Here’s what to look out for at Portimao this afternoon as the 2021 Formula 1 season continues...

Bottas’ time to shine

It was a surprise to see Bottas reign supreme in qualifying.

The Finn has endured his worst start to a season since joining Mercedes, and after trailing Hamilton by 0.4s in Q2, it looked unlikely Bottas would come out on top. Unlike in 2020, Bottas has struggled to get his tyres into the right window when it has come down to the crunch laps in Q3. 

While Portimao wasn’t perfect by any means, Bottas did enough to eclipse Hamilton by 0.007s to secure the 17th pole of his career.

A torrid Imola weekend to perturb the Finn, as for much of his Mercedes career, he managed to bounce back.

His approach hasn’t changed, as he revealed in the post-qualifying press conference: “I didn’t do nothing too different from normal in race analysis. After the race as we were still testing, Lewis was in the car on Tuesday, I was on Wednesday, went home on Wednesday night, did my things, had a good weekend. 

“Then I went to the factory preparing for this weekend in the simulator, etc., You talk about mentally, I took all the learning points and there were lots of lessons from the last race, as always, it’s how it goes. The rest, I should forget and move completely to the side of those and moved on. 

“I know that hard work will always pay off and that’s what I’ve been telling my team as well.  It’s only Saturday and I always knew it was possible with a good qualifying. We’ll see tomorrow, tomorrow is the day that matters.”

“Hard work” was the phrase Bottas reiterated on team radio and afterwards when talking to the media - and it’s likely to be hard work this afternoon.

Bottas secured five poles in 2020 and only converted just one of them. 

His task is to fend off two of the best racers we’ve seen in the modern era. Both of whom are in a rich vein of form and desperate to take the early initiative in the title race. Bottas’ chances of winning at Portimao will come down to making a good start and how he preserves his tyres.

One major weakness in Bottas’ repertoire is his consistency over a race distance and ability to manage the tyres. We saw last year, he managed to hold the lead for the first half of the race before dropping nearly 30 seconds behind Hamilton come the chequered flag.

It’s too early to consider the prospect of team orders… or is it?

Bottas is unlikely to be able to sustain a credible title challenge, while Hamilton is Mercedes’ best hope of beating Verstappen, so he will need every point he can get. 

We’re only three rounds into the season, though, but never say never.

Lewis versus Max - Part III

The battle between F1’s two heavyweights looks set to continue as Hamilton and Verstappen are set to start this afternoon from second and third on the grid.

Already, we’ve seen the pair go head-to-head in Bahrain and Imola, and there’s certainly potential for more of the same at Portimao.

Verstappen had the upper hand off the start at Imola, out-tractioning and out-powering Hamilton’s Mercedes. The Dutchman broke later and ensured Hamilton couldn’t hang it around the outside of the Tamburello chicane, forcing the reigning world champion to cross the kerbs and damaging his front wing in the process.

2016 F1 champion and Hamilton’s former teammate - Nico Rosberg - is convinced Hamilton will have the events of Imola at the back of his mind. Expect fireworks off the start or at least as the grand prix progresses as they go in search for supremacy in the race for this year’s drivers’ title.

Watch out for the ‘Smooth Operator’ 

Carlos Sainz enjoyed his best qualifying for Ferrari with the Spaniard set to start from fifth.

Sainz credited a change in driving style for his improvement at Portimao as he beat Charles Leclerc in qualifying for the first time this season.

Amazingly, Sainz took the lead for McLaren on the opening lap of last season’s Portuguese Grand Prix, and given the difficulties everyone is having with regards to tyre warm-up, we could be set for a repeat in 2021.

In terms of tyres, the top four of Bottas, Hamilton, Verstappen and Sergio Perez are all set to start on the medium tyre, while Sainz is the highest-placed soft runner. Typically, the softer the tyre, the less energy is needed to warm the tyre up. 

As we saw in the 2020 race, Sainz flew from seventh on the grid to lead the early laps of the race.

Don’t expect Sainz to take the lead again this year, but I wouldn’t rule out the ‘Smooth Operator’ from making a strong start from fifth on the grid this afternoon.

Can Russell finally score for Williams?

‘Mr Saturday’ continued to impress for Williams as George Russell qualified 11th and narrowly missed out on a spot in Q3.

Like Bottas, Russell has put the events of Imola behind him and put together an impressive qualifying.

Russell’s 11th place starting position means he’s given free tyre choice and thus not forced to start on the red-marked soft tyres, giving him a potential strategic advantage over Williams’ midfield competitors.

While Russell’s pace over one lap can never be questioned, his ability to perform over a grand prix distance is mostly unknown. We’ve seen a handful of times in the past, Russell threw away good results when points were on the cards. 

He spun under the Safety Car at Imola last year, while a poor start after the final red flag period at Mugello meant he lost out to Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, ultimately finishing the race in 11th. Of course, last time out, he was running in the points before colliding with Bottas.

It’s Russell’s best chance of scoring points for Williams and if he is to live up to the hype, it’s time he delivers on his impressive Saturday pace.

 

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