The 2021 F1 Season kicked off in Bahrain, followed by the Emilia Romagna GP held at Imola three weeks later. Only a point separated Hamilton from Verstappen at the top of the standings ( after two races ), while Mercedes were seven points clear of Red Bull.
Round 3 of the Championship got held at Algarve International Circuit in Portimao, Portugal. Portimao made its debut on the F1 calendar for the first time in 2020 and is the first race of the first double-header of 2021. The circuit with its undulations and off-camber corners made racing a challenge for drivers in 2020, becoming an instant hit with the fans. The overtaking opportunities were many despite the grip levels being one of the lowest on the calendar.
While the teams made the journey from Imola to Portimao, the world was abuzz with news of the dawn of a new format of racing in F1. The FOM ( with the approval of all teams ) decided to give three race weekends a new look, beginning with Silverstone and Monza.
The changes were as under :
1) Friday would feature Free Practice 1 followed by Qualifying in the afternoon. Qualifying would follow the standard format and decide the grid for Sprint Qualifying ( Sprint Race ) that would take place on Saturday afternoon.
2) Saturday would feature Free Practice 2 in the morning, followed by Sprint Qualifying.
Sprint Qualifying, also known as Sprint Race ( unofficially ), will be a race spanning 100 km with a time duration of 30 minutes approximately. Depending on circuit length, the race would average out at 20 / 21 laps. Pit stops would be optional. The results of Sprint Qualifying would determine the grid for the race on Sunday. The top 3 finishers from Sprint Qualifying would get points ( 3, 2 and 1 ).
3) Parc Ferme conditions imposition would happen after both practice sessions.
More details on the official website :
The new format attracted mixed reactions from the fans, and it will be interesting to see whether the FOM achieve the desired results from the three trial race weekends.
In other developments, Turkey got announced as the replacement for the Canadian Grand Prix ( this year ), while Miami would host a Grand Prix from the 2022 season. Red Bull roped in the services of Ben Hodgkinson, who was previously technical head of Mercedes High-Performance Powertrains, appointing him as technical director.
Russell issued an apology following his coming together with Bottas at the Emilia Romagna GP, a crash that cost both teams an excess of 2 million pounds in replacement parts.
The entire F1 paddock gathered for a moment of silence to honour Martin Shepherd, an employee of Haas F1 who had also handled logistics in the past for Mercedes Petronas AMG. The Briton had met with a motorcycle accident in July 2019, resulting in multiple injuries and trauma to his brain. He breathed his last on 20th April, gone at the tender age of 25. Haas carried his name on the nose of both its cars as a tribute.
Hamilton would hit a century of pole positions if he came out on top on Saturday. Were Verstappen and Red Bull able to turn the tide and take the lead in the Championship, or did Hamilton and Mercedes ace it on race day? Bottas needed to get his title challenge back on track, and despite his strong showing in Portimao, the Finn finished second-best in 2020. Was he able to reduce the deficit to the early chargers?
Time for a quick recap of the Portuguese GP weekend!
Alfa Romeo announced the 2020 F2 Runner-up Callum Illot as their Reserve Driver for the season, and the Briton got the chance to participate in Free Practice 1, replacing Antonio Giovinazzi.
The driver-step on Sainz's car got dislodged at the exit of the Pit Lane at the start of FP1. The lack of grip on the circuit caused many drivers to run wide at various corners, resulting in a host of lap time deletions ( 35 in total ).
Hamilton complained about the lack of balance, with the team acknowledging that it was surface temperature related. Vettel mistakenly stopped in McLaren's garage, while Verstappen complained about vibrations from a fresh set of soft tyres on his Red Bull. It was Bottas who topped the timesheets, two-hundredths clear of Verstappen and Perez. Leclerc was 4th for Ferrari, followed by Hamilton and Gasly. 7th quickest for Russell proved that Williams was getting better with each passing day. Norris was the fastest McLaren in 8th, with Sainz and Ocon in 9th and 10th going a second slower than Bottas' time.
