Lewis Hamilton dropped to third during the early stages on Sunday but made stunning passes over Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas to win the 2021 Portuguese Grand Prix; Lewis now leads Max by eight points in the championship standings. Bottas rounded off the podium.
Hamilton comfortably wins in Portimão for the second year running but that does not tell how the race panned out for the British driver. Lewis dropped to third after Verstappen overtook him at the safety car restart, but he rallied back to overtake Verstappen and then his teammate Bottas to take the lead which he never looked to relinquish.
Start of the Race
The track temperature was cooler than normal as the drivers started their Formation Lap. As the five lights went off, both the Mercs had a great launch from the line followed by Verstappen in third. Sergio Pérez struggled to get off clearly and was overtaken by Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) for fourth.
Lando Norris and Esteban Ocon swapped positions back and forth and by Turn 12 Lando came out on top. Down the front straight, 4 hit the left-rear tyre of his teammate’s (Antonio Giovinazzi) car that cost him his front wing and ultimately had to retire, bringing out the Safety Car due to debris down the front straight.
By the end of Lap 6, Bottas had nicely bunched up the rest of the pack and at the perfect moment launched away leaving his teammate vulnerable at the clutches of Verstappen. Verstappen breezed past Hamilton for second place while his teammate Pérez did the same to Carlos Sainz to move up to fourth. Pérez couldn’t capitalise as Norris first overtook Sainz at Turn 3 and then Pérez himself at the Hairpin to move into the fourth spot.
In the midfield, Charles Leclerc moved up to seventh ahead of Alpine‘s Esteban Ocon. George Russell, who started the race on P11 had fallen back to fifteenth by the end of Lap 1. Daniel Ricciardo jumped five places up to eleventh and was on the back of Pierre Gasly.
By the tenth lap, Verstappen was all over the back of Bottas and was eyeing the run-up to the front straight as a possible overtaking option. Verstappen lost momentum while coming out of Turn 14, which made him a sitting duck for Lewis to pass; Lewis obliged by swooping around the outside of his title rival.
Pérez was constantly on the radio with his engineer complaining about Lando Norris, whom he accused of exceeding track limits while overtaking him. Since there was no instruction from race directors, his engineer told him to focus on the task at hand. Eventually, Pérez moved past Norris three laps later but was by then almost eight seconds adrift of the front three.
Nearing the Lap 20 mark, Hamilton was all over the rear of his teammate, Bottas. The two had managed to carve out a good 2-3 seconds’ gap to Verstappen. As the two came around the front straight, Lewis was closer than ever and with the help of DRS swooped around the outside at Turn 1 to take the lead of the Portuguese GP.
Ferrari was the first to blink, pitting Carlos Sainz in the 22nd lap. The Spaniard changed his worn-out softs to a brand-new set of medium tyres. McLaren responded the next lap bringing in Norris for a set of mediums. When he rejoined after a relatively slow stop, he was immediately under attack from Carlos Sainz, proving how powerful the undercut can be in this circuit.
As cars in and around stopped for a newer set of tyres, Mercedes and Red Bull kept their cards close to their chests. One was waiting for the other to blink first. At the halfway stage of the race Lewis had built a comfortable lead of four seconds at the front, while Verstappen was stuck behind Bottas for more than 13 laps.
By Lap 35, Red Bull pulled the plug. Max was called into the pits for a new set of hard tyres. Mercedes and Bottas responded the next lap, but in tricky conditions and cooler track temperatures it was hard for Bottas to get them up to temperature. He got out of shape coming out of Turn 3 and entering Turn 4. Max had a good slipstream out of Turn 4 and with the help of DRS overtake Bottas at the Hairpin of Turn 5.
Lewis had a 26-second lead over Verstappen as he came into the pits for his only stop. Lewis rejoined 5 seconds ahead of Verstappen with a buffer of 3-4 back-markers between them. Max closed the gap to 3 seconds within the next few laps as the drivers covered two-thirds of the race.
