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Formula 1

Mark Hughes: Hamilton’s key tricks to win Portuguese GP brawl

by Glenn Freeman
10 min read

A hot, fighting victory for Lewis Hamilton around the Algarve circuit in his ongoing brilliantly closely-fought struggle with Max Verstappen. Hamilton didn’t score pole, didn’t win the start – that was his pole-sitting Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas – and was bundled down to third by Verstappen on the restart, six laps in. Yet he overcame them both – on track, with actual overtakes, even before the first pit stops.

Was it a victory Red Bull and Verstappen handed Hamilton, once in qualifying and again in the race? Or was it just the simple playing out of a small Mercedes performance edge around the peculiar traits of the Portuguese track? It’s so tightly-poised it’s impossible to know.

May 02 : Portuguese Grand Prix review

Maybe if Verstappen’s first Q3 lap hadn’t been deleted for track limits and he’d thereby started from pole, he could have controlled the race from the front. Then he’d not have been behind Bottas, trying to push up into his wake on the 10th lap and getting into a big fast old slide through the long, final turn – making him easy meat for Hamilton and his DRS.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe the Mercedes was just that bit faster – or at least more driveable, a valuable quality around this gripless and windy track. It was able to sit more easily tight in the slipstream of the car ahead all the way from Turn 13 through the long, increasing-speed loop of 14-15 and onto the main straight. When Verstappen tried it, it just wasn’t happening.

“I tried to attack Valtteri but all the time I could not get close enough in those last two corners and then the run onto the straight. Even later when I was behind Lewis, as he was attacking Valtteri I just couldn’t get close enough through those last two corners to use the DRS.”

Every car in the place was struggling with the bizarre traits of the track all weekend, but some more than others. Did the low grip of the surface, the way it limited how hard you could load the front up into the slow turns, somehow give a balance to those cars that have so far struggled to get rear grip? Usually, the downforce protects the tyres. Here it was more like the surface was so lacking in grip that they didn’t need protecting.

Whatever. It made for a tough, no-nonsense brawl at the front, drivers pretty much flat out and not having to worry about tyre degradation. The rubber always stayed the right side of the threshold, just like last year even though this was a much hotter day. Harder than required compounds on a gripless, very fine texture track surface seems to be the secret. Even the defeated Verstappen said afterwards he’d thoroughly enjoyed it: “It was good. It felt a bit more like… not flat-out racing but at least a bit more than continuously tyre saving. So, yeah, it was nice.”

“I just had to gather my thoughts and made a couple of tweaks in terms of how I was driving and then start on the attack again” :: Lewis Hamilton

After Verstappen’s Turn 4 track limits deletion in qualifying – a big sudden snap of oversteer as the Red Bull crossed the wind, beautifully caught, but taking him beyond the line and costing him pole – Mercedes locked out the front row, Bottas seven thousandths ahead of Hamilton. They held position at the start, Sergio Perez losing touch with them almost immediately thanks to the terrier-like attacks and counter-attacks of Lando Norris’s soft-tyred McLaren. By the time Checo had finally put that in its place, the lead trio were gone.

Being quick enough to get through Q2 on the medium and thereby start the race on it was particularly valuable this weekend. It increased the race day advantage of Mercedes and Red Bull over the rest – and put the soft starters who made Q3 at a disadvantage over their team-mates who hadn’t made the top 10. A race strategy of medium-hard was the way go.

But long before that became apparent came the safety car, initiated into the second lap after Kimi Raikkonen looked down to change a switch on his steering wheel as he entered the main straight closely-following team mate Antonio Giovinazzi. Pulled into the slipstream of the other Alfa, just as he looked up Raikkonen hit its rear wheel hard and destroyed his front wing, shedding carbon fibre shards everywhere.

Kimi Raikkonen Portugal F1 crash 2021

Kimi wasn’t the only one who happened to be looking in the wrong place at the wrong time. On the build up to the restart, Hamilton was peering into his mirror to check Verstappen’s whereabouts at just the moment Bottas gunned it to escape.