Stroll was 11th quickest, followed by Ricciardo and Tsunoda. Alonso managed 14th in the other Alpine, the Spaniard's representative lap time set with the hard tyres. The Aston Martin of Vettel split the Alfa Romeos of Raikkonen and Illot in 16th, while Schumacher, Latifi and Mazepin brought up the rear of the field. It was a productive FP1 for Illot, the reserve driver going 2.4 seconds than rookie Mazepin.
The start of FP2 got delayed due to a loose drain cover at turn 11. Verstappen suffered from a brake-by-wire failure early on in the session, while Latifi had an off-track excursion at turns 7 and 8. There were 30 lap time deletions in FP2, with drivers still struggling to find the limits of their cars. Mazepin's baptism by fire continued as he struggled to find his braking points and then got in the way of Perez, who was on a flying lap with soft tyres. His teammate Schumacher suffered from an engine issue but was able to continue after a change in the settings instructed by his engineer.
Hamilton was the quickest at the end of FP2, with Verstappen and Bottas a tenth and three-tenths off his pace, respectively. The Alpine cars of Alonso and Ocon split the Ferraris of Sainz and Leclerc, only two-tenths separating the quartet. Ricciardo and Stroll were 8th and 9th, more than half a second shy of Hamilton's time, while Perez completed the top 10 in the other Red Bull.
The fastest Alpha Tauri was Gasly in 11th, followed by Norris in the second McLaren. Russell was 13th for Williams, over a second slower than Hamilton's lap time. Tsunoda was 14th, Vettel 15th, followed by the Alfa Romeos of Raikkonen and Giovinazzi. Schumacher, Latifi and Mazepin remained at the back of the pack.
Friday running suggested that Mercedes had found the optimum balance and looked competitive over one lap. However, it was Red Bull who exhibited better race pace. Ferrari and Alpine continued their resurgence, but in hotly contested midfield with a few tenths separating several drivers, anything could happen on Qualifying day. There were a total of 65 lap time deletions on Friday. Track limits were something that the teams and drivers needed to be wary of in Qualifying.
FP3 got underway with the track temperature being 10 degrees cooler than that from Friday. While Alonso had his lap time deleted for exceeding track limits, Norris suffered a spin, briefly bringing out the yellow flags in sector three. Raikkonen did a complete 360 at turn 8, managing to keep his Alfa Romeo on track, but Mazepin failed to control his Haas and had a trip over the gravel. Seven different teams made up the top 10, with Verstappen topping the charts, more than two-tenths clear of Hamilton, Bottas and Perez. Ocon was 5th for Alpine, followed by the Ferraris of Leclerc and Sainz. Norris, Gasly and Raikkonen completed the top 10.
The Alpha Tauri of Tsunoda bagged 11th, while Ricciardo set the 12th quickest time, a second slower than Verstappen. Giovinazzi was 13th in the other Alfa Romeo, while Alonso's P14 wasn't indicative of his actual pace. The Spaniard, like Stroll and Vettel, set this representative lap time on the medium tyres. Schumacher was 15th for Haas, while Russell split the Aston Martins of Stroll and Vettel in 17th. Latifi and Mazepin remained two seconds off the pace in P19 and P20.
Mercedes mechanics worked frantically on Bottas' car to get it ready for Qualifying. McLaren, on the other hand, had to address an ECU issue on Norris' vehicle.
Q1 got underway with the McLaren drivers opting for medium tyres, while the rest, the softs. The drivers were fueled for multiple runs, gaining time as rubber got laid on the track. Hamilton, Leclerc, Mazepin and Raikkonen suffered from lap time deletions for exceeding track limits.
Bottas, Sainz, Perez, Verstappen, Alonso and Ocon were the top 6 while Russell, Schumacher, Latifi, Mazepin and Hamilton were in the drop zone, with nine minutes remaining. Hamilton improved to 5th, while Perez made a trip through the gravel trap at turn 4.
