Formula 1 returned to Portugal for the first time since 1996 but it would be the first-ever Grand Prix at the Algarve circuit in Portimao. The circuit features a lot of variation in elevation with some interesting sequences of corners. During free practice on Friday, the teams also learned that they would have to deal with constantly changing winds and the drivers understood that the inconsistent track conditions would keep them on their toes. 

Friday’s practice sessions were quite eventful. In the first session, almost everyone had a spin or an off as the teams came to terms with the challenges of the Algarve. In the second session, we saw Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri catch fire bringing his session to an end. The highlight of Friday was to see Max Verstappen collide with Lance Stroll. Max was down the inside of Lance into Turn 1 and even though he didn’t make the overtake, he was alongside the Racing Point. Stroll didn’t seem to notice the massive Red Bull down the inside and turned in, not leaving any room for Max. The Dutchman had some choice words for his Canadian peer who continues to un-impress.

Qualifying was more-or-less as one expects this year: two Mercedes on the front row. Valtteri Bottas was quicker in all practice sessions but it was Lewis Hamilton who took Pole position. Max was third fastest while teammate Alex Albon started sixth on the grid. Charles Leclerc continues to impress as he squeezes out all he can from his handicapped SF1000 to start fourth on the grid. Sergio Perez was fifth fastest at this unfamiliar circuit and a lot quicker than his teammate. The fourth-row on the grid was taken up by McLaren with Carlos Sainz just pipping Lando Norris. Pierre Gasly was ninth fastest and while Ricciardo was able to reach Q3, he didn’t get to set a fast time and started tenth on the grid.

It was surprisingly cold and damp on Sunday afternoon as the lights went out for the Portimao GP. This change in conditions allowed us to witness one of the most interesting first lap of an F1 race in ages. Hamilton got off the line well as did Verstappen who managed to get his nose ahead of Bottas as they braked for Turn 1 with Charles down the inside line. The Ferrari got squeezed and dropped a couple of places while Albon’s poor start had put him behind the McLarens and Ricciardo. Valtteri got alongside Max into Turn 3 and forced him wide which put the Red Bull a bit off balance as they climbed up towards Turn 4. Perez, who was right behind, tried to pass Verstappen around the outside but his rear left got bumped by the Red Bull driver struggling for traction. The Racing Point found itself spun around, on the grass and in last place after just four corners. However, it didn’t seem to have picked up any damage and was able to get back into the race right away. This tussle did allow Sainz to move up into P4 while Norris was fighting Leclerc for P5. 

Max had a few more scrappy corners which allowed Sainz to pass him too. Ahead of them, the two Mercedes on medium tyres were also struggling for grip on the relatively cool track. Bottas took the lead from Hamilton on the same corner as Carlos passed Max and Lando passed Charles. Couple more turns and the #55 McLaren went around the outside of the #44 Mercedes. Even Norris got ahead of Verstappen as the cars rounded the final corner but the best and most surprising sight was the Alfa Romeo of Kimi Raikkonen just behind the youngsters. The Iceman had somehow made up 9 places in the first lap and got past Leclerc around Turn 1. A few corners later, Sainz had passed Bottas for the lead! A bright orange McLaren was leading the Portimao GP! The Spaniard held onto the lead till Lap 6 when Bottas was able to use DRS and the now-warm medium compound, down towards Turn 1. From there, it was a predictable slide down the order, getting passed by Lewis down the main straight on the next lap. From there on it was the usual F1 2020 program. 

In hindsight, many have criticised that the DRS zone was too long given the nature of the main straight and was heavily favouring the car behind. Some excuse can be made that this was the first time F1 was racing at this circuit and they lacked the data to make a better decision. But I am also of the opinion that the DRS system needs a countermeasure as it leaves the car in front defenceless at just about every fast circuit and the overtakes are not even interesting. Until DRS kicked in, we did get to enjoy an exciting start to the Portuguese GP and you can check out the onboard footage of Kimi’s fantastic first lap:

By Lap 15, it was the usual procession as the two Mercedes drivers were leading the race from Verstappen in third and Leclerc was back in P4. Sainz had dropped down to P5 with Gasly behind him. Norris was being chased by the Mercedes-powered Racing Point of Stroll but the McLaren driver was putting up a good defence, especially at Turn 1 where the car in front is most vulnerable to overtakes. But it seemed Lando’s blockade was too irritating for Stroll who decided to take the farthest outside line on Lap 18. The pace advantage with the DRS was enough to get the Racing Point ahead but in a repeat-occurrence, Stroll turned in too tight and collided with Norris who was on the inside line. As the Canadian’s car spun across, the two cars collided a second time, damaging the Racing Point’s front wing and likely damage to the McLaren as well. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Stroll is the Grosjean of the new generation of drivers. While Lance ended up retiring after 51 laps, Lando struggled to make his way up the order after the unplanned second stop.

Around the same time as the Norris-Stroll incident, we saw the race lead change hands on Lap 19. Bottas was struggling with his tyres which allowed Hamilton to catch up and eventually pass him in the DRS zone. From that point on, both drivers went on to do another 20+ laps on their medium tyres. However, we were treated to another example of Lewis’ brilliant tyre-management skills as he continued to build a significant gap from his teammate in similar conditions. When the two drivers did pit, we got to see another unfortunate instance of Bottas just being ‘the other guy’ for Mercedes. Hamilton pitted first and went on to the hard tyres and Bottas requested the opposite, to switch to the soft tyres. Yet, when he pitted he was also on the hard tyres. I know we don’t always get enough context from the radio messages played during the live broadcast, but it just seemed like the team were keener on securing their seventh constructor’s world championship rather than allowing one of the drivers to make their own racing choices. It is what it is, and what it is, is a bit sad.

