More often than not, Lewis Hamilton out-drives Valtteri Bottas. This time, he out-thought him. But the result was the same.
Hamilton took his ninth pole position in 12 races this year at the Portuguese Grand Prix. His Mercedes team-mate was left ruing his error in making the wrong decision on the strategy call inside the garage that almost certainly was the difference between pole and second.
It came down to tyres – and more specifically how to use them.
The undulating Autodromo do Algarve, hosting its first ever F1 race, has revealed its secrets slowly over a disrupted weekend, a newly relaid surface and windy conditions creating some odd phenomena for teams and drivers to get their heads around.
For one thing, the medium tyre was proving faster than the soft – at least for some teams. Mercedes, not for the first time this season, have chosen it for the race, and so has Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, in an impressive fourth on the grid for the second race in a row.
Not only that, but Hamilton and Bottas decided to run the medium for their pole laps, too. In theory, the tyre should be more than 0.5secs slower than the soft, but on the Mercedes it just wasn’t. They could not get the softs up to temperature at the same time across front and rear axles, and the medium was simply faster.
Where the Mercedes drivers differed was in how to run the tyres. For their final attempts, they were given the choice of one flying lap, or two, with a lap in between to charge the battery.
Again, in theory, one lap should be quicker – the tyres are brand new. But Hamilton had a feeling that they would be quicker on their second lap. It had looked that way at various times over the weekend, and it was again. The extra heat in them more than counter-balanced the loss of peak rubber when it came to grip levels.
It was a thrilling end to qualifying. Bottas had been quickest after their first runs in the final session – for which both Mercedes drivers had the soft tyre.
Switching to the mediums, Hamilton’s first lap took pole. Bottas took it back with his sole flying lap, only for Hamilton to snatch it back by just over 0.1 seconds with his second.
“Valtteri has been quickest all weekend,” Hamilton said. “I didn’t know whether I could get a lap that would compete with his but the last good decision I took at the end was what created the opportunity.
“We both had the opportunity to choose between the soft and medium, which is counter-intuitive, and the idea of having an extra stab at pole looked good to me so I chose the extra lap.
“He still did a great job but I had to dig very deep. Nailed the last sector but still very close.
“It doesn’t feel like the rubber is going down at all. The first lap wasn’t that good for me but luckily the temperatures were just right on the second lap and that’s where I was able to make the difference.”
“Knowing you have the pace,” Bottas said, “it is annoying but that’s how it is. But the race is tomorrow and I know I have the speed.”
Well, maybe. In fact, discounting the Italian and Russian Grands Prix, where Hamilton was given penalties, Bottas has beaten Hamilton only once this year when the Briton has started from pole.
Even on the three occasions on which Bottas has been ahead on the grid, he has finished in front of Hamilton only once.
So, it does not bode well for a Bottas victory at Portimao on Sunday.
There is intrigue and uncertainty ahead of the race, nonetheless.
While the Mercedes have medium tyres for the start, Verstappen in third is on the softs. In theory, these should give him more grip in the opening laps.
“It’s going to be a very tricky race with the harder tyre that doesn’t work for several laps,” Hamilton said. “It will be interesting at the beginning. We will lose a bit of performance to Max and the guys behind on the softs. I don’t know what to expect. Safety car restarts will be really difficult with the tyres. It’s going to be a tough race.”
There is also a threat of rain to potentially mix things up. Not that wet weather normally causes Hamilton any concerns. Not much does these days, it seems.
Win number 92 for Hamilton, and a new all-time record of victories, looks the most likely outcome.
Racing Point not making any friends
Lance Stroll missed the last race because of an illness that turned out to be coronavirus – a diagnosis that, on the face of it at least, seems to have surprised no-one other than those in his team.
The Canadian is back in the car this weekend in Portugal, but Racing Point’s handling of the situation is still making waves up and down the pit lane.
A number of rivals are annoyed at what they see as Racing Point’s cavalier approach to coronavirus.
Only two drivers have tested positive this year – and they are both from that team, Stroll’s case following Sergio Perez contracting it in the summer, after a visit back to Mexico, a Covid hotspot, to see his mother.
On top of that, Racing Point’s public statements on Stroll’s situation have been contradictory and opaque.
Rival teams, who have taken a more transparent approach, have not been impressed, because this season was only able to start as a result of F1’s reassurances to national governments that it would take every possible measure to minimise the risk with coronavirus.
They’re taking it seriously, they observe privately, but it looks like Racing Point are not.
Racing Point team boss Otmar Szafnauer has insisted his team could not be doing more, saying they test more than any organisation in the world.
But this does not seem to tally with the fact that Stroll was displaying at the Nurburgring symptoms that are on the list of possible indicators for coronavirus, yet they did not test him, insisting that his doctor said they were not coronavirus symptoms, and that they were “confident” he did not have it. Only for him to test positive once he got home.
It did not help, either, that Szafnauer gave one version of Stroll’s symptoms at the last race, and another this weekend.
Nor have people been impressed by Racing Point not revealing Stroll’s positive test until nine days after he had it.
All of this appears to be a clear breach of F1’s Covid code – and yet the FIA has issued only a reminder of their responsibilities, which is another issue raising eyebrows.
All this led to a withering response from McLaren Racing chief executive officer Zak Brown in Friday’s news conference.
“When in Australia, we had someone that didn’t feel well,” Brown said. “(McLaren team principal) Andreas (Seidl) and I aren’t doctors but we took the very quick decision to isolate and then once the test came back positive, isolate the team and ultimately we knew that would shut us down for the race.
“So, I know the doctor didn’t think a test was positive. Maybe in hindsight that should be different. I don’t know who the doctor was. Don’t know if it was Dr Mallya, Dr Seuss… maybe it was Dr Dre.”
What Brown and others want to see from Racing Point is more transparency, and an acceptance that they have got this one wrong, and need to be seen to take the situation more seriously. As yet, that has not happened.
Driver market up in the air
The Portuguese Grand Prix weekend started with the news that Haas are making a complete change of their driver line-up, dropping both Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen next year.
This has led to a typical F1 ‘silly season’ weekend, in which all manner of driver swaps have been discussed.
Haas, ironically, seem relatively settled – it seems, at least at this stage, that they are likely to end up with Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin, both graduating from Formula 2.
There are questions marks over a number of teams for 2021.
George Russell’s future at Williams has come under the spotlight, despite the fact he has a contract, because Perez is sniffing around for a seat with plenty of Mexican backing, following Racing Point’s decision to sign Sebastian Vettel.
Williams acting team principal Simon Roberts inadvertently added fuel to the fire, when he refused to commit the team to running both Russell and Nicholas Latifi next year when asked in the official news conference.
Despite this, the word from inside Williams is that they are not pushing for a change, and have not approached Perez.
And on Saturday, Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff, who manages Russell as a Mercedes young driver, said the situation was “not looking bad” for the promising Briton, who again excelled in qualifying on Saturday.
Perez is one of the contenders for the second seat at Red Bull, where Alex Albon is under pressure. The other candidate there is Nico Hulkenberg, who has impressed on his three substitute appearances for Racing Point this season.
Team boss Christian Horner said: “We want Alex to claim that seat and justify that there is no need to look at any other alternative than Alex.
“He’s had a couple of difficult weekends so he needs to bounce back here and particularly Imola with a strong weekend from start to finish. We need two cars closer together in order to fight the Mercedes.”
Elsewhere, Daniil Kvyat’s future at Alpha Tauri – and therefore in F1 – looks shaky. While the latest info on Alfa Romeo is that Kimi Raikkonen will stay and that Ferrari are minded to give Antonio Giovinazzi another season to prove his potential.