For the first time since 1996, Portugal played host to a Formula 1 grand prix. The undulating nature of the Algarve circuit and low-grip surface challenged the drivers. LUKE SMITH picks out the biggest talking points from Portimao.
Formula 1 made its long-awaited return to Portugal last weekend as Portimao became the latest unplanned stop on the calendar in 2020 – and produced a few surprises.
Lewis Hamilton’s march to a seventh world championship showed few signs of slowing down as he scored a record-breaking 92nd grand prix victory, surpassing the tally of Michael Schumacher that he matched last time out at the Nurburgring.
But slippery track conditions throughout the weekend left drivers struggling for grip, which combined with a split in starting tyre choices and a sprinkling of rain led to a shake-up of the order at the start.
While it ultimately may have ended with the typical 2020 result of Hamilton-Bottas-Verstappen, the Portuguese Grand Prix certainly offered plenty of talking points.
Here are 10 things we learned from the Portuguese Grand Prix.
1. The sky is the limit for Hamilton’s win record
After all of the fanfare over Lewis Hamilton’s record-equalling 91st grand prix victory at the Nurburgring two weeks ago, the celebrations over his 92nd win – the one that actually made him the record holder – were far more understated.
It was a fairly routine Hamilton victory, performing a cut above Valtteri Bottas from Q3 onwards. Even after a tentative start saw him lose the lead, Hamilton was able to keep the pressure on and manage his tyres better, eventually allowing him to ease past his team-mate en route to a comfortable win by more than 25 seconds.
With win number 92 in the bag and a seventh world title set to be clinched in two races’ time, Hamilton will soon become F1’s statistical all-time great. And the level to which he could take the win record that now belongs to him and him alone is scary.
PLUS: The pre-race call that gave Hamilton the edge at Portimao
If he continues at a rate of winning 10 races per season – a level he has been at since 2014 – then in another three years, he could easily sit on 120 victories, which would be close to three-times Ayrton Senna’s tally. Triple figures for poles and wins will surely be met within the next year.
Max Verstappen joked after the race that he would need to be racing until he is 40 if he wanted to beat Hamilton’s record. As long as Verstappen’s career could end up being, it’ll take a remarkable run of form and set of circumstances to emulate Hamilton, who continues to rewrite history.
2. Bottas failed to capitalise on another opportunity
Valtteri Bottas has been resigned for a while that he isn’t going to beat Hamilton to this year’s world title, but he has failed to capitalise on any recent opportunities that have come his way.
Two weeks on from his mistake at the Nurburgring that gave Hamilton the lead before his eventual retirement, Bottas again let a big chance slip through his fingers. The decision to go for a single run at the end of Q3 was a mistake, albeit one he was able to recover from at the start during the tentative opening laps, getting the position back from Hamilton.
And then came the usual routine we’ve seen in recent races: Bottas pulls out a gap of around two seconds on Hamilton; Hamilton reports tyre struggles; Hamilton’s tyres actually turn out to be OK; Hamilton closes; Hamilton easily passes; Bottas fades massively; and Hamilton wins the race.
Bottas’ request to take soft tyres for the final stint was turned down by Mercedes, with its data showing that running on anything but hards would not have been good for the final stint – a theory proven correct by Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon’s late-race struggles. But even so, the nine-second gap that had opened up to Hamilton looked to have settled matters at the front.
Bottas’ championship fight may have already faded, but he needs to capitalise on these opportunities if he is ever to beat Hamilton. Nico Rosberg did it to great effect in 2016, taking advantage of even the smallest chances that came his way. Bottas needs to work on that as he plots his next title attempt in 2021.
3. Leclerc’s display gives Ferrari some hope in saving its season
Ferrari’s 2020 may have been a huge disappointment in many ways, but after the embarrassment of Spa, Monza and Mugello, the team really does now appear to have turned a corner.
The final part of a three-stage update package arrived in Portugal and offered another small yet important step forward in the performance of the SF1000 car, with even a tenth or two gain equating to a huge upswing in the congested midfield fight.
Charles Leclerc squeezed every last drop of performance out of the car in Portimao. His qualifying display was sublime, making it through to Q3 on mediums – a privilege typically reserved for the Mercedes drivers and Max Verstappen – before running a fuss-free, somewhat lonely race as he finished fourth, more than 30 seconds clear of Pierre Gasly in fifth.
It was a score that eased some of the pressure building on Ferrari from AlphaTauri in the constructors’ championship, and offers a sprig of hope that it could yet get into the mix with Racing Point, McLaren and Renault – all thirty-odd points up the road – before the end of the season.
