2020 is the year of new races and new tracks in F1. Portimao, a town in the Algarve Region of Southern Portugal became the host for the Portuguese Grand Prix. The country returned to the F1 stage after a 24 years hiatus, this time at the Autodromo Internacional do Algarve!
The circuit had never hosted an F1 race before, and the new entrant promised drivers and fans a "roller-coaster" experience thanks to its multiple gradient changes and high-speed turns. The Portugues GP also saw the return of the Paddock Club, the hospitality experience offered by the sport to its high-flying guests.
Drivers and teams were excited for the challenge that lay before them after the completion of their Thursday track walks.
Off-track, news broke out that Haas F1 would not be continuing with Grosjean and Magnussen in 2021 and Stroll had tested positive for COVID-19 post the Eifel GP weekend, but had recovered in time and deemed fit to race in Portugal. Meanwhile, Racing Point retained Hulkenberg as a Reserve / Backup driver in case of an emergency.
Hamilton could become the most successful driver in the history of the sport if he clinched another victory. Bottas had to ensure a clean, flawless and trouble-free weekend if he wanted to sustain his fight for the title. Ferrari got new diffuser upgrades with the hope of getting back into the top six ( in Qualifying ) consistently.
Time for a recap of the weekend!
Free Practice 1 got underway with cloudy skies. FP1 would see teams and drivers do track induction runs, learning the limits of their car with the optimum racing lines and braking points. It was quite a slippery surface, and several drivers suffered spins or had off-track moments. Bottas set the fastest time of FP1, three-tenths clear of Hamilton and Verstappen. Leclerc split the Red Bull drivers while Sainz was P6 in his McLaren. Perez was P7 with Raikkonen, Ricciardo and Gasly completing the top 10. A mechanic issue for Gasly cut short his FP1. Vettel was 11th in the other Ferrari, a second slower than his team-mate. Norris and Kvyat were 12th and 13th in the sister McLaren and Alpha-Tauri while Magnussen set the 14th fastest time in his Haas. Stroll could only manage P15 followed closely by Giovinazzi and Grosjean. Ocon split the two Williams at the back, his session cut short due to a Power-Unit issue.
Pirelli decided to run their new prototype tyres in Free Practice 2 and what followed was an incident-packed session. Verstappen and Stroll had a coming together at turn 1, the contact causing both to retire from the session. Stroll was on back-to-back flying laps when Verstappen had started one of his own. The incident attracted the attention of the stewards, but no driver incurred any penalty.
Grosjean had a run across the gravel while Perez, Sainz and Kvyat suffered spins. Vettel had to take avoiding action from rear-ending Latifi on his timed lap before suffering a spin at turn 14 himself. Drivers complained about the lack of grip in FP2 as well with more drama unfolding halfway into the session. Gasly lost power and stopped by the side of the track; soon enough the back of his Alpha Tauri was ablaze, and the session was red-flagged for the safe extrication of his car. Bottas set the fastest lap of the session again, half a second clear of Verstappen and Norris.
Leclerc was P4, the only other driver within a second of Bottas' time. Sainz split the Ferraris to make it both McLarens in the top six. It was 7th for Gasly at the end of FP2 with Hamilton managing only the 8th fastest time. Ocon and Albon completed the top 10. Russell put in a stonking lap in his Williams to go P11 ahead of Perez and Ricciardo. Latifi was 14th in the other Williams with Raikkonen being the fastest customer Ferrari car ahead of Magnussen and Kvyat. The rear of the field got completed by Grosjean, Stroll and Giovinazzi.
It had been an eventful Friday for the teams. The track remained a challenge, and the drivers needed to make the most of FP3 to ensure the best possible setup for Qualifying and Race. Mercedes remained the team to beat with Ferrari showing a marked improvement. It looked like Red Bull was the only challenger for victory with Racing Point having the measure of Renault and McLaren in the midfield battle.
