The 2021 Formula 1 season was off to an exciting start and the Portuguese Grand Prix in Portimao had all the ingredients to deliver another thrilling race.
With it’s slippery surface, unpredictable windy conditions, and a “roller-coaster” layout featuring significant elevation changes and fast corners; the Algarve-based circuit should have delivered a blockbuster of a race. However, the race was somewhat uninspiring.
Had it not been for the stewards’ ever confusing enforcement of track limits, and Kimi Raikkonen’s race-ending-crash into the back of his teammate’s car; the race would have been even more dull.
Nevertheless, Mercedes and Red Bull continued their fight for top honours with the German team coming on top this time, thanks to an impressive showing from Lewis Hamilton.
So let’s get on with it. Here are our five takeaways from the Heineken Grande Premio De Portugal.
Max Verstappen and Red Bull lost the race on Saturday
Once again, Red Bull had the fastest qualifying machinery. However, Verstappen failed to claim pole position on Saturday (due to violating track limits).
Now the Dutchman can go ahead and rant about how he’s not enjoying the grip-less track surface in Portimao, and other cars not getting out of his way on his fast lap. But the fact remains that he blew it in qualifying and his body language in the paddock after Q3 spoke volumes.
In the race, it was the case of Mercedes having the better race car (again in Lewis Hamilton’s hands only). Although Lewis was caught napping after the safety car restart when Verstappen pulled a beautiful opportunistic move, the Englishman set out after that with what seemed to be a race long “Hammer-Time” as he relentlessly chased down Max to overtake him on lap 11 after a mistake by the Red Bull driver, and then making quick work of his teammate Valtteri Bottas nine laps later.
The fact that Hamilton couldn’t pull out a large gap on Verstappen (who overtook Bottas after the Finn emerged from his pitstop), shows that matters would have been quite different had Max started on pole with a clear track ahead of him, instead of having to drive in Bottas’ wake for a long time.
Both Red Bull and Mercedes had free pitstop at the end of the race with Bottas and Verstappen. They both used it in an attempt to get the fastest lap extra point. Bottas ended up getting the point after Max got his fastest lap deleted for exceeding track limits; again.
It was another example of how the slightest error could be a major factor in deciding this year’s championship. Unless Red Bull or Mercedes achieve a major breakthrough in development, whoever comes on top by season end will win by only the slightest of margins.
Is Alpine’s pace a fluke?
Alpine brought an upgrade package to the last race in Imola. Although the drivers said the car was improved, that didn’t translate into lap time as much as the team had expected.
Fast forward to Portugal and the Alpine were in the thick of the midfield fight. Esteban Ocon qualified an excellent 6th and went on to bring the car home in 7th.
Fernando Alonso, on the other hand, had a horror qualifying session that left him bewildered, being over 8 tenths off his teammate’s pace and ended up being eliminated in Q2.
Come the race, Alonso found his mojo and drove an impressive race which – combined with a good strategy – saw him picking up the likes of Daniel Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz who, up to now, have had faster cars. He ended his race in 8th position. A decent points haul for the French outfit.
But was Alpine’s pace track specific? Or was it genuine?
Portugal has mixed things up a bit in terms of team performances to be honest with many cars and drivers falling foul to the variable windy conditions and the track’s slippery surface.
The next race will be in Barcelona, and they say that the car that runs well there should be good over a full season. Maybe that will be the true test for all the teams and a solid indicator of the pecking order.
Aston Martin taking the secret agent stuff a bit too seriously
Aston Martin have had one of the most eye-catching car launches this year, with James Bond star Daniel Craig taking part of the launch event and delivering a support message to the team.
The team is naturally linked with the Bond film franchise as Aston Martin road cars have been a staple in most Bond movies. As a continuation of his “car-naming” tradition, Sebastian Vettel even named his AMR21 “Honey Ryder” after the original Bond girl played by Ursula Andress.
Needless to say, his car didn’t turn out to be the “sweet ride” he was hoping, and as a result is yet to score a point this season despite showing some signs of life in Portimao where he at least out-qualified his teammate Lance Stroll (Stroll had the upgraded aero package) and finished the race ahead of him as well. But the positives end here.
In the race, both Aston Martins were just invisible in true secret agent style. But whereas a good secret agent has a hand in manipulating events from behind the scenes, the AMR21’s were sadly irrelevant. They just languished at the wrong side of the grid yet again, both failing to score points.
Though the team’s strategy might not have been optimal specially with Vettel being on the medium tyre for his second stint (the hard tyre was the better option), the AMR21 still lacks the pace needed to be a frequent point scorer.
Considering that Lance Stroll didn’t fare any better than Vettel with the upgraded package, the team should be seriously worried about their development path.
Yuki Tsunoda gets a reality check
Yuki Tsunoda was off to a dream start to his first Formula 1 career, scoring points on his debut with AlphaTauri in Bahrain.
But then he had a horror weekend in Imola, crashing his car during Q1 in qualifying, which didn’t impress Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko who had a thing or two to say about the Japanese rookie’s mistake. Tsunoda went on to have an error marred race, failing to score points.
Things weren’t better in Portugal, a track Tsunoda is not familiar with. He was unable to put a clean weekend together and as a result, was out-qualified and out-raced by his teammate Pierre Gasly.
There is no doubt that Tsunoda is one of the most exciting talents to come through the Red Bull junior drivers’ program. But his struggles in the last two races have shown how steep the learning curve is in Formula 1.
His talent is undeniable, but he needs more time to learn and develop into the top driver he has the potential to be.
Ferrari ruined Carlos Sainz’s race
In his third race with Ferrari, Carlos Sainz was able to beat Charles Leclerc in qualifying. An impressive feat considering that Leclerc is on of the best qualifiers on the grid.
Sainz though was at a disadvantage as he had to use the soft tyre in Q2 in order to progress to Q3 whereas Leclerc went through on mediums.
But with the attempt to undercut Norris in the race, Ferrari stopped Sainz early and put him on mediums! That meant he had to make his tyres last for about 45 laps. That is no easy thing to achieve, keeping in mind that tyre-saving master Sergio Perez made his mediums last 50 laps (which didn’t do his race any good by the way).
Sainz ended up being overtaken by slower cars with fresher tyres at the last stage of the race and ended up outside the points.
Another brain fade from the Scuderia’s strategy team.
Honourable mention: Mick Schumacher
Most people won’t be really interested in what was going on in the very back of the grid. But I do have to say something about Mick Schumacher.
As many others, I was disappointed that Ferrari put him in a Haas instead of an Alfa Romeo. But the young German has been performing solidly in that horrible car.
He has beaten his teammate up to now (which is the least he could do honestly) but in Portugal, he chased down the faster Williams of Nicholas Latifi and overtook it after forcing the Canadian into an error.
His stint at Haas may turn out to be a baptism of fire which will mould him into a strong racing driver in the future and who knows, maybe another Schumacher world champion.
Feel-good stories don’t get any better than this.