If it does want to gain some kind of respectability this year, it will be dependent on both cars scoring regularly – and that is not happening right now. Sebastian Vettel had another difficult weekend that saw him scrape home a point in P10, with the four-time world champion becoming more vocal about the struggles he is facing, and admitting that Leclerc is in a “different league” right now.
Regardless, there are some reasons to be cheerful at Maranello once again – well-timed ahead of the third race on Italian soil this weekend at Imola.
4. Albon’s future with Red Bull has never looked more precarious
As Max Verstappen bagged his ninth podium of the season with a fairly straightforward run to third place, team-mate Alexander Albon saw his struggles continue with an anonymous run to P12.
Even a late switch to a two-stop strategy wasn’t enough to get Albon up into the points, having spent much of the race duelling with Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, with the Anglo-Thai driver also having the ignominy of being lapped by his team-mate.
It came the day after Red Bull team principal Christian Horner confirmed that Red Bull would look outside its own driver pool if it did decide to drop Albon. Although Red Bull may keep saying it wants Albon to really stamp his authority on the seat, the more he struggles, and with the likes of Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg both on the market, the more precarious his position looks.
Red Bull wants to make a decision on its drivers for next year around Bahrain. It gives Albon two races, at Imola and Istanbul Park, to try and save his seat. But two more displays like what we have seen in the last two weekends would do nothing to help his case.
5. Sainz’s brief spell in the lead showed the issue F1 wants to fix
The opening two laps of the Portuguese Grand Prix were two of the most surprising and dramatic in recent memory. The Mercedes drivers had talked about the risks of starting on the medium tyre since qualifying, yet few expected the warm up issues to be quite so severe off the line.
Cooler temperatures and a sprinkling of rain meant there was a massive advantage for those who started on softs, and particularly those who had really focused on getting their tyres up to temperature on the formation lap. The McLaren duo of Carlos Sainz Jr and Lando Norris had done exactly this, allowing them to catapult up the order.
Sainz waltzed into the lead of the race on lap two, noting that it was “easy” to pass the Mercedes drivers as they tip-toed around the opening stages. He was then able to even pull out a two-second gap on Bottas at the front, giving a brief glimmer of hope of another shock result.
Alas, normal service was swiftly resumed. Once the mediums were up to temperature, Bottas was able to sweep ahead of Sainz, who then gradually fell back through the order. Sainz finished sixth in the end, one lap down on the Mercedes.
As inevitable as it may have been, Sainz’s fall down the order proved the issue in F1 right now. Barring a truly sizeable deficit – such as the one they faced at Monza – the front-runners are too far ahead for the midfielders to really have a shout at the front. A driver running from seventh to first within two laps and pulling out a two-second gap is meaningless.
It is something that F1 wants to change moving forward, and there is hope it will do so under the regulation changes that start in 2022. But it should not be that the sight of a car that is not silver or navy blue out front is such a shock, nor so fleeting.
6. Stroll’s shocker undermined much of his good work this year
After missing the last race at the Nurburgring two weeks ago through illness, Lance Stroll’s return was one to forget at Portimao at pretty much every stage of the weekend.
His clumsy clash in FP2 with Verstappen – for which both drivers were deemed equally to blame – was followed by a disappointing Q2 exit, lapping half a second off team-mate Perez. His race was then effectively ended when he clattered into Lando Norris with a mirror repeat of the Verstappen clash at Turn 1, also ruining the McLaren driver’s day.
There was very little to redeem Stroll’s display through the Portimao weekend, which did a lot to undermine the good work he did through the early part of the season. He has not finished a race since Monza, where he fluffed a decent opportunity for victory, although it must be said his retirements at Mugello and Sochi were not his fault.
If Stroll does want to change the pay driver image that he has spent so long batting away – and one that Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff said on Saturday was a “stigma” against the young Canadian – then he needs to pull up his socks and avoid the kind of sloppy displays that we saw in Portugal last weekend.
Comparing Perez, Stroll and Vettel in Portimao, it seems strange the man who was a class above the other two is the one currently without a drive for 2021.
7. Despite an uncertain future, Russell starred once again
The latest jolt in the driver market for 2021 has strangely surrounded a team whose line-up seemed fixed two months ago, with George Russell’s future at Williams coming into question in recent days.
Suggestions that Sergio Perez could land a seat alongside Nicholas Latifi in 2021 left the Williams team facing a number of questions, which, by failing to answer, only opened it up to increased speculation (the very thing it wanted to avoid).
PLUS: Why history risks repeating itself for Mercedes’ star F1 junior
Russell maintained heading into the weekend he had “no concerns” about his future, but offered an even more convincing response on-track with what was arguably his best weekend yet in F1.
