Winning a world championship is as much a test of mentality as it is of engineering or driving skill.Lewis Hamilton is the most successful driver the sport has ever seen. Five years ago Nico Rosberg overcame him with a combination of skill, immense physical effort, fortune and psychological pressure, in a campaign which so drained him the newly-crowned world champion chose retirement over putting himself through it again.
Since Max Verstappen stormed to the first pole position of the 2021 season in Bahrain, the idea that this year could finally provide a chance for him to mount a genuine challenge for the title has been a tantalising one. As much out of a desire to see the seven-time champion truly tested in his quest for a unprecedented eighth.
But to overcome Hamilton – the ‘final boss’ of motorsport – requires a formidable level of consistency and perfection. Does Max Verstappen have it?
At the Portuguese Grand Prix, Hamilton pressured his rival into a crucial mistake, capitalised on it – and made sure to turn the psychological screws after the chequered flag.
After the Autodromo do Algarve unexpectedly joined last year’s disrupted schedule, a return to the fast, flowing, undulating circuit was widely anticipated.
But after the opening two days of the Portuguese Grand Prix weekend, the drivers had come to realise that the low-grip levels around the undulating Portimao venue were barely any better than when they’d left the track in late October. As Verstappen himself admitted on Saturday afternoon, “I didn’t enjoy one single lap this weekend just because of the state of the track.”
The Red Bull driver’s annoyance had been no doubt heightened by the fact that he should’ve been on pole position for the following afternoon’s race. However – for the third successive race weekend – his efforts had been frustrated by running too wide at a crucial moment.
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In Bahrain he had strayed beyond track limits while passing to Hamilton, and had to surrender the victory. A costly error on his final qualifying lap at Imola prevented him from taking what Mercedes’ CEO Toto Wolff – also with his hands on the psychological screws – said would have been a comfortable pole lap. Now, a matter of millimetres at the Algarve circuit’s fourth corner saw Verstappen’s fastest Q3 time wiped from the history books – a time that would have secured him pole.
Instead, for the second race in a row, Hamilton bagged a starting position ahead of his title rival. But both had to give best to Valtteri Bottas in the leading Mercedes.
With all three main protagonists starting on the medium tyres, it appeared that whichever of the trio made the fewest mistakes in the low-grip, high-wind conditions would be the one who prevailed.
At the start, the trio would hold their positions steady at the front of the field. Carlos Sainz Jnr emulated his memorable opening lap here last year by jumping Sergio Perez’s Red Bull into fourth position as the remaining drivers shuffled into order behind.
Alfa Romeo were enjoying a promising weekend with both Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen running together in 12th and 13th respectively on the opening lap. That was, until Raikkonen ran clean into the back of his team mate’s car as they crossed the line to begin lap two in one of the most bizarre and seemingly avoidable clashes between team mates the sport has seen.
“Yeah, I might have fucked up,” Raikkonen said sheepishly over the radio before sliding helplessly into the gravel and out of the race.
“I was checking something on the steering wheel, changing a switch,” he later explained. “I got it wrong out of the last corner and had to check it again and just drove into him. So purely my mistake.”
Somehow, Giovinazzi had avoided a puncture and was able to continue relatively unscathed. It was the latest in a series of run-ins between the pair, who touched wheels while fighting at Imola and made contact at the start in Bahrain last year. Shortly after the chequered flag RaceFans asked Giovinazzi if his team mate had approached him to explain what had happened. “No, no” he laughed, “I think he’s gone already!”
With debris strewn across the grid, the Safety Car was deployed. Bottas had kept his lead, but Hamilton was priming himself for an opportunity to attack his team mate at the restart. But as the train of cars slowly rounded turn 15 to take the green flag on lap seven, Hamilton chose the wrong moment to check his mirrors for the Red Bull behind.
“I was focussing naturally on Valtteri and literally just for a split second I looked in my mirror just to see where Max was,” Hamilton later explained. “And literally in that split second, that’s when Valtteri went. And so I lost out to Valtteri. So that wasn’t great.”