Sainz, Verstappen and Perez decided to stay put while the rest of the field emerged with soft tyres in the final minutes of Q1.
Bottas, Norris, Hamilton, Ocon, Sainz and Perez became the top 6 at the end of Q1 with Ricciardo, Stroll, Latifi, Schumacher and Mazepin getting eliminated.
The start of Q2 saw drivers adopting different tyre strategies. The Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull Racing, Alfa Romeo drivers and Russell chose the medium tyres at the start of Q2 while the rest opted for the softs. Once again, drivers had fuel for multiple runs. Hamilton, Bottas, Norris, Ocon, Perez and Vettel were the top 6 with Russell, Tsunoda, Sainz, Giovinazzi and Raikkonen in the drop zone halfway through the session.
Ocon, Verstappen and Perez decided to not run again in Q2, while except Leclerc, everyone else switched to the soft tyres. The lap times kept improving with track evolution, and at the end of Q2, the following drivers went through to Q3 - Hamilton, Bottas, Norris, Ocon, Verstappen, Leclerc, Sainz, Perez, Vettel and Gasly.
Russell, Giovinazzi, Alonso, Tsunoda and Raikkonen got eliminated.
It was time for the top-ten shootout, and barring Vettel, the rest emerged from the pits on soft tyres for their first runs of Q3. Verstappen was pushing hard on his first attempt and exceeded track limits at turn 4, resulting in a lap time deletion. Bottas was seven thousandths clear of Hamilton at the top, followed by Perez half a second adrift in 3rd at the end of the first runs. While Norris split the Ferraris of Sainz and Leclerc in 5th, Gasly and Ocon got the better of Vettel, who did a solitary run, out of sync with the rest of the front runners. Verstappen would get only one shot in the final minutes of Q3.
The Mercedes duo believed that they had more pace on the medium tyres, opting for those in their final run for pole position. The others persisted with the soft tyres. Verstappen kept pushing but could only manage P3, ending up four-tenths off of Bottas' first attempt. The Dutchman wasn't pleased with the way other drivers hampered his run on the flying lap. He made his displeasure known over team radio. Sainz improved to 5th, while Ocon went 6th fastest, despite hitting the kerbs. The battle for pole was now between Bottas and Hamilton, and neither improved on their final runs. Bottas grabbed pole position, seven-thousandths clear of Hamilton from his run earlier. Verstappen hung onto 3rd, with teammate Perez slotting into P4.
Sainz was 5th for Ferrari, with Ocon bagging 6th. Row 4 got occupied by Norris and Leclerc while Gasly and Vettel completed row 5.
Bottas finally stepped up on Saturday, pipping Hamilton by the slightest of margins. However, Sunday is what mattered for the Finn. Hamilton's pace on the medium tyres based on the data from Q2 was eye-opening. The upgrades brought in by Mercedes were bringing home the desired results. Red Bull had both its cars right behind Mercedes, but Verstappen rued the missed opportunity for pole position. A stellar qualifying lap by Sainz gave Ferrari the best launchpad for a good race result, while Alpine and McLaren were on the backfoot by having only a car each in the top 10. Vettel had a resurgence of sorts and hoped for a decent points haul on Sunday.
Pirelli provided C1, C2 and C3 compounds for the race. Raikkonen and Stroll chose the softs while the rest chose the mediums, outside the top 10.
The five lights went out, and it was a clean start by Bottas. Verstappen got the tow from Bottas and pressured Hamilton into turn 1, but the Briton held onto P2. Perez lost 4th to Sainz while Norris got past Ocon for 6th. Raikkonen was up two positions at the end of lap one and challenging his teammate Giovinazzi on the start-finish straight. The Finn got distracted while making a settings change and rear-ended the other Alfa Romeo, damaging the front wing, which got lodged under his car. Raikkonen was a passenger into turn one as he limped through the gravel and into retirement. The resulting debris on track forced the stewards to deploy the Safety Car.