Bottas edged out Hamilton in Free Practice 3 with Verstappen slotting in in third, less than two-tenths down on medium tyres. Gasly split the Red Bulls while Leclerc finished in the top 6 despite a spin. The midfield battle raged on with Sainz, Perez, Norris and Ocon separated by less than half a second. Only eight-tenths of a second covered the lower half of the field with Kvyat almost matching Vettel's time in 12th. Kimi Raikkonen was 13th for Alfa Romeo with Ricciardo managing 14th; the Australian struggling from DRS malfunction. Lock-ups were a common occurrence and Russell flat-spotted a set of soft tyres en route to the 15th fastest time while Stroll languished in 16th. Giovinazzi, Magnussen, Latifi and Grosjean completed the rear of the field.
The session got cut short after a drain cover came loose at turn 14 under Vettel's car. The FIA decided to inspect all the drainage covers to ensure safety before going into Qualifying.
Track Limits was another challenge for drivers with several lap time deletions throughout the three practice sessions, and it seemed that drivers would need multiple runs on a single set of tyres to extract the optimal lap time.
Qualifying got delayed by 35 minutes as track repairs got carried out under the watchful eyes of the FIA Stewards.
Everyone chose the soft tyres at the start of Q1, and there was enough fuel on board for multiple attempts. Verstappen ran wide at his first attempt but was able to set the 2nd fastest time, marginally behind the Mercedes duo. Perez, Leclerc and Gasly completed the top 6 with Grosjean, Raikkonen, Russell, Magnussen and Latifi in the elimination zone. The top 5 and Ricciardo opted to not run again in Q1. Raikkonen improved to 15th, and Giovinazzi got knocked out of Q1. Russell was on a great lap and pipped Raikkonen to 15th and made it into Q2!
Raikkonen, Giovinazzi, Grosjean, Magnussen and Latifi got eliminated while Hamilton, Verstappen, Bottas, Gasly, Perez and Leclerc were the top 6 at the end of Q1.
Mercedes and Ferrari opted for the medium tyres at the start of Q2 while the rest of the field chose softs. Ocon stayed put choosing to go "out of sync" with the rest. Traffic became an issue for a few drivers as they battled for track position. Hamilton was one such driver to have his lap compromised. The top 6 after the first runs were Bottas, Perez, Norris, Verstappen, Gasly and Albon with Hamilton, Sainz, Vettel, Leclerc and Ocon in the drop zone. Vettel improved to 10th while Leclerc got up to 6th with his multiple runs. Hamilton suffered a lock-up and set the 2nd fastest time, albeit with compromised tyres. The top 6 now changed to Bottas, Hamilton, Verstappen, Perez, Sainz and Norris while Ocon, Stroll, Kvyat, Vettel and Russell were looking at elimination.
Everyone was out again with less than three minutes left on the clock, the Mercedes and Ferrari drivers opting for medium tyres once more. Russell improved to 14th, but Vettel wasn't able to go faster and ended up in 15th! In the dying minutes of the session, Ricciardo lost control at turn 11 and ended up in the gravel, his rear wing making contact with the barriers. He managed to keep the car going and limped back to the pits. Bottas, Hamilton, Verstappen, Perez, Sainz and Norris were the top 6 at the end of Q2 with Ocon, Stroll, Kvyat, Russell and Vettel bowing out of Qualifying.
Gasly stayed in the pits at the start of Q3 with Albon switching to medium tyres. The rest of the field ( bar Ricciardo ) came out on soft tyres for the final shootout. Bottas was on provisional pole, four-hundredths of a second clear of Hamilton with Verstappen a tenth further adrift. Leclerc was 4th for Ferrari from Perez, Albon, Norris and Sainz. Gasly joined the rest for their final runs while Ricciardo stayed put in the pits as Renault went about a rear-wing swap. He wasn't able to take part in Q3 and would start P10. The Mercedes drivers were out on medium tyres for their final run as well with Hamilton exiting the pits half a minute earlier than Bottas. The duo had fuel for a couple of runs and Hamilton went the fastest with less than two minutes left on the clock. Bottas snatched it back, but Hamilton had another flying lap still.
The Briton extracted the maximum out of his tyres and snatched pole, a tenth clear of Bottas! Verstappen pushed hard but was unable to get close to the Mercedes. P4 got bagged by Leclerc in the Ferrari while Perez and Albon completed row 3 of the grid. It was an all-McLaren 4th row with Gasly and Ricciardo completing the top 10 for the start of the race.
