Finally a four-way fight? Quick Red Bulls set to attack as Mercedes sweep front row

2021 Portuguese GP pre-race analysis

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Red Bull have long wanted to have two competitive cars to take on the might of Mercedes. Having claimed the second row behind their rivals, we should finally see the four-way fight we’ve been waiting for.

But the two teams’ choice of tyres could put them in a vulnerable position at the start of Sunday’s race. Tyre warm-up and changeable wind conditions are likely to present a challenge to all drivers in the Portuguese Grand Prix.

Last year, there had been new Tarmac laid at that Autodromo do Algarve ahead of Formula 1’s arrival, which Max Verstappen said took the track from “top three of [his] favourites” to somewhere he no longer enjoyed driving. The surface is extremely low in grip and drivers have struggled to find a tyre combination that works across the weekend. It even drove Mercedes to experiment with running the medium tyres in Q3, to no avail.

Some teams had anticipated considerable improvement in the track surface. But while some events have run in the six months since F1 last visited the track, the surface remains low in grip.

Esteban Ocon said that Alpine’s improved pace was at least partly down to preparing for that possibility. “We turned up here thinking that the track was going to be a lot better than last year,” he said. “But in our mind we thought about what we could do if that was not the case and if it was like we left it last year.”

Top soft-shod starter Sainz took the lead last year
Last year, when a brief shower fell at the start, the cars on medium tyres were left struggling while those starting on the softs were able to easily pass them. Will that happen again?

Of the top 10 starters, the occupants of the first two rows (Mercedes and Red Bull) will start on the mediums, while the rest will be on soft tyres, bar Charles Leclerc. Most teams and drivers seemed to concede, after qualifying, that for pace there is likely no significant disadvantage to the medium in the race.

But that disregards the longer time needed to warm up the tyres. Mercedes’ trackside engineering director, Andrew Shovlin, said it was their biggest concern about the start. “We had wanted both cars on the medium tyre to start the race and on balance, we’re happy to have Red Bull on the same start-tyre given that we have track position,” he said.

“Our main concern will be the warm-up on that compound, the soft runners on the third row and behind will have a grip advantage that could last a lap or two so that may make things tricky.”

But given their starting positions, Red Bull are in more immediate danger from that possibility. If either of their drivers loses a position to a soft-tyred third-row starter off the line, it could crucially delay their pursuit of the Mercedes, and wreck Red Bull’s plan of using the strategic possibilities created by having two competitive drivers to prise the Mercedes pair apart.

The windy conditions at the exposed circuit have been a factor all weekend, and that is likely to continue. The highest wind speed during qualifying was 20.7kph, however, conditions tomorrow are currently predicted to include stronger gusts of 24-29kph during the race.

Both Lewis Hamilton’s Q2 lap, the fastest in any qualifying session and Verstappen’s deleted Q3 lap that would have gained him pole but for a few inches of track limits, had their exceptional speed in the final sector. When the wind changed slightly to affect the final sector, cars were not able to improve on lap times.

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If those conditions are replicated in the race it may affect cars’ ability to follow through the final turns and then overtake. Verstappen and Norris both complained about being too close to cars in that sector, so if there is a period during the race where the wind moves to cross turn 15 (as in Q3) then drivers may struggle to stay close enough to use the DRS detection zone or to carry enough speed to take full advantage of activating it.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, Autodromo do Algarve, 2021
Ricciardo will be one to watch from 16th on the grid
Carlos Sainz Jnr described how significant the effect was in qualifying. “For me it was the same Q3 run one to Q3 run two,” said the Ferrari driver. “I improved by half a tenth because in run one I made a mistake in the last corner.

“It is true that the track was three tenths slower between Q2 and Q3. I remember coming into turn 13 with a zero on the delta and then losing three tenths in the last two corners. The wind was pushing much more.” The data below shows how much drivers were struggling in Q3.

For cars heavily affected by the wind, like the Williams, this could prove problematic. So despite George Russell’s excellent qualifying performance putting him in eleventh place at the start of the race, he may have relatively scant opportunities to overtake despite straight-line speed seeming to be one of their cars strengths. Russell registered the second-highest speed trap figure of 321.1 kph, beaten only by Fernando Alonso who went through at 323.7kph, to no real benefit to his overall lap time.

Like Lance Stroll (17th) and Daniel Ricciardo (16th), Alonso qualified lower than might have been expected – especially given the performance of team mate Ocon in sixth. If conditions make DRS difficult to take advantage of, their way up the grid may either be forced into more exciting overtaking manoeuvres or reach a frustrating stalemate among other cars with starting tyre choice.

Although the very fastest cars on the grid are roughly where you would expect to find them, Mercedes seeming to have the pace advantage over Red Bull at Portimao, the midfield is rather more spread as a consequence of team mates being separated. The only drivers who will line up next to their sister cars are at the two teams at the very front of the grid and Haas, on the final row.