The Safety Car pulled into the pits at the end of lap 6. Bottas had a clean getaway but delayed his restart, which allowed Verstappen to get into Hamilton's tow and past him for 2nd. Perez and Norris got past Sainz before Norris took 5th from Perez. The Mexican was once again on the back foot on the restart, which compromised his race. He reported to the team that Norris had completed an illegal overtake and requested them to report it to the race stewards. Further down the field, Russell lost three places and was down in 14th, while Stroll got past Tsunoda for 15th.
Bottas was the fastest man on track but unable to shake off Verstappen. Schumacher got past teammate Mazepin for 18th while Stroll relegated Russell to 15th. DRS got enabled on lap nine as Hamilton went the quickest and started to reduce the deficit to Verstappen. A rare error by Verstappen at turn 14 put him out of DRS, allowing Hamilton to close upon him and get past into turn one on lap 12. The Dutchman complained about the lack of straight-line speed, calling himself "a sitting duck".
Bottas, Hamilton, Verstappen, Norris, Perez, Sainz, Leclerc, Ocon, Gasly and Vettel were the top 10 at the end of lap 13.
Tsunoda got a warning for exceeding track limits at turn one before getting past Russell for P15 ( lap 14 ). Perez got past Norris for 4th ( lap 15 ), while Hamilton got within the DRS range of Bottas. The Briton then missed his braking point at turn 13, putting him outside DRS detection, which gave Bottas some respite at the front on lap 17. Vettel lost 10th to Ricciardo on lap 18 while the battle for the lead started hotting up again.
Hamilton had a better exit out of the final corner on lap 20, and with the assistance of DRS, took the lead of the Grand Prix!
Sainz was the first of the front runners to pit for a set of medium tyres on lap 22, rejoining in 15th. Tsunoda followed suit a lap later, opting for hard tyres and rejoining in P19. Norris, Ocon, Vettel and Giovinazzi were the next to pit on lap 23, with Ocon and Giovinazzi opting for the hards and Vettel and Norris choosing the softs.
Hamilton complained about tyre wear but extended his lead to 2 seconds at the front. Gasly and Latifi pitted on lap 25 for the medium and hard tyres, respectively. Meanwhile, on track, Vettel got past Schumacher for 14th. Hard tyres were the tyres of choice for Leclerc, who rejoined in 10th after his pit stop on lap 26. Ocon got past Russell for 12th, while Hamilton was the fastest man on track again. Russell lost another position to Vettel, getting relegated to 14th on lap 28. The Williams driver complained to the team that the car was undrivable. He pitted for hard tyres, rejoining in 18th on lap 29.
Hamilton, Bottas, Verstappen, Perez, Ricciardo, Alonso, Stroll, Norris, Sainz, Leclerc were the top 10 at the end of lap 33.
Schumacher lost two positions to Latifi and Russell after his switch to the hard tyres on lap 34. Ocon got past Gasly for P11 while the time for the top three to have their mandatory pit stops neared. The undercut had worked for those who had pitted earlier, and Red Bull was the first to call Verstappen in on lap 36. The Dutchman switched to hard tyres, rejoining in 4th behind his teammate Perez. It was a 2.3 seconds stop by the team. Mercedes instructed Bottas to push as they pitted a lap later to cover off the undercut. The pit stop was slower by a second, and when Bottas emerged from the pits, Verstappen was agonisingly close to overtaking him. Verstappen had his tyres up to temperature, while Bottas needed a few corners to do the same. Bottas gave too much throttle at the exit of turn 4, losing momentum out of the corner, which allowed Verstappen to get side-by-side and go past him at turn 5. Verstappen had bagged P2 for Red Bull!
