At its very core, motorsport has a singular goal – get to the chequered flag first.
While championship titles are the currency with which drivers bid for the title of the greatest of all time, the chronology of the record for most grand prix victories features some of the most revered names in motorsport’s storied history – Fangio, Ascari, Clark, Stewart, Prost, Schumacher.
At the 2020 Portuguese Grand Prix, a new name laid claim to this prestigious record – Hamilton.
Lewis Hamilton’s unprecedented 92nd victory was of surprise to no one, but the crushing manner in which he stormed to the new record was an appropriate way for him to surpass Schumacher’s benchmark which few once thought would ever be matched.
Since the very first time Formula 1 cars graced the tarmac at the Algarve International Circuit over a decade ago, motorsport fans have wondered what a grand prix on this rollercoaster of a venue would look like.
From its dramatic dips and fast, flowing corners, it’s little surprise that the circuit outside Portimao earned almost universal praise from the 20 drivers over the first two days of the weekend.
But despite the Algarve region of Portugal renowned as one of Europe’s most beautiful summer getaway spots, its late October race date meant Formula 1 was greeted with unrelenting autumn winds for its first racing trip to the venue.
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Hamilton’s 97th pole position – a feat he has now achieved at 29 different tracks – was unusual in that it had been set on medium compound tyres. With Pirelli having brought the hardest combination of rubber to the Algarve, many drivers were predicting low grip and high drama for the first Portuguese Grand Prix since the last century.
As the field set off for the formation lap, Carlos Sainz Jnr in seventh could feel spots of rain falling on his visor. Sensing that tyre temperature would be at a premium for the start, he decided to put extra effort into warming his soft tyres. It would prove a smart strategy.
Hamilton launched into the lead from pole position when the lights went out. Valtteri Bottas, starting alongside on the dirty side of the grid, was immediately on the defensive with Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez to his left and Charles Leclerc to his right.
As they all swept through the fast first turn for the first time, Verstappen briefly took second place, but Bottas kept it tight through turn two and lunged up the inside of Red Bull into turn three to take back the position.
With Verstappen pushed wide, Perez behind sniffed an opportunity and tried to hold it around the outside of the Red Bull at turn four. But their trajectories intersected and the pair collided, sending Perez skidding off to the inside and looking back at the pack as it swallowed him up and spat him back out in last place with a puncture for good measure.
Much like in Sochi with Lance Stroll and Leclerc, the stewards determined there was no need to investigate the collision. F1 race director Michael Masi later admitted it would have been viewed different if it hadn’t happened on the first lap of the race. “Lap one incidents are treated slightly more leniently,” he said. Perez later accepted that there might have been less space than he thought.
Grip was almost non-existent for most of the field during a treacherous opening lap. Hamilton had a snap of oversteer through turn six and was reporting rain to the team on the radio as Bottas breezed past him and into the lead. Later, Hamilton explained he saw his team mate approaching but decided it was better not to fight him and instead concentrate on generating grip in his tyres.
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Behind, Sainz was putting his warmer soft tyres to great use and was up to third having passed Leclerc and Verstappen. As the Mercedes tiptoed around the circuit fighting for any traction, Sainz was leaning on the rally skills he had inherited from his world champion father and swept by Hamilton around the outside of turn 11.
Lando Norris temporarily demoted Verstappen down to fifth place, demonstrating the McLaren’s strength in generating heat in its tyres. Meanwhile Kimi Raikkonen had made an exceptional start of his own and had leapt from 16th on the grid to seventh, surprising the likes of Daniel Ricciardo.
“I got a couple of spots and then I think Leclerc on lap two,” said the Renault driver. “So I was up to seventh and I was like ‘not a bad start’. Then I saw Kimi just drive around the outside of me. I was like, ‘he didn’t start 11th, nor 12th, where did he come from?'”
After a frantic opening lap, Bottas was out front, but Sainz was closing fast. As the pair rounded the hairpin of turn five, Sainz easily out-dragged the Mercedes and stormed into the lead.
“It was exciting,” Sainz said after the race. “I think my dad would especially have been happy with the rally skills.”
