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Graham Read
Formula 1 Correspondent
4:40 AM 25th October 2020

Mercedes Dominant As Hamilton Sets New Win Record

Formula 1 hasn’t raced in Portugal since Estoril back in 1996, but today we had a first ever Grand Prix at the impressive Autódromo Internacional do Algarve located in Portimão and Lewis Hamilton set a new record of 92 F1 career victories whilst driving for his long dominant Mercedes team.

Lewis Hamilton set a new record for F1 victories at the wheel of his dominant Mercedes
Lewis Hamilton set a new record for F1 victories at the wheel of his dominant Mercedes
The impressive multi-purpose facility at Portimão was completed back in 2008 at a cost of 195 million Euros and includes, in addition to the main 2.9 mile circuit, a five star hotel, karting track, sports complex, technology park and apartments. It was hoped at the time that the venue might claim its own regular place on the F1 calendar, but for a variety of reasons that never came to be. Come 2020 though and with a need for deals to be done to create a revised calendar of events, Portimão earned its slot for this year at least. Sadly, shortly before the event the local Covid situation forced a late reduction in the intended 47,000 spectators to 26,000, but at least those grandstands which were allowed to be occupied added to the atmosphere.

Just two days after Daniel Ricciardo’s first podium finish for Renault in Germany at the previous Grand Prix the French team had put Fernando Alonso in their car at the Barcelona circuit for a filming day, but the Spaniard was limited to just 21 laps and 100 kilometres. How the double world champion cannot wait to return to F1 action next year.

Over in the Racing Point camp in the Portimão paddock the team received a warning from the FIA for not following agreed protocols and advising them straightaway when driver Lance Stroll had tested positive for coronavirus at home in Switzerland after withdrawing from the race weekend at the Nürburgring with a suspected stomach upset. After self-isolating for 10 days the Canadian tested negative and was thus allowed to travel to Portugal. All other members of the team had been tested upon their return from Germany to the UK by private charter jet and again before flying to Portugal, with all results fortunately negative.

On the Thursday before the Portuguese Grand Prix weekend began Haas had surprised everyone and particularly its two drivers by announcing that both would not have their contracts renewed at the end of the season. This and other issues related to the driver market for next year are covered in more detail in my feature published on 23 October.

Both Haas drivers accepted they will no longer be required next year
Both Haas drivers accepted they will no longer be required next year
There was still no announcement from Mercedes about Hamilton continuing to drive for them next year, but that is probably just a matter of time and the championship leader instead made headlines by questioning the FIA’s decision to appoint Vitaly Petrov as the driver steward for Portugal - all due to the Russian’s recent comments that equality for all is important and that he wasn’t sure the ongoing pre-race kneeling gestures led by Hamilton were appropriate.

Far worse was to follow though for former F1 driver Petrov on the Saturday evening before the race when his father Alexandr was shot dead at his home near St Petersburg and Vitaly was obviously immediately excused from his duties in Portugal to return to Russia. The FIA issued a statement saying everyone’s thoughts were with him and his family and appointed Bruno Correia, the Portuguese safety car driver for the FIA’s Formula E and World Touring Car championships who happens to live in Portimão, as Petrov’s replacement.

Red Bull’s likeable British/Thai driver Alex Albon approached the weekend as a young man under intense pressure after some difficult performances of late and failing to get anywhere near the pace and points haul of his team-mate in the same car, Max Verstappen. Team principal Christian Horner explained that they would love to retain Albon for next season, but that he must really impress them in the next two races and claim the seat for himself or they may be forced to look elsewhere. Nico Hülkenberg is readily available and would love to jump into next year’s Red Bull and, although Sergio Perez may be heading to Williams, he would surely much prefer to be in a far more competitive Red Bull car if an opportunity arose. How F1 has rightly long been known as the Piranha Club!

12th for Red Bull’s Alex Albon won’t help him keep his seat for next year
12th for Red Bull’s Alex Albon won’t help him keep his seat for next year
Getting back to racing matters, some of the drivers had previous experience of the Portimão circuit in more junior motorsport categories, but all were keen to get out on track in their F1 equipment once the start of Friday’s opening free practice session arrived. It was no surprise that the two Mercedes cars went fastest again, with Valtteri Bottas outpacing Hamilton and Verstappen the best of the rest, if over three quarters of a second slower than the Finn which is an eternity in Formula 1 terms.

The opening 30 minutes of the second free practice period were allocated to teams testing Pirelli’s prototype tyres set to be used next year and the times set were significantly slower than in the morning on current rubber. After the cars had been reshod with 2020 tyres drama and red flags ensued as Pierre Gasly was forced to make a swift exit from his burning AlphaTauri, which was badly damaged by the fire. Practice had barely resumed when Verstappen and Stroll clashed at Turn 1, causing a further stoppage and leaving the Dutch charger to question the Canadian’s eyesight and mental capacities with some rather strong and insulting language over the team radio which I certainly won’t repeat here! The incident earned them both a visit to the stewards later, but it was adjudged to be simply a misunderstanding between the pair, with no further action required, whilst Verstappen’s unnecessarily abusive language caused a bit of a furore. Come the eventual end of the session it was Bottas who again topped the timesheets, ahead of Verstappen and with Hamilton only eighth quickest and blaming set-up changes to his car.

Before Saturday morning’s final practice session Formula 1’s race director Michael Masi issued relaxed instructions regarding track limits at Turns 1 and 4 after many drivers had struggled to comply during Friday’s running and 125 infringements had led to lap times being deleted. Bottas proceeded to make it a clean sweep by again outpacing the rest, with Hamilton and Verstappen unable to usurp him. The session had to be redflagged near its end after a drain cover was lifted by Vettel’s passing Ferrari and broke in half. Subsequent emergency repairs meant that the start of qualifying was delayed by half an hour, with additional concerns as other loose drain covers around the circuit were found, none of which had ever experienced the extreme forces created by current Formula 1 cars before this weekend.