There were some other instances of exciting racing action in the middle order (outside of the DRS zone of course). We saw Sainz and Raikkonen switch places a couple of times over the course of a lap. Then we saw former teammates Perez and Ocon go wheel-to-wheel for P5 but without incident. Sergio had to pit after his first lap spin but managed an incredible recovery drive to make his way up the order, aided by the Merc-engine’s performance. It was yet another strong performance from Pierre Gasly in the AlphaTauri as he made his way up the order and the right strategy found him in the right place at the right time. He drove hard to pass Sainz and Perez in the second half and was able to get an impressive mid-order result in the end. 

Hamilton crossed the line with a lead of more than 25 seconds over P2 finisher Bottas. That’s an impressive way to claim your 92nd win in Formula 1, surpassing the long-standing record set by Michael Schumacher. Lewis may not be to everyone’s liking and his statistical achievement may not be a fair comparison to the racing greats of yesteryears, but he is undoubtedly the best of his generation.

It was also nice to see the tender moment between Lewis and his dad in parc ferme before the podium ceremonies:

The Brit has all but equalled Schumacher’s record of 7 world titles as well with an unchallenged run in the 2020 season and his victories are unlikely to stop anytime soon. However, the fact that he still hasn’t renewed his contract at Mercedes continues to power the rumour mills of the internet.

Red Bull would be happy with Max securing another highest-possible finish of P3. The youngster’s consistent podium results keeping them firmly in second place in the constructor’s championship. Ferrari, on the other hand, would be quite chuffed to see their shitbox close to the podium as Charles finished the race in P4 and was the only other car not to have been lapped. While Sebastian Vettel was able to score his first point in three races with a P10 finish, Alex Albon was down in P12. It seems all but certain that Alex’s run with the Red Bull Racing team will come to an end this year and he could likely be off the grid entirely for 2021.

Gasly crossed the line in P5 and continues his strong performances with the AlphaTauri team. However, given the Frenchman’s history of cracking under pressure (like he did during his short-lived stint as Max’s teammate in 2019), he is unlikely to get booted up to the main team for 2021. I think Gasly is better suited in a mid-tier team, at least until he can join a team front-runner outfit where he would be the lead driver. His teammate Daniil Kvyat had another tough race and finished dead last.

Despite their strong start, only one McLaren finished in the points with Sainz crossing the line in P6 and Lando Norris down in P13. But it was Sergio Perez’s P7 result that took the limelight and made him the driver of the day, as voted by fans. A crucial result for Racing Point to stay third in the constructor’s championship, just 2 points ahead of McLaren. 

Renault’s strategy didn’t quite pan out as Esteban Ocon and Daniel Ricciardo finished P8 and P9 respectively. While still securing important points for the team, it did seem like a step back that had only just scored a podium at the previous GP. There are still a couple of interesting races to go and we might just see another Renault podium before the end of the season. 

While Kimi had a great start, the underperforming Alfa Romeo was only able to get him across the line in P11, behind former teammate Vettel. His teammate Antonio Giovinazzi started 17th and finished P15. Williams’ search for their first championship point in 2020 continues as George Russel finishes P14, same as he started. The former F2 champion has been inching ahead over the last few races while teammate Nicholas Latifi was still towards the back end of the grid in P18. The soon-to-be-leaving Haas duo crossed the line in P17 and P18.

The World Championship titles for F1 2020 are pretty much decided but the mid-table battles are still quite close. In the constructor’s championship, the contenders for third are only 6 points apart – Racing Point, McLaren and Renault. Meanwhile, the fourth spot in the driver’s championship is closely contested by Daniel Ricciardo, Charles Leclerc and Sergio Perez only 5 points apart. Not far behind are Lando Norris, Alex Albon, Pierre Gasly, Carlos Sainz and Lance Stroll with 8 points between them. 

The F1 circus moves to Imola for a consecutive weekend of racing, making a return to the iconic circuit for the first time since 2006. While we are unlikely to see a Ferrari on the podium, it would interesting to see if anyone other than Mercedes and Red Bull can find their way into the top 3. Who’s your wildcard pick for an Imola podium in 2020? Share your thoughts in the comments below and don’t forget to subscribe to the Auto Loons blog and follow us on Twitter & Instagram too (@autoloons).

Final race standings

  1. L. Hamilton Mercedes — 1:29:56.828
  2. V. Bottas Mercedes +25.592
  3. M. Verstappen Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Honda +34.508
  4. C. Leclerc Ferrari +65.312
  5. P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda +1 lap
  6. C. Sainz McLaren Renault +1 lap
  7. S. Perez Racing Point BWT Mercedes +1 lap
  8. E. Ocon Renault +1 lap
  9. D. Ricciardo Renault +1 lap
  10. S. Vettel Ferrari +1 lap
  11. K. Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +1 lap
  12. A. Albon Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Honda +1 lap
  13. L. Norris McLaren Renault +1 lap
  14. G. Russell Williams Racing Mercedes +1 lap
  15. A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +1 lap
  16. K. Magnussen Haas Ferrari +1 lap
  17. R. Grosjean Haas Ferrari +1 lap
  18. N. Latifi Williams Racing Mercedes +2 laps
  19. D. Kvyat AlphaTauri Honda +2 laps
  20. L. Stroll Racing Point BWT Mercedes DNF

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