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Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Qualifying times in full

DriverCarQ1

Q2 (vs Q1)

Q3 (vs Q2)
1Valtteri BottasMercedes1’18.7221’18.458 (-0.264)1’18.348 (-0.110)
2Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’18.8571’17.968 (-0.889)1’18.355 (+0.387)
3Max VerstappenRed Bull1’19.4851’18.650 (-0.835)1’18.746 (+0.096)
4Sergio PerezRed Bull1’19.3371’18.845 (-0.492)1’18.890 (+0.045)
5Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’19.3091’18.813 (-0.496)1’19.039 (+0.226)
6Esteban OconAlpine1’19.0921’18.586 (-0.506)1’19.042 (+0.456)
7Lando NorrisMcLaren1’18.7941’18.481 (-0.313)1’19.116 (+0.635)
8Charles LeclercFerrari1’19.3731’18.769 (-0.604)1’19.306 (+0.537)
9Pierre GaslyAlphaTauri1’19.4641’19.052 (-0.412)1’19.475 (+0.423)
10Sebastian VettelAston Martin1’19.4031’18.970 (-0.433)1’19.659 (+0.689)
11George RussellWilliams1’19.7971’19.109 (-0.688)
12Antonio GiovinazziAlfa Romeo1’19.4101’19.216 (-0.194)
13Fernando AlonsoAlpine1’19.7281’19.456 (-0.272)
14Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri1’19.6841’19.463 (-0.221)
15Kimi RaikkonenAlfa Romeo1’19.7481’19.812 (+0.064)
16Daniel RicciardoMcLaren1’19.839
17Lance StrollAston Martin1’19.913
18Nicholas LatifiWilliams1’20.285
19Mick SchumacherHaas1’20.452
20Nikita MazepinHaas1’20.912

Sector times

DriverSector 1Sector 2Sector 3
Valtteri Bottas22.519 (2)29.758 (1)25.706 (6)
Lewis Hamilton22.517 (1)29.798 (2)25.557 (1)
Max Verstappen22.595 (3)29.894 (3)25.646 (3)
Sergio Perez22.794 (11)30.073 (5)25.667 (4)
Carlos Sainz Jnr22.768 (10)30.170 (7)25.859 (10)
Esteban Ocon22.735 (7)30.228 (9)25.623 (2)
Lando Norris22.662 (4)29.965 (4)25.786 (7)
Charles Leclerc22.733 (6)30.125 (6)25.911 (12)
Pierre Gasly22.709 (5)30.186 (8)25.810 (8)
Sebastian Vettel22.753 (8)30.233 (10)25.906 (11)
George Russell22.757 (9)30.396 (11)25.935 (14)
Antonio Giovinazzi22.871 (14)30.421 (12)25.821 (9)
Fernando Alonso23.002 (17)30.455 (13)25.688 (5)
Yuki Tsunoda22.861 (13)30.457 (14)25.959 (15)
Kimi Raikkonen22.859 (12)30.457 (14)25.921 (13)
Daniel Ricciardo22.911 (15)30.706 (17)26.023 (16)
Lance Stroll22.931 (16)30.556 (16)26.188 (18)
Nicholas Latifi23.117 (18)30.969 (20)26.152 (17)
Mick Schumacher23.257 (19)30.754 (18)26.330 (19)
Nikita Mazepin23.357 (20)30.945 (19)26.577 (20)

Speed trap

PosDriverCarEngineSpeed (kph/mph)Gap
1Fernando AlonsoAlpineRenault323.7 (201.1)
2George RussellWilliamsMercedes321.1 (199.5)-2.6
3Sebastian VettelAston MartinMercedes321.0 (199.5)-2.7
4Nicholas LatifiWilliamsMercedes320.6 (199.2)-3.1
5Antonio GiovinazziAlfa RomeoFerrari319.1 (198.3)-4.6
6Esteban OconAlpineRenault318.3 (197.8)-5.4
7Kimi RaikkonenAlfa RomeoFerrari318.1 (197.7)-5.6
8Mick SchumacherHaasFerrari315.7 (196.2)-8.0
9Charles LeclercFerrariFerrari314.7 (195.5)-9.0
10Lewis HamiltonMercedesMercedes314.6 (195.5)-9.1
11Daniel RicciardoMcLarenMercedes314.5 (195.4)-9.2
12Max VerstappenRed BullHonda314.4 (195.4)-9.3
13Lando NorrisMcLarenMercedes313.4 (194.7)-10.3
14Nikita MazepinHaasFerrari313.0 (194.5)-10.7
15Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauriHonda312.8 (194.4)-10.9
16Lance StrollAston MartinMercedes312.5 (194.2)-11.2
17Pierre GaslyAlphaTauriHonda312.2 (194.0)-11.5
18Carlos Sainz JnrFerrariFerrari311.9 (193.8)-11.8
19Valtteri BottasMercedesMercedes311.4 (193.5)-12.3
20Sergio PerezRed BullHonda311.3 (193.4)-12.4

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Over to you

Will the two Red Bull drivers take the fight to the Mercedes pair? And what can the likes of Alonso, Stroll and Ricciardo achieve after qualifying well down the order?

