10 things we learned from F1's 2021 Portuguese GP

Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes showed steel in recovering from third to win the 2021 Portuguese Grand Prix. Autosport assesses the weekend's major talking points, as hopes of redemption for Mercedes' number two were dashed, track limits again were a topic of debate and tension over budget cap sanctions emerged

10 things we learned from F1's 2021 Portuguese GP

Formula 1’s second visit to Portimao came threw up vastly different conditions to its inaugural grand prix last October, but ended with the same race winner in Lewis Hamilton.

The slip-and-slide opening laps from last year’s race may not have been repeated, but low-grip conditions again left drivers facing a unique challenge on a track that has quickly worked its way into F1 folklore.

Behind the reigning world champion, Red Bull was again left to rue track limits while a competitive leap for Alpine helped its returning talisman wind back the clock with a charging drive into the points.

Here are 10 things we learned from the Portuguese Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, 1st position, takes victory

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, 1st position, takes victory

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

1. Hamilton was at his clinical best in Portugal

Having scored a record-breaking 92nd race win at Portimao last year, Hamilton had hoped to reach another landmark on Saturday by becoming the first driver to reach 100 pole positions.

Although he missed out by just seven-thousandths of a second to teammate Valtteri Bottas, come the race Hamilton was again at his brilliant best with a clinical, incisive drive to victory.

The only real slip-up came on the restart after the safety car, when Bottas caught Hamilton looking in his mirrors and bolted, leaving his teammate in the clutches of Max Verstappen behind. Hamilton lost the position, but rallied quickly, and had picked both drivers off with emphatic moves within just 14 laps.

But it was hardly an easy race for Hamilton. Upon getting out of the car after the race, it was clear just how much it had taken out of him.

“That was such a tough race, physically and mentally,” he said. “Just keeping everything together, it was very easy to put a foot wrong.”

If Imola was a lucky escape following his trip into the gravel at Tosa, Portimao marked a return of Hamilton to his very best. Clearly the fight against Red Bull is really invigorating him.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

2. Red Bull only has itself to blame losing the fastest lap

I wrote in my 10 things learned feature after Imola that talking about track limits was getting tedious. Let me now rephrase that: Red Bull is making talking about track limits tedious.

Mercedes left the door open for Red Bull to try and snare the fastest lap bonus point away by pitting Bottas one lap too early - something Toto Wolff put down to a “stupid moment” - and Verstappen duly delivered, going 0.016s quicker to nab the point away.

As Verstappen hopped out of his car in parc ferme, though, race control confirmed he had breached track limits at Turn 14, meaning the lap was deleted and the bonus point stayed with Bottas.

Verstappen was only told in the post-race interview, and called it “odd”, saying track limits weren’t being policed there. But that wasn't the case - they had been since FP3 on Saturday, as per the updated race notes from Michael Masi.

Helmut Marko fumed on German TV, saying “something has to change” for track limits.

“Now we've lost the victory, fastest lap, and pole position,” he said, referring to the lost race win in Bahrain and the lost pole on Saturday at Portimao.

Well, yes, that is true. But if Verstappen was aware of the updated race notes - surely quite a basic thing to get right, you’d imagine - then he wouldn’t have made the Sunday error.

All three losses were avoidable, but responsibility lies with Verstappen and Red Bull, not the FIA. As draconian as the rules may seem, they’re abundantly clear. So long as you read the race notes, that is.

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

3. Bottas is still waiting for his 2021 breakthrough

After his Imola disaster, pole on Saturday seemed to signal that Bottas was back in business, finally getting to the bottom of the tyre warm-up issues that had blighted him so far in 2021.

But the race fell into a familiar pattern of Bottas failing to take control of a race, losing out to Hamilton and ultimately fading to a disappointing third-place finish.

It was not all his own doing, admittedly. Mercedes was caught out by Red Bull pitting Verstappen early, giving him the undercut that allowed him to pass with warm tyres. An exhaust sensor fault late on caused Bottas’ engine to enter a safety mode, costing him around five seconds at a time when he was making serious inroads on the Red Bull ahead.

There were impacting circumstances, but Bottas was at a loss for his lack of pace on the mediums against Hamilton and Verstappen.

“I don’t really know why in the first stint I didn’t really have the pace,” Bottas said. “I could see quite early on in the race that, with the mediums, I just didn’t have pace like Lewis and Max had. I have no idea, I don’t have the explanation.”