Verstappen reacted to Bottas and thereby had the advantage of reaction over Hamilton as they screeched down the pit straight to begin the race again on lap seven. Hamilton, in then pulling out of Bottas’s slipstream, handed it to Verstappen, for which he laughingly chided himself as ‘an idiot’ later. The fast, slightly downhill, Turn 1 is a difficult corner to defend, given that the defensive inside line is a lot slower; the Red Bull sailed around the outside and set off after Bottas.

Bottas was leading but not entirely happy with the Mercedes on the medium tyre. “I don’t really know what happened in the first stint,” he said. “I just didn’t have the pace, for unknown reasons.” So he couldn’t shake off the Red Bull. But neither could Verstappen get close enough through the final turns for the DRS to be of any use to him.

Hamilton was noting all this with interest. He’d not won the start, been demoted on the restart and fallen back a little, but all was not lost.

“I dropped maybe a second or something,” he recalled, “and I needed to get closer but for a moment there was far too big a gap. I wasn’t in the DRS, and I just had to gather my thoughts and made a couple of tweaks in terms of how I was driving and then start on the attack again. Once I did, obviously I got closer and Max, I think, had a small mistake which then put me in a nice position out of Turn 5 and then I just needed to keep that gap through the rest of the lap and that was where I was able to get past him.”

As the laps ticked away, Hamilton was still right with them and found he could run lap after lap close in Verstappen’s slipstream at the crucial part of the track without his front tyres overheating. He had to be careful, because they were trying to. He got a message telling him the temperatures were beginning to creep up on the 11th lap. But it was a threshold he could play with, not the usual drastic thermal deg if you stayed more than a couple of laps there. He could stay close enough that if Verstappen made any error, he could surely pounce.

The error came as Verstappen renewed his attack on Bottas, straining his sinews trying to hang on close enough through Turn 13 to make use of the DRS onto the straight. Instead he suffered a big tyre-scrubbing slide, costing him all the momentum Hamilton needed to put a DRS repass on him, the move definitively completed into Turn 3. This was lap 11.

Lewis Hamilton overtakes Max Verstappen Portugal F1 2021

The Merc was somehow just better in the wake than the Red Bull, but it’s theorised it’s less of an aero trait than a tyre temperature one. The Merc’s fronts were running just that bit cooler. Or maybe that’s to under-sell some secret of Hamilton’s technique, something he’d worked out in how the pieces all fit together.

Because if we take a closer look at where he was placing himself when behind Verstappen, it’s as if, at the pace Bottas was constraining them to, Hamilton could back himself away from Verstappen through the middle of the lap, saving the tyres – and then close back up at will into the important Turn 13, so as to be close where it mattered.

He did it so many times, it was clearly strategic. Was that the crucial difference between Hamilton and Verstappen on this day? Verstappen was hounding Bottas for the whole lap, making it very obvious he was faster, if only he could find a way through. Was that why his front tyres didn’t quite allow him to hang on in the important bit? Or was it just a differing car trait? Hamilton has all sorts of cards he can play, even if he does keep some of them close to his chest.

Verstappen’s slides cost him a bit of rear tyre performance and it took a couple of laps before he was back on the pace, as Hamilton now set about sizing up his race-leading team-mate.

The move came on the 20th lap and it was remarkably similar to how Hamilton had passed Bottas for the lead here last October and to how he’d just dealt with Verstappen. Tidier through 13, earlier on the gas, better drive out of there and gaining, gaining, gaining all the way through that long, fast, looping downhill run onto the pit straight.

Valtteri Bottas Lewis Hamilton Mercedes F1 2021 Portugal Algarve Mercedes

As they entered the straight he was still much further back than when he’d pounced on the Red Bull. But the tow and DRS were powerful, Valtteri saw him coming and was a little over-defensive into that difficult-to-defend fast double-kink into the hairpin. He could have run Hamilton out over the track limits, but that wouldn’t have been classy, given that he’d made an error in defending too soon, in giving Hamilton too much track space to work with in the approach, allowing him to pinch Bottas in.