A stunning lap at the end of Q1 got him through to the second stage of qualifying for the seventh time this year, where he qualified 14th, ahead of Sebastian Vettel. He then went for a long first stint in the race that saw him rise as high as seventh at one point, only to then cycle back to P14 come the chequered flag after his second stop.
Russell expressed his slight frustration after the race that Williams had again maximised its potential on a weekend where none of the cars ahead hit trouble, with 19 drivers making it to the finish. But he can take pride in proving his quality despite all of the noise that now surrounds him.
Russell was clear after the race that he believed the speculation about his future has been “fed by the Perez camp”, and that he was sure of clarity by the end of this week about what he’d be doing next year. Portimao was just another reminder of why the grid would be a far poorer place without his presence next year.
8. Red Bull is pinning its hopes on a 2022 engine freeze
If you expected a long-running saga about Red Bull’s future power unit supplier following Honda’s shock exit announcement earlier this month, then recent movements will have left you sorely disappointed.
Red Bull has made clear that its preferred option for the future is to continue to use Honda’s power unit beyond 2021, taking on the IP and designs whilst also securing a development freeze with the other manufacturers to ensure spending does not get out of control.
It is a move that would ensure Red Bull maintains its effective works status and does not have to become a customer again – probably with Renault – and has growing levels of support. Mercedes confirmed it would be in favour of an engine freeze from 2022, with Toto Wolff believing it makes sense to keep a competitive Red Bull team on the grid.
The matter is set to be discussed at the F1 Commission meeting on Monday, and although Red Bull has hardly made an ultimatum to F1 over the plan, it seems fairly set on going through with it. Quite whether all of its rivals will be quite so accommodating remains to be seen.
At a time when engine performance has largely converged – with the exception of Ferrari this year – then a freeze on development would make sense. It would help reduce the costs greatly for the power unit suppliers, something that would be appreciated given the COVID-induced pressures and as F1 begins to look towards new power solutions from 2026.
9. Track limits remains a thorny (and dull) issue
Anyone who watched the Spa 24 Hours sportscar race this weekend will know how ridiculous the issue of track limits has become, with a free-rein approach backfiring as drivers essentially reconfigured their own lines throughout the track.
Although Portimao did not offer quite such ridiculous events – that thankfully led to a rules tweak – practice on Friday did see 125 lap times get deleted, with all 20 drivers contributing to that tally.
The strict nature of the rules on quite a fast-flowing track led to such pedantry, and although the clampdown was eased after Friday – allowing drivers to run up to the edge of the kerb instead of the white line – the issue still reared its head in the race. Daniil Kvyat, Romain Grosjean and Lance Stroll all landed time penalties for exceeding track limits too many times, while Valtteri Bottas even got warned by his team that he was getting close to a sanction.
Track limits may need to be best judged track by track, but the way modern circuits have been built and sanitised means these issues are all too common – and that the kind of policing we saw at Portimao is important.
“Spa is an example for everyone that if you don’t have the quality of stewards that we have, and the quality of the monitoring that we’re getting in F1, the circuits are just not well prepared enough to monitor the track limits,” said Carlos Sainz Jr. “There is too much tarmac run off areas.”
It’s a tightrope F1 continues to tread, but without a better, all-encompassing solution forthcoming, it only looks like to be something we talk about at each race – which is hardly the kind of way to turn new fans on to the series.
10. Work is required if Portugal is to return to the calendar
As positive as the Portimao track may have been received by fans and – bar its slippery surface – the drivers, there is a lot of work the promoters must do if the Portuguese Grand Prix is to return to the F1 calendar in the future.
Traffic management has previously blighted F1 races – most notably, at Paul Ricard in 2018 – but has naturally not been an issue through 2020 given most races have been run without fans, or just a handful.
Although Portimao had cut back to 27,000 fans due to recent COVID-19 restrictions, all 27,000 of them had just a couple of roads to use to get into the track, causing some traffic nightmares that were hardly assisted by the unhelpful Portuguese police.
Journeys that should take 25 minutes at most from Portimao to get to the track took close to three hours, so bad were the issues, with roads being closed without explanation.
There were also reports of fans being denied entry to the circuit despite holding valid tickets, as well as many giving up and going home when it became clear they were not going to get in to watch any action.
Paul Ricard is proof of how issues can be overcome and lessons can be learned for the future. While the promoters in Portugal may have not felt much need to make an effort in this regard this year – after all, it’s a one off – it has not left the best impression. Hopefully it is something that can and will be overcome should F1 ever return to Portimao.