Formula 1 news: Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes flex mental muscles as Alonso flashes Alpine promise
After a fascinating Formula 1 Grand Prix in Portimao, Pete Sharland looks back on some of the key talking points. Namely, Lewis Hamilton flexing his mental muscles (as well as his prodigious overtaking skills) and Max Verstappen's track limit woes. Plus was this the turning point for Fernando Alonso and the rebranded Alpine Racing team?
Race winner Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates with sparkling wine on the podium during the F1 Grand Prix of Portugal at Autodromo Internacional Do Algarve
The Portuguese Grand Prix was perhaps not the most exciting race Formula 1 has ever seen, particularly when compared to the drama of the first two races of the 2021 season, but it was an excellent reminder of one thing: just how fine the margins are in this sport.
There were three instances during the race where those fine margins were in effect.
The first came right at the start. After an early safety car following a Kimi Raikkonen crash, race leader Valtteri Bottas surprisingly pulled away from the car behind him, team-mate Lewis Hamilton. The Brit was then overtaken by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in a frantic start.
“It was interesting,” Hamilton said in the press conference after the race, which he won after a couple of brilliant overtakes. “Because I was naturally focusing on Valtteri and literally, just for a split second, I looked in my mirror just to see where Max was and in that split second, that’s when Valtteri went.
“And so, I lost out to Valtteri and that wasn’t great! Then, I was in Valtteri’s tow, and [Verstappen] was about to pull out, and I pulled out and gave [him] Valtteri’s tow.
And I was like ‘you idiot!’ to myself.
“Then, after that, being behind [these] two – what a great track, it enabled us to fight close in that first stint, I think that’s really what the fans want. That’s definitely what I want from a racing point of view.
Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes), Max Verstappen (Red Bull) - GP of Portugal 2021
Image credit: Getty Images
“This track was really great because you can have different lines at certain corners – a bit like Austin. So, it was really awesome.”
It might not be a viewed shared by his title rival Verstappen, who struggled with pace all day and couldn’t find an answer to Hamilton.
Late on Verstappen joined Bottas and his Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez in pitting onto softs to try and steal the fastest lap point. The Dutchman thought he had done it only to be informed during the post-race chat that he had been stripped for a track infringement.
“Oh really? That’s a good one,” Verstappen said.
Max Verstappen (Red Bull), Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) - GP of Portugal 2021
Image credit: Getty Images
“That is a bit odd, because they were not checking track limits at Turn 14, but whatever.”
Sorry Max, but they were checking, in fact it was brought in before qualifying so either there’s been a catastrophic lack of communication within the team or, more likely, Verstappen is deflecting. He is now eight points behind Hamilton in the driver standings and as Red Bull advisor Marko Helmut pointed out, the track limits have not been kind to the energy drinks team this season.
"Now we've lost the victory, fastest lap, and pole position," Marko said on Sky Sports Germany after the race. "All good things come in threes. I hope that's the end of it. Something has to change. Either you make a boundary with kerbs or you make gravel or something. If you go out, there's an automatic penalty.
"[Lando] Norris overtook [Sergio] Perez, went over with all four wheels, and there were no consequences. So it's not consistent, and that's not racing when you juggle the rules like that."
Perez was not happy afterwards, saying that he thought Norris would be called for an infringement and his subsequent lack of fight for position may have cost him a podium. He’s not necessarily wrong but the old football adage of playing to the whistle comes to mind. Of course it’s not as simple in a sport like Formula 1, where fuel and tyre management is critical, but either we need quicker reactions for the FIA or drivers are going to have to assume the worse in those tight situations.
The final fine-margin moment is actually two moments. Both McLarens suffered longer than ideal pit stops. In the end it didn’t necessarily matter for Lando Norris as he took his third top-five race of the season but his team-mate, Daniel Ricciardo, lost a handful of places during the pit. The latter was certainly more on Ricciardo than his pit-crew, and he apologised over radio afterwards, but a quicker pit could have been extremely interesting.
A ninth-placed finish is a great result given the Australian’s terrible qualifying but this had the feeling of a Carlos Sainz-esque moment, where the Mexican came from last to P4, and eventually P3, in Brazil in 2019. That may have a bit out of reach for Ricciardo but the Alpines, and possibly Charles Leclerc, felt targetable in better circumstances.
Alonso back in business
Speaking of Alpines, let’s finish with some Fernando Alonso love shall we? Before this season the last we saw of Alonso was him bowing out in a sad finish in a slow McLaren car. This season he is back in a Renault - which has familiar blue livery but a new name.
For the first two weekends it looked like a horrible return for Alonso, but in Portugal it all started come together. Alonso ended P8 and there was some glorious radio commentary when he overtook first Ricciardo and then Sainz, saying “who’s next?”
Speaking after the race on the radio Alonso apologised, saying that the car was better than eighth position, and in the paddock the Spaniard was clearly the happiest we’ve seen for a while.
“Very happy with the weekend in general, how the team performed, how the car performed. We were fighting with one Ferrari and one McLaren this was unthinkable in Imola or Bahrain so well done to the team.”
Team-mate Esteban Ocon was one ahead in P7 and has been consistently outperforming Alonso. There are two good drivers in what are clearly decent cars - Alpine could start aiming even higher.
The grid now heads to Barcelona and Red Bull certainly have their work cut out. Any talk of Hamilton slipping or perhaps not being up for the fight are clearly extremely premature. The car is far from perfect, if slightly quicker than Red Bull in the straights, but Hamilton is showing every ounce of his mastery at the moment.
Whilst the top two are pulling away from the pack the midfield race is fascinating at the moment. If McLaren or Ferrari can take a step forward in the next few weeks we could be in for some serious racing.