In hindsight, that was the race won. But there were still 46 laps to go. Hamilton extended his lead over the nose-to-tail Bottas and Verstappen to around 3-4s and then just waited to see how far he could get these tyres to hang on.

Bottas was protecting him from any Verstappen undercut attack, so he’d always have track position. Besides, the degradation rate was so low on such a gripless track on such hard compounds that the undercut effect would not be a powerful one, especially as they’d be switching to hards, which would take a while to switch on.

Red Bull broke the deadlock, pitting Verstappen for an undercut attempt on Bottas at the end of the 35th lap from 1.2s behind, Max all four tyres locked up at the pit speed limit line. The stop was a good one at 2.3s and on went the hards. Next lap Mercedes responded with Bottas, knowing it was going to be close but feeling confident Verstappen wouldn’t be super-quick on the out-lap because of those slow-to-warm tyres.

The Mercedes stop was 0.7s slower than Verstappen’s, but Bottas got out still ahead. But now he was on those cool tyres and as he braked for the hairpin of Turn 3 he briefly locked up – and with a bit of wheel-to-wheel dicing, Verstappen definitively got by going into Turn 5. Those 0.7s won and lost in the pits probably made the crucial difference.

Max Verstappen overtakes Valtteri Bottas Portugal F1 2021

Hamilton was brought in a lap later and exited still over 3s in front of Verstappen. Perez meanwhile had yet to stop and was leading the race. Had there been a safety car, he’d have been able to pit and get out just ahead of Bottas. But there wasn’t. Red Bull kept him out there long enough that Hamilton had to pass him on track. Which he did with ease.

Perez was brought just 14 laps from the end, late enough for softs. He set the fastest lap of the race up to that point, but Bottas – with more than a pitstop’s worth of gap behind him – was brought three from the end for a set of softs so as to take the extra point. Mercedes did this one lap too early in that it gave Verstappen the space and time to do the same thing. Max duly shaded Bottas’s best lap but it was subsequently deleted for his having exceeded the Turn 14 track limits. Bottas kept the point.

There was a race a long way behind Mercedes and Red Bull and it was commanded all the way by Norris, once he’d finished dicing with Perez. He had Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari for company in the first stint and the sister car of Charles Leclerc at the end.

The Ferrari didn’t like the medium tyre and when Sainz pushed hard on his out-lap trying to undercut Norris it fatally damaged it, giving him ever-worsening graining, so bad that he faded out of the points.

The Alpine was good on this track this weekend, with Esteban Ocon racing on level terms with Ferrari and finishing seventh. Fernando Alonso’s disappointing qualifying allowed him to be on the best tyre strategy and on his much fresher hards he picked off a whole flurry of cars in the last 20 laps to finish on Ocon’s tail.

Fernando Alonso Alpine F1 2021 Portugal Algarve

Daniel Ricciardo had an Alonso-like race after going out in Q1 in a McLaren he’s still not comfortable with but was one of those passed by Alonso and finished ninth, ahead of Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri, unsuited to the slow corners of this place and obliged to start on the ‘wrong’ tyres courtesy of scraping into Q3.

But it’s now two races from three for Hamilton on weekends where he’s had to work at it and where the winning ingredient has been different each time.

“This weekend, I feel like maybe Red Bull lost a little bit of performance, because I don’t think we improved but from the last race to here I think they took a sidestep closer to us, for whatever reasons,” said the championship leader.

“But this is great, this is what we all live for, we live and breathe for, to get up and fight and try and pull out the smallest bits of performance to be able to fight a great competitor. With the tyres, it’s really… I guess it’s just knowledge of the tyres, really and knowing which ones you can lean on and where you can… I can’t really say too much, to be honest.”

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