Lewis Hamilton stands on the cusp of creating yet more Formula 1 history at the Portuguese Grand Prix, but a number of unknowns have added intrigue and uncertainty heading into the race. 

With Valtteri Bottas clearly the faster of the two Mercedes drivers going into qualifying, Hamilton had to dig deep to claim a ninth pole position in 12 races this season. 

Hamilton, who equalled Michael Schumacher’s all-time benchmark of race victories last time out in Germany, has set himself up with the best possible opportunity to take his 92nd win and a new F1 record with it.

Hamilton’s 97th pole of his career did not come easy, but the Briton ultimately out-thought Bottas by completing an extra run on the Medium compound to snatch pole with a last-gasp effort in Q3 by 0.102 seconds. 

The decision to run the theoretically-slower Medium over the Soft tyre for their pole laps was a fascinating and unusual dynamic. 

At that precise moment in history, the Mediums were the quicker rubber due to problems with getting the Softs up to temperature - a recurring theme throughout the weekend in Portugal on a newly relaid surface amid chilly conditions at the Algarve International Circuit. 

Although Mercedes secured yet another front-row lockout on a Saturday, there are reasons to suggest the race will not necessarily be a walk in the park for the German manufacturer which has a very slim possibility of sealing the constructors’ crown for a record seventh time on the bounce.

While Hamilton and Bottas will line-up on the grid on Mediums after using them in Q2 and Q3, Max Verstappen - who ended up a quarter of a second from pole in his Red Bull - will start the race on the faster, grippier Softs. 

This tyre variance among the top three sets up an intriguing prospect heading into the race.

Unstable weather - featuring colder temperatures and potential rain - is also forecast for Sunday, adding yet another element which could liven things up. 

Hamilton has been left wary about Verstappen’s Soft tyre advantage at the start and is expecting a particularly challenging race.

“It’s going to be a very tricky race with the harder tyre that doesn’t really work for several laps,” Hamilton said. 

“It’s going to be interesting at the beginning. Obviously we lose a little bit of performance to Max and the guys behind on the Softs. I really don’t know what to expect tomorrow. 

“It’s supposed to rain tomorrow, that means it’s going to be the hardest day for us all, if it does. Windy and wet, that would really be ice tomorrow if we have that. I just think we have to prepare for all scenarios. 

“If it is dry, restarts will be really difficult with the tyres, with the speed that the Safety Car goes, which I won’t comment too much on. It’s going to be a tough race.”

Not only will Verstappen have a theoretical grip advantage at the start, he will also start on the clean side of the grid as will pole sitter Hamilton. 

Those on the inside of the track such as Bottas and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc are expected to have less grip than those in the odd numbered grid slots. This has been exacerbated by a lack of support categories laying down rubber on a new and ‘green' track that drivers have been struggling on all weekend long. 

“This is Tokyo drift! Unbelievable” complained McLaren’s Carlos Sainz within a few laps of running in free practice on Friday. 

Verstappen acknowledged that the start will be important on the run into a tight Turn 1 where he has already been involved in a collision once this weekend. 

“The start is going to be important but even then we don’t have a lot of information about how the tyres are going to hold up, so we’ll just feel our way into the race and see what’s going to happen,” Verstappen explained. 

Teams will head into the race with less running and data than usual on a circuit F1 has only ever visited once before for testing back in the winter of 2009. 

Pirelli’s prototype tyre testing cost the team’s half an hour of their traditional programmes on Friday morning, before FP2 was truncated by two red flag periods - one for Pierre Gasly’s fiery AlphaTauri and a second for Verstappen’s clash with Lance Stroll.

Final practice on Saturday morning was then cut short when a drain cover was damaged, which prevented the drivers from conducting those all-important practice starts at the end of the session.

The lack of running means there are even bigger unknowns over strategy than usual heading into the race. As such, there are big question marks over which tyres will perform best over a race distance.

While the Mediums can run longer into the opening stint, opening the door for a preferred one-stop strategy, the Softs will warm up faster. This is where Verstappen could cause Mercedes a real headache by attacking hard in the early stages. 

“I think all tyres of course will be quite tricky in the first lap, for sure the Medium a bit more,” the Dutchman said. “It’s normal, it’s a harder tyre, harder to warm-up. I guess we just have to find out tomorrow. That’s nice right?” 

Bottas agreed that there were “many unknowns” heading into the race, adding:

“There’s of course a reason why we qualified today with the Mediums so for sure happy to be on that tyre instead of the Soft. 

“We can’t really know how conditions are going to be and we haven’t really done massively long runs with much data from all tyre compounds, so many unknowns - hope it’s going to be eventful.” 

Behind the fight for victory, there are some other interesting elements to keep an eye on, including how high Leclerc can finish in his upgraded Ferrari after falling down the order at the Nurburgring race, the intense midfield scrap over third, and how Alex Albon will fare starting sixth in a race that could end up proving crucial to where his F1 future lies with time running out to impress Red Bull.

Considering all the variables, we could be in for a thriller.

 

Comments

Loading Comments...