Hamilton immediately made things worse for himself. “Then I was in Valtteri’s tow and [Verstappen] was about to pull out, and I pulled out and gave [Verstappen] Valtteri’s tow. And I was like ‘you idiot’ to myself…”
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Hamilton’s unexpected gift was enough for Verstappen to pull alongside the Mercedes and take the prime outside line for the fast first corner, relegating Hamilton to third.
Behind, Sergio Perez was keen to take back fourth place from Carlos Sainz Jnr – while Lando Norris watched on in sixth, licking his lips in waiting.
“I kind of saw [Sainz] battling with Sergio in the first couple of corners,” Norris related. “So I was able to sit back a little bit, prepare my line and have a good opportunity to get ahead of both of them, which I managed to do.”
Norris eventually would take fourth from Perez into turn five, much to Perez’s frustration, as he complained bitterly on the radio that Norris had gained an advantage by exceeding track limits at the previous corner.
Back up front, Verstappen was getting threateningly close to the back of Bottas’ leading Mercedes. But when Verstappen missed the apex of turn five, Hamilton’s eyes widened.
With Verstappen focused on trying to get a good run out of turn 14 onto the pit straight, where the shortened DRS zone still offered a significant speed boost, he was a little too hasty in planting his right foot, breaking traction just enough to lose momentum to the Mercedes ahead – and fall into the clutches of the Mercedes behind.
“Max made a mistake at some point in the lap, which was like perfect, and I knew that that was going to be the lap I would be as close as I could to him in the last sector,” Hamilton explained while sitting next to Verstappen in the post-race press conference.
With all the momentum, Hamilton took advantage of DRS and a healthy slipstream to cut inside of Verstappen into turn one and take back second. Verstappen briefly tried to hold on around the outside of three, but there was little he could do.
Behind, Perez eventually found a way past Norris on lap 15, meaning that, while not in the lead, at least Red Bull now had both their cars in direct pursuit of their Mercedes rivals.
After dispatching Verstappen, Hamilton set his sights on Bottas ahead – and was anxious to try and get by sooner rather than later. “I had to make the move early on, before the tyres were destroyed,” he explained.
And when his first real opportunity arose as the pair began their 20th tour, Hamilton braved it around the outside of his team mate using DRS into turn one with a bold move in which Bottas yielded at the last possible moment. Hamilton had turned third place after the restart into the lead of the race within 14 laps.
Red Bull had lost second place to Hamilton, but they had a plan for how they could reclaim it from Bottas. Aware that Bottas had struggled already this season with tyre warm-up, an opportunity was there to exploit by pitting Verstappen early.
Verstappen was called in on lap 36, switching to the hard tyres for what they planned would be his only stop of the afternoon. Bottas was able to retain his position after boxing the next lap, but knew he would be vulnerable to Verstappen and his heated new tyres.
“On the first lap, it was pretty bad,” said Bottas of trying to get heat into his tyres. “But we knew that the warm-up with the hard tyre was going to be tricky.”
Almost immediately, the pressure from Verstappen was intense. With much warmer tyres, greater confidence and grip, Verstappen got a great run out of turn four and held his car to the inside, easily out-braking the Mercedes to move up to second once more.
The leading trio’s pit stops had allowed Perez through to enjoy some laps at the front of the field. Indulging in one of his trademark marathon stints, he was eventually caught and passed by net race leader Hamilton on lap 51 – but not before he had been held up by Nikita Mazepin’s Haas, earning the rookie a five second time penalty and a point on his licence.
Now back up to third, Bottas was getting better performance from his hard tyres than the mediums he’d started on. But despite Toto Wolff’s latest encouragement over the radio, Bottas was prevented from mounting a challenge to Verstappen ahead.
“At some point I was catching Max and then I had an issue with one sensor,” he explained. “I started to lose power and suddenly I lost like five seconds to Max and that was it.”
While Hamilton was under no direct pressure from Verstappen behind, the gap was never large enough for Hamilton to feel comfortable – especially with the high winds and general lack of surface grip a constant threat.