Hamilton had aced it when it mattered, bagging the 97th pole position of his career along the way. Bottas had led all the practice sessions leading into Qualifying but come up short again. Verstappen remained the "best of the rest" while Leclerc had put in a stellar drive to give Ferrari a fighting chance on Sunday. The midfield battle was tight as ever with Racing Point, Renault and McLaren. Russell finally made it into Q2 in 2020 and hoped for his first points finish while Vettel would face a long afternoon come Sunday. Alfa Romeo and Haas F1 seemed destined to remain backmarkers.
Perez had impeded Gasly in Q3 and picked up a reprimand for the same.
C1, C2 and C3 were the tyre options provided by Pirelli for the race. Raikkonen was the only driver outside the top 10 to choose the soft tyres while Magnussen did the same with the hard tyres. The rest of the drivers in the latter half started with the medium tyres.
The skies were overcast, and there was rain forecasted during the race. A drizzle hit the circuit just before the formation lap, and the drivers did their best to bring their tyres up to temperatures for the race start.
The race got underway, and Hamilton had a clean start off the line. Bottas and Verstappen went wheel to wheel with the latter momentarily getting past. However, Bottas gathered himself and retook P2 a couple of corners later. Verstappen was all over the place and missed his braking points a couple of times allowing Perez to close in on him. Perez tried a move around the outside, but the Dutchman tagged the rear left tyre of Perez's car sending him into a spin. The Mexican limped back to the pits for a front wing change, new tyres and the incident got flagged for investigation. The stewards deemed it as "no action necessary" a few laps later.
There was plenty of action happening throughout the field with Bottas getting past Hamilton who seemed to be going slower than usual. Sainz went wheel to wheel with Verstappen and got past. He was then up into second with a move on Hamilton! Norris relegated Verstappen to P5 while Raikkonen had made up nine places on the opening lap and pressurizing Leclerc for P6.
The drivers who had started on the soft tyres had their tyres in the operating temperatures and making up places in the early stages of the race.
Sainz got past Bottas to take the lead of the race on the 2nd lap while Raikkonen overtook Leclerc for P6 in a three-way battle. He briefly got past Verstappen only for the latter to recover his position a corner later. Albon lost two places to Stroll and Ocon, getting relegated to P12. Sainz was pulling away in the lead and set the fastest lap of the race while Albon got past Ocon for P11.
Those on the medium tyres were now getting back into the game and Bottas set the fastest lap on lap 5. Verstappen retook P4 from Norris while Bottas caught up and got past Sainz to reclaim the lead. The track was dry again, and Leclerc was past Ricciardo for P7 while Hamilton relegated Sainz to 3rd, and Kvyat overtook Latifi for 17th a lap later.
More overtakes followed in the next few laps with Verstappen getting past Sainz for P3, Leclerc overtaking Raikkonen for P6 ( lap 8 ) and then Norris for 5th ( lap 9 ). Raikkonen was falling back into the clutches of the faster cars with Ricciardo and Gasly relegating him to 9th while Kvyat got past Grosjean for P16.
Bottas set the fastest lap of the race while Stroll received a Black and White flag for exceeding track limits. Verstappen came on the radio and communicated to his team that the front left tyre was running out of life. Gasly overtook Ricciardo for 7th while Raikkonen lost 9th to Stroll on lap 11. Leclerc retook 4th from Sainz a lap later, and Raikkonen decided to ditch the soft tyres for a fresh set of mediums, rejoining in last.
Meanwhile, battles continued up and down the field with Vettel relegating Giovinazzi to 14th, Gasly getting past Norris for 6th and Stroll overtaking Ricciardo for 8th.
Bottas, Hamilton, Verstappen, Leclerc, Sainz, Gasly, Norris, Stroll, Ricciardo and Ocon were the top 10 at the end of lap 14.