Hamilton pitted on lap 38 and had a drama-free pitstop, switching to hard tyres and emerging comfortably ahead of Verstappen. Leclerc had caught up to Sainz, who was in a tyre management phase, and Ferrari decided to swap positions at turn 5. Meanwhile, at the front, Perez, who was leading the race, reported vibrations on his 43 laps old mediums. Stroll switched to the medium tyres after pitting on lap 41, while Alonso chose the hards a lap later, rejoining in 11th. Ricciardo, another driver who had a long first stint, pitted on lap 43 for hard tyres, but the Australian had missed the marker in the pit box leading to a slow stop of 4.8 seconds. He rejoined in 10th.
Hamilton started to eat into Perez's lead and was the fastest man on track. Sainz was struggling with his medium tyres and fell back into the clutches of Ocon. The Spaniard was able to rebuff the challenge for P7. Bottas had gotten his hard tyres into the operating range and was closing down the gap to Verstappen. Toto Wolff, the Mercedes Team Principal, encouraged him to keep pushing. The Finn reduced the deficit to Verstappen to 2 seconds.
The battle for P7 intensified, and Ocon finally got the job done on lap 44. Red Bull notified Perez that they wanted him to extend "Plan A" by another ten laps. The Mexican's plans almost took a hit when he closed up on Mazepin to lap him. The Russian rookie didn't oblige with the blue flags, and Perez suffered from a lock-up to avoid hitting the Haas car. The FIA flagged the incident for investigation, and Mazepin got a 5 seconds time penalty. Hamilton and Bottas continued to trade fast laps as the duo honed in on the Red Bull drivers.
Ricciardo relegated Gasly to 10th on lap 49 while Hamilton was now only 1.8 seconds behind Perez. The Briton, on his fresher tyres, made light work of Perez and retook the lead on lap 51. Alonso was setting competitive lap times further down the field in his Alpine and got past Ricciardo for P9. Perez finally pitted on lap 52, swapping to a used set of soft tyres for his final stint.
The battle for P10 was hotting up, with Ricciardo going backwards and falling into the hands of Gasly. Gasly requested Alpha Tauri to give him more power if they wanted the final points-scoring position. Meanwhile, Bottas, who had reduced the gap to Verstappen, started losing time as he lapped the backmarkers. He then lost more time on the next lap in clear air and reported power loss over team radio. Mercedes investigated the issue, and it was due to a faulty exhaust temperature sensor.
Giovinazzi got past Vettel for P12 on lap 56, while Perez was the fastest man on track. Alonso continued his charge up the field and caught up to Sainz in the battle for P8. It was job done for the former double World Champion on lap 58. At the back of the pack, Latifi was fending off a challenge by Schumacher for P17. The Aston Martin cars were sparring for 13th, and Stroll got past Vettel on lap 60. The battle for P17 was relentless as Schumacher stayed in the DRS range. However, a mistake by Latifi at turn 3 allowed the German to get ahead on lap 63.
The point for the fastest lap rested with Perez, and since Bottas had given up on challenging Verstappen for 2nd, Mercedes decided to pit him on lap 64 to regain the point. It was a free stop for Bottas, and he retained 3rd. Red Bull did the same with Verstappen a lap later, switching him to the soft tyres like Bottas. It was a record-equalling stop of 1.9 seconds. Mercedes informed Hamilton about the two pit stops behind him, but he decided against adopting the same strategy.
Sainz lost performance on his worn-out medium tyres and lost two positions to Ricciardo and Ocon, dropping out of the points on the final lap. Bottas was the fastest driver on track, and it seemed like Mercedes had succeeded in its plans. However, Verstappen went even quicker to give himself and Red Bull the extra point for the fastest lap. However, replays showed that Verstappen had exceeded track limits at turn 14, which resulted in his lap time getting deleted.
Hamilton took the Chequered Flag and his 97th Career Victory! It was also his 50th consecutive points finish. Verstappen came home in 2nd for Red Bull, with Bottas finishing in 3rd with the extra point for the fastest lap.