“It was such a tough race – physically and mentally,” he claimed after the race. “Just keeping everything together. It’s very windy out there, so it’s very easy to just put a foot wrong.”
But Hamilton is seldom one to make a mistake when in control of a race. Red Bull were looking like they would have to settle for second this time around. However with Perez on fresh softs in fourth, comfortably ahead of Norris, they knew a bonus point for fastest lap was available.
With the laps ticking away and Perez struggling to find enough pace to claim fastest lap, Mercedes chose to pull Bottas in from third to have a go himself. But by pitting at the end on lap 64 with three laps to go, they left Red Bull the opportunity to do the same with Verstappen on the following lap.
Bottas temporarily claimed the bonus point, but as Verstappen came around to take the chequered flag, he had successfully snatched the reward from Mercedes. That is, until his lap time and his point was deleted after he was deemed to have exceeded track limits on the exit of turn 14 – much to Verstappen and Red Bull’s bemusement.
While all this was unfolding, Hamilton had seen his lead artificially balloon to almost half a minute by the time he crossed the line to claim his second win of the season and his 97th of his career. Having passed both his closest rivals to do so, it was especially satisfying.
“It’s a much different feeling of course when you are battling so closely with two great drivers,” he said. “So it feels fantastic today.”
Not for the first time this season, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was left ruing a potential opportunity to get one over Hamilton and Mercedes go begging, with Verstappen’s small mistake giving Hamilton just enough of an opportunity to pass.
“Obviously, we need to be perfect,” he said. “It’s inevitable when you’re pushing at the limit like these guys are, it’s all about those fine margins.”
The fact Verstappen had dropped another point to Hamilton due to yet another track limits violation only added to the frustration.
“I mean, it’s been brutal for us across the first three events,” said Horner. “The win in Bahrain, the pole position yesterday and then the fastest lap. So it’s been you know, it’s been pretty expensive for us.”
For Bottas, it was a familiar story of promise on Saturday failing to convert to premium points on Sunday.
“When you start from the pole position, you have only one target for the race and that is to win the race and it didn’t happen today,” he summed up. “So I’m disappointed.”
Perez had come home in fourth place, ahead of Norris who had claimed ‘best of the rest’ honours for a second successive weekend. Charles Leclerc crossed the line in sixth to make up for a disappointing qualifying effort that had left him typically dismissive of his endeavours.
Alpine had enjoyed easily their best weekend of the season so far, with Esteban Ocon finishing seventh after pulling off a number of impressive passing moves, while team mate Fernando Alonso looking the most like the twice-champion of old than he had since his return by moving up through the field to claim eighth.
Daniel Ricciardo, rebounding from a shock Q1 exit on Saturday, came in ninth and Pierre Gasly rounded out the points in the top 10, having both quietly gone about their own business and kept out of trouble.
After his first top 10 start for Aston Martin, Sebastian Vettel was disappointed to end the day without a point. But that surely paled in comparison to Williams.
George Russell’s strongest qualifying for the team to date failed to convert into race pace. He sank rapidly down the order and even suffered the rare ignominy of being passed by team mate Nicholas Latifi at one stage. Alarmingly, Russell likened his FW43B’s handling to the team’s dire 2019 car.
Haas’ Mick Schumacher had given his team a morale boost by passing Latifi in the closing stages after the Williams driver made an error at turn three. That ensured Schumacher and Haas finished ahead of a rival for the first time in 2021 and compounding Williams’ difficulties further.
But yet again, it was Hamilton who had prevailed over the two drivers who are likeliest to hinder his progress towards an eighth world championship. And he made sure to let the closest of those – Verstappen – know it had come about thanks to the Red Bull driver’s slip-ups.
Red Bull have the pace and Verstappen certainly has the ability to fight head-to-head with Hamilton and Mercedes, but it may require a flawless weekend for them to beat their rivals. At the very least, Hamilton expects them to be a thorn in his side all the way to Abu Dhabi.
“We’re going to be pushing each other right to the last race. We’re going to be sick of each other at the end I would imagine. Or at least sick of racing, with so many races.”