aggressive and ambitious and tried swooping down the outside, but he ran out of room, cut off the McLaren, and the Racing Point was turned around at the first corner for the second time over the weekend.
Fair to say the budding young Whinging Pom had a few choice words for his rival in the heat of the moment, which he did apologise for afterwards.
Now as an Australian, I can tell you that language isn’t even an average Saturday at a suburban TAB.
The collision left Norris and Stroll with damaged front wings, they both pitted and fell to last, interestingly going on to the Hard tyre, which had only been used by Kevin Magnussen to that point in time.
Regardless, their chance of points was put to bed, unless the Safety Car made an impromptu appearance.
Back to the front, and Hamilton had been reeling in Bottas lap by lap, and starting Lap 20, the Championship leader deployed the DRS down the pit straight and swept past the Finn, who almost high-fived the folks on the pit wall trying to break the tow, but it couldn’t stop his teammate from swooping into the lead for the first time since Lap 1.
Verstappen finally pitted on Lap 24, as Stroll was docked 5 seconds for the Norris incident, but what difference would it make, because he was a lap down in last, leaving Perez to save Racing Point’s grip on 3rd in the Constructors’ Championship.
He was doing a fine job of it, getting back into the points before half-race distance, although the chances were he was going to have to pit again and not risk going 65 laps on his set of Mediums. .
Looking at the radar, and some drivers noted over the radio that they couldn’t see a solar farm that was overlooking the back of the circuit, which would indicate the clouds were closing in.
Despite the promise of wet weather…. We were left hanging again, because it didn’t rain until dusk.
Sainz finally pitted on Lap 27, having been dropped by Gasly, and those extra laps did cost him track position to Ricciardo and Raikkonen, while Gasly stopped on Lap 28, coming back out in 8th place just ahead of Ricciardo, who had the DRS by the end of Lap 30, and swept past with the warmer tyres.
In the meantime, Stroll got another 5-second penalty for exceeding track limits.
What was interesting was that Hamilton, Bottas and LeClerc, who had all started the race on the Medium tyres, all comfortably got to half race distance, having also dealt with graining during their opening stints.
On Lap 33, Raikkonen and Sainz gave us some top notch racing through Sector 1, starting with Sainz trying to go around the outside at Turn 1, but went wide and gave the place back at Turn 2, then Sainz came back up the inside at Turn 4 and got ahead of the Alfa, but old man river cut back up the inside and retook 10th place, with “The Old Switcheroo!”
It didn’t last long, because the faster Sainz did get the pass done on the next lap.
In the fight for 5th and 6th, Ocon and Perez reignited scenes unseen since their Force India days, and you’d be forgiven for expecting them to wipe each other out, but they gave each other plenty of respect and raced wheel to wheel through Turn 1 into Turn 2, then into Turn 4, but eventually, the relentless charge of Perez saw him pass the Renault by Turn 6.
LeClerc’s magnificent opening stint ended with him pitting on Lap 35 for the Hard tyre, comfortably in 4th place, and for once, it looked like Ferrari had nailed a strategy call that didn’t require Sebastian Vettel’s input.
Stroll pitted again on Lap 36, serving his 10-second penalty and going on to Soft tyres.
Hamilton, Bottas and Ocon were the only drivers who hadn’t pitted by Lap 38, and why would Mercedes bother pitting either car, because Valtteri was setting personal bests on tyres that, by comparison, were 27 laps older than Verstappen’s set.
Hamilton finally stopped on Lap 40 with a 10-second lead, going back out in 2nd place on the Hard tyre (The Brackley team rightly avoided the Soft tyre), which Mercedes followed on with Bottas (Despite his wishes for Softs), who had a hairy moment on the pit exit when he got fed back into the AlphaTauri of Kvyat.
In what was almost a re-enactment of the opening lap Mercedes just didn’t have any grip on its out-lap, and Bottas locked up into Turn 5 and lost even more time to Hamilton.
Romain Grosjean became the second driver penalised for exceeding track limits, while Norris suffered a slow puncture in 13th and eventually had to stop again, absolutely ending any hopes he had of scoring point, while Albon was still stuck behind Raikkonen, and by now, Red Bull felt the only hope Albon had of rescuing a point was by putting him onto another set of Soft tyres, which felt more like a convenient way for the mechanics to demonstrate another sub-2 second pit stop.
Perez made his stop from 5th on Lap 46, going onto the Soft tyres to end the race, which was a big call, considering the way the race had been panning out in terms of tyre life.
It proved costly in the final laps.
Running in 7th after his early stop, Ricciardo had been performing admirably keeping Gasly behind, but the AlphaTauri had the fresher tyres, and Ricciardo’s defense finally relented on Lap 45 once he realised the Frenchman was carrying too much speed, and gave him room for the pass.