Perez had his best finish with Red Bull in 4th, followed by Norris in his McLaren. Leclerc was 6th for Ferrari, closely followed by the Alpines of Ocon and Alonso. An eventful weekend for Ricciardo saw him finish 9th, ahead of Gasly, who completed the top 10.
Sainz finished 11th in the other Ferrari, having gone backwards from his starting position of 5th, followed by Giovinazzi in the solitary Alfa Romeo. Vettel got past Stroll on the last lap, thanks to another mistake by Mazepin, which compromised Stroll. Vettel and Stroll finished 13th and 14th, respectively, for Aston Martin. 15th was the best that Tsunoda could manage after racing for the first time in Portugal, followed by Russell and Schumacher. Latifi was 18th in the other Williams, with Mazepin finishing in 19th and last, 72 seconds behind his teammate Schumacher ( after applying the time penalty ).
It hadn't been smooth sailing for Hamilton. Verstappen was the favourite for pole position but failed on Saturday. Hamilton then got relegated to 3rd at the Safety Car restart and had to fight his way to victory by scintillating overtakes on Verstappen and Bottas. The Briton proved why he is a seven-time World Champion. Verstappen and Red Bull huffed and puffed but fell short on race day.
There are days in a Championship when a driver has an opportunity to show his team the calibre he possesses and the hunger he has for victories and success. Bottas had that opportunity in Portugal and failed to capitalise on it. The faulty exhaust sensor also cost him a shot at 2nd in the race, causing further damage to his title aspirations. He has limited time to turn things around and hasn't won in the past 19 races. Perez is slowly getting to grips with life at Red Bull and would be pivotal, not just in the upcoming races but also in the title battle. The Mexican put in a commendable stint of 53 laps on the medium tyres, the longest by any driver in the race.
McLaren didn't have high expectations from the Portuguese GP, but they would be glad about a double-points finish, something their competitor Ferrari wasn't able to achieve. Norris sits 3rd in the Championship, having made a good start in 2021, but Ricciardo is yet to find his feet. Leclerc was efficient in Portugal, but a strategy howler cost Sainz and Ferrari dearly. The Italian marquee must iron out these mistakes if they yearn to be the third-best team on the grid. Alpine had a bitter-sweet Saturday, but its drivers more than made up for it on Sunday. Ocon and Alonso's double-points finish promoted them to 5th in the Constructors' Championship. Alpha Tauri, thanks to Gasly, didn't leave Portugal empty-handed. They are locked in an intense battle with Alpine and Aston Martin and need Tsunoda to step up as well.
Aston Martin continues to struggle with the new regulations, and despite Vettel's heroics on Saturday, they left Portimao with both cars outside the points. Giovinazzi carried the burdens of Alfa Romeo single-handedly after a rare mistake by Raikkonen at the end of the opening lap. Thankfully, for the Italian, he didn't suffer damage from the contact, but it had been a weekend full of struggles for the team. Alfa Romeo won the right to review Raikkonen's penalty from Imola ( previous race ), but the decision got upheld, and they are yet to score a point in 2021. Russell has been brilliant on Saturdays but fades away in races. Despite qualifying 11th, the Williams driver kept falling backwards, complaining that the car was undrivable, something that the team needs to address at the earliest. Schumacher's calibre in wheel-to-wheel racing was on full display, and the F2 Champion came out on top against Latifi. He is slowly coming up to speed, and this augurs well for Haas F1. Mazepin failed to have an incident-free race, and the penalty for ignoring blue flags added to his woes. The concerns surrounding his racing ethics remain, but he has the team's backing for now.
The F1 circus now travels east, to Barcelona, for the Catalunya GP, which will complete the first double-header of the season. The track, which has played host to pre-season tests and races every year, is one of the most challenging on the calendar, amplifying weaknesses, if any, in a car. Only 8 points separate Hamilton and Verstappen in the standings, and it could soon become a two-horse race.