Share your views on the Portuguese Grand Prix in the comments.

2021 Portuguese Grand Prix

Browse all 2021 Portuguese Grand Prix articles

Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a freelance journalist who roams the paddocks of Formula E, covering the technical and emotional elements of electric racing. Usually found at...

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19 comments on “Finally a four-way fight? Quick Red Bulls set to attack as Mercedes sweep front row”

  1. Also Hamilton starting on dirty side. Track looks dusty and unused on the inside. Grip also worse because of recent resurfacing. Could be interesting to see if max can take advantage from his grippier position in 3rd.

    1. @sato113 it’s a good point – but Verstappen has Sainz directly behind him, on soft tyres. He snatched the lead in virtually the same position last year.

      1. BOT, VER, HAM, LEC, PER after turn 1. The right side of the grid will lose out at the start. Then tyre temps can mix things up after that.

        1. That will be nice, with BOT likely to use up his tyres fast and start holding up a queue.

      2. Yes but it was raining last year.

    2. @sato113 The resurfacing took place last year, but yes, similar conditions because the track hasn’t improved a lot since F1’s first visit.

  2. I fully expect some tactically extra-wide Mercedes to lead the field, doing their best to help each other keep the faster starting cars behind. That’ll lead to some impatience, some opportunism and some carelessness from the following pack.

    Safety car by lap 3?

  3. With how the grip levels are at this track, I would not be surprised to see Sainz leading for the first few laps just like last year.

  4. Will the two Red Bull drivers take the fight to the Mercedes pair? – Maybe, maybe not.
    What can the likes of Alonso, Stroll, and Ricciardo achieve after qualifying well down the order? – I don’t think much. Getting a high position without extraordinary circumstances won’t be easy, given the general lack of grip.

  5. The data below shows how much drivers were struggling in Q3.

    Well, other than the guy on pole who was the only 1 of the 10 to improve.

  6. RBR will be happy to pass atleast one MERC at start, as all 4 start on Mediums. But Sainz, Ocon and Norris start on soft could definitely upset one of top 4. Last year, it was difficult to get heat into tyres at start and Sainz went into lead starting 7th on soft tyres.

  7. Q: How are the best sector times calculated? Is it the breakdown of the driver’s best lap across qualifying? Or is it best sector across any lap (whether valid lap or invalid lap)? Does it consider only Q3 laps?

    1. I thought it would be either the breakdown for their fastest Q3 lap time or fastest legitimate overall time in the session but it doesn’t seem to be that. Hamilton has the fastest combined time there with a 1:17.872 which was faster than any time he set in the session. Verstappen has a combined time of 1:18.135 which is also a faster total lap time than he recorded in the session. So it seems to be fastest individual sector times but not necessarily from the same lap. I’m unsure if it includes sector times from deleted laps (it wouldn’t be intuitive to me to include them).

  8. Mercedes to cruise off. No fight for the lead. VER possibly taking Bottas, but doubt it. Business as usual for the past 8 years. Sorry, seems the season is settling already. Toto has never laughed harder than at the start of this season. With so much sandbagging this cant go wrong for them. FIA and Liberty happy, media fooled, Mercedes wins!

    1. Don’t agree, Rbr should’ve been on pole but Max made a mistake. Perez at least put the other car on the 2nd row, I expect this to be the line up with Rbr and Merc swooping dependant on which driver nails their qualifying lap(s).

      Still would give the advantage to Merc as they have two drivers comfortable in the car.

      1. I don’t fully agree, I think mercedes had better qualifying performance and ideally, considering verstappen’s lost lap where he didn’t gain an advantage, he should’ve been a tenth faster than bottas, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume hamilton should’ve been another tenth faster, so I think mercedes were fastest in this qualifying sessions, with verstappen’s speed putting him potentially inbetween them, perez was far behind, although he usually isn’t as good a qualifier as bottas.

      2. Its more the race pace that worries me and based on which I fear another dull season

  9. I think this is one of those tracks where the car behind as the benifit of seeing the racing line of the car ahead.
    There are so many blind hill crests that the car behind will save in the long run by have a ‘sighter’ ahead of them

    Hamilton and verstappen seems to know this. Cue Bottas whose tyres well vary likely suffer in that first stint.

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