By lap 44, Hamilton and Bottas were trading the fastest laps one after the other. In a rare event, Toto Wolff, the Mercedes Team Principal, was heard on Valtteri’s radio, “You’re the fastest man on track. Come on Valtteri!”
The final stages
With only 16 laps to go to the end of the race. Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez was the only driver out on track who had not pitted so far. Red Bull kept him out in front in an attempt to halt Lewis’s progress and give a bit of time to Verstappen to catch up to the Merc. But all that momentum was lost when rookie Nikita Mazepin (Haas) ignored blue flags and blocked off then-leader Sergio Pérez on the entry to Turn 3. This allowed Hamilton to claw back 3.5 seconds in that lap alone and moved past the Mexican in the next lap to the lead of the Portuguese GP.
Fernando Alonso, who was anonymous for the first half of the race, turned on the heat when he overtook Gasly and Ricciardo in consecutive laps to move into the points. Pérez came in for his only pitstop and changed to a used soft tyre in a bid to steal the fastest lap from Hamilton, while Mazepin was awarded a 5-second time penalty for ignoring blue flags.
Without only 10 laps to go, Bottas was heard on the radio complaining of “loss of power”. But his engineer assured him it was only an “exhaust sensing error” and there was nothing to be worried about. Pérez set the fastest lap on lap 56 but it was only .318s faster than Hamilton’s time on the harder tyre compound.
During the final stages, Carlos Sainz of Ferrari kept falling behind as his medium tyres were shot by then and by the end of the race, he fell out of the top 10. Bottas pitted in the 64th lap for a set of soft tyres to steal the fastest lap from Pérez. Reactively, Red Bull called in Max for the same in the next lap. In Lap 65, Bottas set the fastest lap time of 1m19.865s. Max managed to beat Bottas’ time on the last lap, but his lap time was deleted for exceeding the track limits at Turn 14.
Does Mercedes have the upper hand over Red Bull?
Mercedes and Red Bull have been neck and neck throughout this weekend. For the first part of the race, both teams were evenly matched. After changing into the harder tyre compound, Mercedes seemed to have extracted more from those tyres than their rivals. It should also be taken into consideration that cooler track temperature has always assisted the Mercedes drivers. Though Red Bull had the raw pace, it was Mercedes who had the long-run race pace throughout the weekend.
Midfield battle: Winners & Losers
McLaren’s Lando Norris had yet another morale-boosting weekend where he finished fifth after starting on the soft tyre compound. Norris continued to build on his impressive start to the 2021 campaign as he still stands third in the driver’s championship standings. Behind him was Charles Leclerc who had a quiet race in sixth.
Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso came alive during the final stages of the race as he overtook three cars to finish a respectable 8th after starting 13th on the grid. His teammate, Esteban Ocon, had a decent enough race, finishing ahead of his teammate in seventh. Two points finishers and a 10-point haul will bode well for the new outfit.
Daniel Ricciardo’s charge from 16th on the grid fizzled out during the closing stages of the race as he rounded off a disappointing weekend with a ninth-place finish. Pierre Gasly rounded off the top 10, taking a solitary point from this weekend.
Carlos Sainz started the race from fifth place and was running fourth before the safety car came. After the safety car, it all went downhill for the Ferrari driver as he struggled with his tyres throughout the session. Eventually, he finished eleventh just outside of the points in a race he’d soon want to forget.
George Russell started the race from eleventh on the grid but by the end of the first lap he was running in fifteenth. Things went bad to worse as he continued to fall behind and at one stage was running dead last, 19th on track. In the end, he finished 16th and will be disappointed that he could not convert another great performance on Saturday into points on Sunday.
Sebastian Vettel had his first start inside the top 10 in fifteen races but wasn’t able to capitalize on mistakes made by his opponents. At one stage he was running as high as seventh on track, but after changing to the hard tyres he could not make further inroads and had to settle for thirteenth just ahead of his teammate, Lance Stroll.