Ricciardo pitted on lap 15 and switched to the medium tyres, rejoining in 19th. Russell overtook Giovinazzi for 12th while Perez began his charge up the field with a pass on Grosjean for 15th. The battle for P5 was hotting up between Sainz and Gasly while Stroll was contending with Norris for 7th. Stroll got into the slip-stream on the pit straight and with DRS assistance tried to get past Norris. However, he missed his braking point, going over the kerbs and trying an impractical move on the outside at turn 1. He failed to leave a car's width, and the duo made contact with Stroll spinning around. Both suffered floor and front wing damage and had to return to the pits for repairs ( lap 18 ). They switched to the hard tyres, and the incident got investigated by the stewards. Stroll got a five seconds time penalty for his misdemeanour.
Meanwhile, at the front, Hamilton was honing in on Bottas, and the lead changed hands on lap 19! He quickly got out of DRS range and started to build a gap at the front.
Albon pitted on lap 20 for a set of medium tyres, rejoining in 18th. Gasly got past Sainz for 5th while Perez overtook Kvyat for P11. The Mexican was back into the points with a move on Giovinazzi a lap later. Verstappen pitted on lap 24 for medium tyres and rejoined in 6th. Hamilton was pulling away at the front and set the fastest lap of the race on lap 25. There was a slew of pit stops over the next couple of laps with Latifi, Grosjean, Kvyat and Vettel switching to the hard tyres and Sainz switching to the mediums. Ricciardo and Raikkonen got past Magnussen, relegating him to 12th while Gasly and Giovinazzi pitted for the medium and hard tyres, respectively.
Hamilton set another fastest lap on lap 30 and was now leading Bottas by almost 8 seconds. Grosjean was the next driver to receive a Black and White flag for exceeding track limits, and the stewards didn't shy away from dishing out a 5 seconds time penalty to Stroll for repeating the same infringement for the fourth time. Ricciardo got past Gasly for 8th while Giovinazzi and Grosjean went wheel-to-wheel for P16, but the Italian didn't relent. His team-mate Raikkonen put up a stoic defence for 10th while fending off Sainz while Magnussen pitted on lap 33 after losing 12th to Albon. He rejoined in 18th with a fresh set of medium tyres.
Bottas reported about a warning on his dash to cool the car while Sainz finally got past Raikkonen for P10 on lap 34. The duo had displayed sensational wheel-to-wheel racing. Perez and Ocon showcased a version of their own as they battled for P5 which Perez finally bagged on lap 35. Leclerc pitted from 3rd for a set of hard tyres, rejoining in 4th while Stroll switched to the soft tyres ( lap 36 ). Grosjean overtook Kvyat for 16th while Latifi held onto P18 while defending from Magnussen. Russell pitted for hard tyres and rejoined in 14th only to lose it to Giovinazzi a few corners later.
Hamilton was happy with the health of his tyres, but the team called him into the pits on lap 41 to switch to the hard tyres. Bottas who was due for a stop on the next lap requested for the soft tyres, but the request got denied. Grosjean was the next driver to get a 5 seconds time penalty for exceeding track limits, and McLaren informed Norris about a slow puncture on his car. He switched to a set of medium tyres on lap 45, rejoining in 17th. Kvyat got flagged for investigation for ignoring blue flags while Hamilton set the fastest lap on lap 45. Gasly overtook Ricciardo for 7th while Perez made his second stop of the race, rejoining in 6th with a set of soft tyres.
Bottas was having difficulty getting his hard tyres up to temperature, and Verstappen was slowly closing in on him. Albon pitted again on lap 48, this time for soft tyres, rejoining in 12th while Sainz got past Ricciardo for P8. Ocon was the only driver who hadn't pitted and was still setting competitive lap times on the worn set of mediums. Bottas finally got his tyres working for him and set the fastest time on lap 49. Russell got past Giovinazzi for P13 on lap 51 while Vettel who was closing in on Raikkonen for the final points-scoring position suffered a massive lock-up causing flat spots on his hard tyres. The extensive damage on Stroll's car from his contact earlier forced the team to retire the car on lap 54 while Ocon finally pitted for a set of soft tyres, rejoining in 8th.