The [theoretically] socially-distanced fans in the Portimao grandstands roared their approval as Sainz crossed the line in the lead of the Portuguese Grand Prix. But they were not the only ones enjoying this unusual figure out front.
“I really liked the cheer of the public when Carlos passed the main straight in the lead,” admitted Mercedes boss Toto Wolff after the race. “This is just what Formula 1 needs. Variability, fighting for positions.” It certainly made a change to see something other than a Mercedes at the front of the field for the first time in four races.
Wolff’s pleasure in seeing an underdog shine in the early stages was likely rooted in the knowledge the track conditions would come to his Mercedes pair. And inevitably, they did.
Entering lap six with the track conditions stabilised, Bottas was now in DRS range and, with fully warmed tyres underneath him, he zoomed past the McLaren along the pit straight, ending Sainz’s novel cameo at the front. Over the next two laps, Sainz was also passed by Hamilton and Verstappen respectively.
With normal service having been resumed at the front, the two Mercedes team mates traded fastest laps as they began to pull away from Verstappen in third.
Having pitted on the opening lap after his collision with Verstappen, Perez had taken just 12 laps to catch up to Kevin Magnussen at the rear of the field. With rapid pace in his Racing Point, he began to steadily pick off the back markers one by one.
Ahead, Perez’s team mate Stroll was putting Norris under intense pressure for seventh. The McLarens had been mighty in the opening laps, but both Sainz and Norris were beginning to fall back down the order with Leclerc and Pierre Gasly taking advantage.
Stroll had a run on Norris down the pit straight with DRS at his disposal, but was closing as the pair dipped downhill towards the braking zone. Rather than try a move to the inside, Stroll opted to try around the outside and assumed that Norris would yield. He didn’t.
The pair collided at the apex, pitching the Racing Point into the turn one run off for the second time in three days and leaving the McLaren needing to pit for a new front wing. A furious Norris unleashed a torrent of profanity at his rival, for which he later apologised, while reserving his criticism of Stroll’s driving.
The stewards appeared to agree with Norris’s evaluation, handing Stroll a five-second time penalty and two penalty points for failing to leave adequate room for the McLaren in the corner.
Back out front, Hamilton had decided that now was the time to turn the pressure up on Bottas. Over three consecutive laps, he pumped in new fastest laps of the race to slash the lead from two seconds to just half a second.
As the pair rounded the high-speed, banked final corner to begin lap 20, Hamilton had DRS and a slipstream, giving him a 20kph advantage over his team mate.
Bottas pulled right to try and cover off the inside, but it was futile. Hamilton easily shot past and into the lead of the race. “Of course I tried to defend, but the rate he was closing there was nothing really I could do,” Bottas later explained. After three laps, Hamilton was already three seconds ahead of the former race leader.
Verstappen became the first of the front runners to pit at the end of lap 23, ridding himself of the unpopular soft tyres and taking the mediums. Unlike at the Nurburgring last time out, it seemed Verstappen was unable to keep pace with the Mercedes in Portugal.
As Hamilton continued to pull away from his team mate out front, there were some notable gaps between team mates throughout the field.
Leclerc, who had inherited third from Verstappen after the Red Bull pitted, was half a minute ahead of Sebastian Vettel, who had been lucky to escape unscathed after being clipped by Antonio Giovinazzi on the opening lap.
Alexander Albon cannot have failed to get the message about how important these latter races of 2020 are for his Red Bull future, following the comments of Red Bull motorsport consultant Helmut Marko and team principal Christian Horner. But worryingly for his chance, he was sitting outside of the points and once again not in the same class as his team mate.
Compounding Albon’s frustrations Gasly – the man he had replaced at Red Bull last year – was enjoying his strongest weekend since his stunning maiden win in Monza, running as high as fifth after passing Sainz’s McLaren.
Perez’s impressive comeback drive following his first lap spin and subsequent pit stop had seen him on the tail of Esteban Ocon’s Renault in sixth. Ocon was in the midst of an extremely long opening stint but was making it work.
As Perez pulled alongside at the start of lap 34, the pair engaged in a spectacular battle, racing hard but fair all the way to the exit of turn eight, the Racing Point driver ultimately prevailing. On a day when the DRS zone tipped the balance of power way in favour of those attempting to overtaking, it was a welcome moment of true wheel-to-wheel action.