Sainz also blasted past Ricciardo on Lap 48, and with the rate that our protagonist was slipping back through the field, the Renault pit wall probably contemplated bringing him in again, although they probably saw Albon wasn’t making enough time on the Softs, and let Dan run to the end.
It also helped that the team had Ocon as a reference point, who was able to stay out until Lap 54 on his Mediums, as part of the world’s longest overcut, but a frustrating slow change on the front tyres left him fighting with Daniel for 8th place, who also had the immediate threat of Vettel and Raikkonen behind.
Down at the tail, Stroll became the only retirement of the race on Lap 53, after the team decided it was easier to save the car after a tough afternoon
With Bottas having been thoroughly outpaced by a good 18 seconds, the only thing that could seemingly stop Hamilton, bar an unforeseen mechanical failure, was a leg cramp that caused him to lift through some corners.
What impact that had seemed to be minimal, because his lead grew from 18 seconds on Lap 60, to 23.5 seconds after Lap 63.
Vettel’s pursuit of Ricciardo took a hit when he locked up on Lap 61, costing him a good second, which really seemed to give Daniel the breathing space he needed to secure 9th.
But anyway, we were just counting down the laps to Hamilton claiming one of the greatest Formula 1 records, as he set another fastest lap on Lap 64, just to rub it in.
With 3 laps remaining, Gasly had caught the struggling Perez, who got extremely aggressive and moved very late before the braking area into Turn 1 while defending 5th place, which caught the eye of the stewards.
Gasly swept around the outside the next lap, leaving Perez vulnerable to Sainz, who dropped the Racing Point to 7th with a lap to go, and to cap it off, the Mexican was left facing an investigation for dangerous driving.
I think they went a bit too early on awarding Perez Driver Of The Day honours.
But stuff them, because it was time for history, as Lewis Hamilton marched to an emphatic 92nd Grand Prix victory, breaking Michael Schumacher’s 14-year long record by a 25.5 second margin to Bottas, easily the biggest margin of victory in 2020, while Verstappen took 3rd place, forming the ever-familiar podium formation.
The Hamilton-Bottas-Verstappen podium has now occurred 12 times, tying Hamilton-Bottas-Vettel and Schumacher-Hakkinen-Coulthard as the third most reoccurring podium… The all-time record is Hamilton-Rosberg-Vettel, which occurred 14 times.
Portugal was one of the few times all year that Ferrari genuinely got their strategy right, because starting on the medium worked out very well for LeClerc, who started 4th and finished 4th, his best result since the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, while Gasly’s new uncooked chassis held up very well for a 5th place finish.
Perez was given 2 reprimands for incidents with Gasly – One for blocking him in Qualifying, and the other for the incident late in the race, which means one more and the Mexican gets a 10-place grid penalty.
It was also the first time Esteban Ocon has finished ahead of Daniel Ricciardo since the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, but good news for Renault, they were both in the points.
This puts Hamilton into context – He has more wins than he has 2nd, 3rd and 4th placings combined, and he now has as many wins as Prost & Ayrton Senna combined.
The last time the Formula 1 Wins Record changed hands was way back at Spa in 2001, when Michael Schumacher passed ‘The Professor’ with his 52nd win, and obviously Schumi ended his career on 91 wins, a mark that many thought might stand the test of time, considering at the time of China 2006, Schumi was 40 wins ahead of Prost in 2nd place.
In all, Schumi was the greatest winner for 19 years and just under 2 months.
In fact, much like Hamilton, Prost originally took the Wins record in Portugal back in 1987, when his 28th career win at Estoril passed Sir Jackie Stewart, which feels so minuscule compared to what Lewis has just achieved.
On another happy note, Anthony Hamilton, so often a sight when Lewis began his career at McLaren, returned to the paddock and had a real dad moment, filming his son as he crossed the line to shatter the wins record, and gave him a huge in parc ferme, the culmination of decades of perseverance from that council house in Stevenage.
And, on a parting note, with the Top 3 in the Drivers and and the Top 2 in the Constructors just about secured, the fight for 4th in the Drivers and 3rd in the Constructors is still as hot as it’s been all year.
Danny Ric still holds 4th in the Drivers, with LeClerc now just 5 points behind in 5th, having scored 80% of Ferrari’s points in 2020 (75/93), while Sainz passing Perez for 6th was crucial, because McLaren are now within 2 points of Racing Point (126-124), with Renault’s 6 points for 8th and 9th maintaining the gap between 3rd and 5th at 6 points.
This is going to be harder to pick than a broken nose.
Next Up: IMOLA THIS WEEKEND.