Kvyat got a 5 seconds time penalty for exceeding track limits multiple times while Vettel got past Raikkonen for P10 on lap 55. The infringements caused by the drivers with regards to track limits didn't end with Norris getting served a Black and White flag this time. He, however, managed to get past Giovinazzi for P14. Hamilton retook the point for the fastest lap while Kvyat pitted for the soft tyres, serving his penalty during the pit stop and rejoining in 19th ( lap 57 ). Hamilton reported that he was suffering from cramps on his right leg ( lap 58 ), having to lift off multiple times to ease off the pressure on his leg. However, that didn't stop him from lapping Perez, who was running in 5th on lap 59. Norris relegated Russell to 14th while McLaren informed Sainz about some light rain in the pit lane.
Hamilton's blistering pace continued with two more fastest laps while the battle for 5th was hotting up between Perez and Gasly. Bout one went to Perez who gave no quarters and shut the door on Gasly into turn 1. A lap later, on 65, Gasly tried a move on the outside of Perez. He succeeded and was up into P5. The defence put up by Perez didn't go down well with the stewards who initiated an investigation, handing him another reprimand on the weekend post-race. He was now one reprimand away from copping a ten-place grid penalty. The Mexican had lost performance in his soft tyres and was falling back into the clutches of Sainz. He got relegated to 7th on the final lap.
Hamilton took the chequered flag and the 92nd win of his career to become the most successful driver in the history of the sport having surpassed the great Michael Schumacher. Bottas came home in 2nd, 25.5 seconds adrift of his team-mate to complete another 1-2 finish for Mercedes. It was Verstappen who was 3rd again, having suffered some hiccups at the start. Leclerc drove a stellar race to come home in 4th, having aced his race strategy, the updates working well for him.
Alpha Tauri had a strong weekend with Gasly in 5th while 6th was the best Sainz could accomplish having led the race for a few laps at the start. A brilliant recovery drive from Perez after his first lap contact with Verstappen saw him come home in 7th while Ocon finished ahead of Ricciardo and Vettel who completed the top 10.
Raikkonen finished just outside the points in 11th, a shame after having made up ten places on the opening lap thanks to his monster start. The Iceman once again showed that there was no substitute for experience. He was impeccable, both in attack and defence and the "Driver of the Day" for me. Albon had a tough race, getting bogged down at the start and then running a compromised strategy to produce yet another lacklustre performance in 12th. The damage sustained from contact with Stroll meant that Norris couldn't do better than 13th while Russell came home in 14th, his first point in F1 eluding him. Giovinazzi was 15th in the other Alfa Romeo followed by the Haas drivers, Latifi and Kvyat who completed the classified finishers.
Hamilton had dominated once he took the lead from Bottas. The Finn had no answer and is now 77 points behind in a Championship which seems done and dusted. Hamilton had lapped everyone up until 5th, an occurrence rarely seen in F1. Mercedes has one hand on the Constructors' Championship with another 1-2 finish. Verstappen had lapped his team-mate Albon in the race, something that doesn't augur well for the latter. Red Bull needs both its drivers to be fighting at the sharp end of the field, and it remains to be seen whether Albon would stay or leave at the end of 2020.
The upgrades brought in by Ferrari seemed to work well for Leclerc, but the travails that Vettel faces in 2020 don't seem to go away. Renault failed to score more points than rivals Racing Point and McLaren despite having both cars in the top 10. Alpha Tauri and Alfa Romeo are improving with each race, and Raikkonen deserved to be in points for the performance he had put in on Sunday. Williams and Haas had another disappointing weekend and need to keep working hard if they want to offload the tag of "backmarkers".
Round 13 of the 2020 F1 Season will take place in Imola, known as the home circuit of Ferrari in the Emilia-Romagna region. The teams face an added challenge with the weekend being only a two-day event ( thanks to logistical challenges ) consisting of only one practice session. It will be interesting to see how the teams complete their qualifying and race simulation programs on a truncated weekend.
Hamilton is on track to match Schumacher's record of 7 World Championships, and if he renews his contract at Mercedes ( which should be a no-brainer ), will be favourite to lift the title again in 2021.
The thought of a driver breaking Schumacher's record of 91 race victories was a far fetched one, but as the famous saying goes, "Records are meant to be broken!"
On to Imola!