Meanwhile leader Hamilton was preparing to make his single stop of the afternoon. Having ground out a 10-second lead, he was looking in total control as he came in for hard tyres at the end of lap 39.
With no answer for his team mate’s pace, Bottas briefly flirted with the idea of switching to soft tyres in case it just happened to somehow offer an advantage. Mercedes, however, were not warm to that suggestion.
When Bottas resumed after his own single stop on lap 40, he would never be any closer to his team mate for the rest of the race. Hamilton relentlessly pulled away as Bottas floundered on the hards.
“Lewis got [the hards] to work quite well quite quickly,” Mercedes’ trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin explained. “Valtteri dropped into some backmarker traffic which meant he was having to run at their pace, not a natural pace. At that point there was about 10 degrees of difference in the tyre temperature and you could see that it was manifesting itself as near enough a second of lap time.”
It was another all too-familiar story for Bottas, who yet again had shown early promise but had been unable to contain his team mate.
Perez had made a second stop to switch onto the soft tyres for the final 19 laps of the race, but after such a strong fight back on the mediums, he quickly learned why it was not a popular compound that weekend.
After Ocon had finally pitted on lap 55, Perez was sitting in fifth place but gradually being caught by Gasly’s AlphaTauri. It was the closing laps by the time Gasly reached striking distance and the most likely passing point would be turn one.
With Gasly in his slipstream and his rear wing wide open, Perez moved to the inside to defend at the exact same moment that the AlphaTauri darted to pass on the right.
Gasly had to back off to avoid hitting the Racing Point ahead, allowing Perez to keep his position. While the stewards later agreed that Perez had not moved in reaction to Gasly, they determined Perez had “not sufficiently accounted for the speed differential” between the two and handed him a reprimand. Remarkably, it was his second in as many days for incidents involving Gasly.
Just a lap later, Gasly had his revenge. Choosing the outside line times time, he swept by the Racing Point through turn one. “Around the outside,” Gasly pointed out to his engineer.
Having started his 66th and final lap, Hamilton was now almost half a minute clear out front and simply cruising towards a meeting with history. It had been one of the most challenging (largely) dry races for some time, but that had only made Hamilton’s dominance all the more remarkable.
Rounding the final corner, Hamilton crossed the line to take the chequered flag for the 92nd time in his career and put himself in sole possession of the title as the most victorious Formula 1 driver in history.
Bottas crossed 25 seconds after, with Verstappen taking the final podium place having lapped team mate Albon who had been brought in to make a second stop 19 laps from the end.
Leclerc had driven a strong but quiet race to take fourth in the Ferrari, albeit half a minute behind Verstappen. Gasly finished in an impressive fifth to only compound Albon’s troubles, while Sainz recovered pace in the second half of the race to pass Perez in the closing laps and claim sixth.
Ocon enjoyed what he described as Renault’s best collaborative race to finish ahead of team mate Ricciardo for only the second time all season in eighth.
Vettel took the final point for Ferrari in tenth, almost 40 seconds behind his team mate. Vettel’s place came at the expense of Raikkonen, who deserved a points finish in his Alfa Romeo after his incredible start.
But all the focus, quite rightly, was on Hamilton. Having just achieved one of the ultimate ambitions of any racing driver, he is now poised to extend the all time wins record far beyond what many of us would have considered possible over the remainder of his Formula 1 career.
“It’s going to take some time to fully sink in,” he said. “I could only ever have dreamed to have been where I am today.”
Having claimed the all time pole position record, podium appearances record and now the wins record, only force majeure now stands between him and his seventh world championship.
His record breaking victory had been a visceral demonstration of the relentless raw ability that has powered him to such lofty successes throughout his career. Yet, as ever, he made a point to recognise the contribution of the Mercedes team that had been instrumental in his achievement.
F1’s first ever race around the Algarve International Circuit provided fans with action, excitement and a day which will live long in the sport’s history. A track which was never supposed to be on this year’s calendar, and may never be again, became the venue for one of F1’s greatest accomplishments.
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2020 Portuguese Grand Prix
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