Bottas must have thought pole position would be his after being fastest in every practice session, the first two parts of qualifying and the first runs in final qualifying, but Hamilton just edged him out by a tenth of a second as the ongoing dominance of Mercedes helped the team claim its ninth front row lockout in the last ten races. To their rear Verstappen and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc did enough to claim the second row on the grid for the following day’s Grand Prix.

Valtteri Bottas dominated practice, but lost out to Lewis Hamilton when it mattered
Valtteri Bottas dominated practice, but lost out to Lewis Hamilton when it mattered
As the race start approached the conditions were blustery around this real rollercoaster of a circuit with a hint of rain in the air and there was the usual mixed response from the drivers to taking a knee or not at the front of the grid. On the racing front everyone was wondering whether Verstappen would be able to use his soft tyres to make an early attack on the two medium shod black cars ahead of him, as in theory at least the mediums should offer slightly less grip and be slower, if more durable. Sometimes this is the case, whereas on other occasions the theory can simply fly out of the window. The other issue was just how many cars would stay on the track at the opening righthand corner after so many had run wide earlier in the weekend.

When the red lights went out we had a wild opening lap as Verstappen swept past Bottas before dropping back and colliding with Racing Point’s Sergio Perez. Bottas then hit the front as Hamilton found himself third behind a flying Carlos Sainz who had soft tyres on his McLaren, with Verstappen down in fifth position behind the other McLaren driven by Lando Norris.

The Spaniard Sainz, not quite racing on home territory but more so than many, took the lead on the second tour, but his reign was to be shortlived as by lap ten we had a more familiar front three of Bottas, Hamilton and Verstappen. Hamilton initially seemed to have no answer for his team-mate’s pace before closing and taking a lead he was never to relinquish on lap 20 as slight rain fell.

As the Mercedes duo circulated out front Hamilton made his only pitstop of the race on the 41st tour, switching his medium tyres to hard compound ones. Chatter over the Mercedes team radio saw Bottas asking to be allowed to do the opposite and change to soft rubber at his imminent pitstop in the hope of challenging Hamilton during the remaining 24 laps, but the team denied his request and you could sense the Finn losing interest in the race, knowing all he had to look forward to was driving to the finish in a secure second place rather being allowed to fight for the victory.

Max Verstappen was a comfortable third, but his Red Bull simply hasn’t the pace of the Mercedes car
Max Verstappen was a comfortable third, but his Red Bull simply hasn’t the pace of the Mercedes car
As the Grand Prix continued towards its conclusion Hamilton extended his lead over Bottas and Red Bull’s Albon suffered the ignominy of being lapped by his team-mate on his way to a 12th place finish, a result which will hardly have enhanced his chances of being retained for 2021. There was some brilliant racing late on between AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly, Sainz and Perez as the Frenchman came out on top in fifth place behind Leclerc, who produced a fine result in the still somewhat recalcitrant Ferrari.

Out front though Hamilton (who complained of leg cramp in the closing stages on a physically brutal track), Bottas and Verstappen occupied the podium, with best of the rest Leclerc over half a minute behind the third placed Dutch driver and a massive 65 seconds behind the victorious Hamilton, such is the size of Mercedes’ superiority. The extra point for the fastest lap also went to the race winner.

Next up on this year’s amended calendar comes a return to the Autodromo Internationale Enzo e Dino Ferrari at Imola in north eastern Italy in just a week’s time. It’s sadly most famous for being where F1 legend Ayrton Sienna suffered his fatal accident during the San Marino Grand Prix back on 1 May 1994. The race will be called the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix after the area of Italy in which the circuit is based.

All the teams packed up as quickly as possible in Portugal so that the massed fleet of several hundred trucks required to move the Formula 1 circus to its next location could start their 1500 mile journey to Imola as soon as possible. Due to the logistical challenge within such a tight timeframe it had long been agreed that the Imola race weekend would take place on Saturday and Sunday only with a compressed timetable rather than the usual three day format. Having recently been forced to implement in effect a two day event at Germany’s Nürburgring due to adverse weather, Imola would be a further useful experiment for F1’s owners and the FIA governing body and even an indicator towards a possible two day norm for the future.

2020 Formula 1 Portuguese Grand Prix

1 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1hr29m56.828s
2 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +25.592s
3 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +34.508s
4 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +1m5.312s
5 Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) Lapped
6 Carlos Sainz (McLaren) Lapped
7 Sergio Perez (Racing Point) Lapped
8 Esteban Ocon (Renault) Lapped
9 Daniel Ricciardo (Renault) Lapped
10 Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) Lapped
11 Kimi Räikkönen (Alfa Romeo) Lapped
12 Alex Albon (Red Bull) Lapped
13 Lando Norris (McLaren) Lapped
14 George Russell (Williams) Lapped
15 Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) Lapped
16 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) Lapped
17 Romain Grosjean (Haas) Lapped
18 Nicholas Latifi (Williams) Lapped
19 Daniil Kvyat (AlphaTauri) Lapped
20 Lance Stroll (Racing Point) Retired

2020 Formula 1 Drivers Championship

1 Lewis Hamilton 256
2 Valtteri Bottas 179
3 Max Verstappen 162

2020 Formula 1 Constructors Championship

1 Mercedes 435
2 Red Bull 226
3 Racing Point 126