Particularly when the fight against Red Bull is so fierce, Bottas needs to get an understanding of his struggles quickly if he is to be a real player in a title fight most are already boiling down to two drivers.

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Sparks fly as Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B, battles with Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Sparks fly as Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B, battles with Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

4. Perez is showing a hunger Red Bull has been missing

Fourth place with a 10-second margin to Verstappen - who made an extra pitstop in his failed fastest lap attempt - may not scream a huge step forward for the latest occupant of the second Red Bull seat. But Sergio Perez showed a real hunger in Portimao that has arguably been missing at the team since Daniel Ricciardo's departure at the end of 2018.

After beating Verstappen in Imola qualifying, Perez was just 0.144s off his teammate at Portimao, taking fourth on the grid - a good result given that’s where the second Red Bull should be.

But Perez was actually disappointed after qualifying. He said a top-four finish was an “absolute minimum” for the second Red Bull driver to be doing, and that if it were Abu Dhabi, he’d be disappointed with such a result.

In the race, Perez lost touch with the leaders after being passed by Lando Norris on the opening lap - Perez thought it was done off-track and he’d be given the place back, but wasn’t - but once in clean air, he was on pace with the trio ahead.

Had this been Pierre Gasly or Alexander Albon, we’d likely be talking about fourth in the race as a good result. The fact Perez is reluctant to accept this shows how different the dynamic now is at Red Bull - a very good thing if it is to sustain a challenge in the constructors’ championship.

Esteban Ocon, Alpine A521

Esteban Ocon, Alpine A521

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

5. ‘Mystery’ lingers over Alpine’s big step forward

The midfield battle at Portimao may have again seen Ferrari and McLaren duke things out at the front, but Alpine was a regular force in the thick of the fight, bucking the trend of the first two weekends.

The Imola update package was joined by a new floor in Portugal, giving Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso a pace boost that was evident all weekend. Ocon qualified sixth and finished seventh, while Alonso fought back from slumping to 13th in qualifying by finishing eighth for the former Renault team's second consecutive double points finish.

It was a good sign for Alpine as it looks to ditch Aston Martin and join the upper-midfield fight, yet there are still question marks over just why the A521 car worked so well at Portimao. Alonso called it a “mystery” why he had been so slow in qualifying that he was still yet to understand.

The peaks experienced were not so pronounced at either of the first two races, nor has any team seemed to make such a big step forward in the early development battle. But Ocon isn’t looking to downplay the weekend.

“I don’t think we should go to Barcelona and think negatively,” he said. “On my side, I’m quite confident that the car should be working. I hope we will keep at least this level of competitiveness and hopefully do even better, that’s my aim. But only time will tell.”

Whether it’s to stay or not, a good weekend for Alpine is something it can celebrate.

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Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21, and Esteban Ocon, Alpine A521

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21, and Esteban Ocon, Alpine A521

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

6. Ferrari still isn’t certain it has fixed race pace drop-off

For Ferrari to come away from a race weekend as the fourth-fastest team and be disappointed is an encouraging sign of how far it has progressed since the misery of 2020.

Carlos Sainz led its charge in qualifying as Charles Leclerc struggled to eighth place, but the roles were reversed in the race. Ferrari’s pre-race sums suggested the medium was a good race tyre, only for the SF21 to struggle on the yellow-walled rubber.

Sainz’s soft/medium strategy meant he was powerless to stop a train of cars passing late on, leaving him 11th. Leclerc ran well on the hards and kept in touch with Lando Norris in fifth, but rued his poor qualifying and first stint for making a top-five finish unobtainable.

It is progress for Ferrari, but the team is still unsure just how much it has made. The feeling after Bahrain was there had been a drop off in pace from qualifying to race trim that it had to solve. While Leclerc's run to fourth at Imola was a good sign, it was an outlier due to the conditions. Team principal Mattia Binotto was far from convinced by the struggles on the mediums.

“It’s a mixed result that needs again to be analysed,” he said. “I don’t think there is a clear conclusion yet.”

If Ferrari can figure things out, it may yet be able to take the fight to McLaren for third in the constructors’ standings. Nevertheless, it has made great progress compared to last year.

George Russell, Williams

George Russell, Williams

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

7. Russell’s Williams was too peaky to deliver a blinder

The hype train surrounding George Russell has been in full motion ever since his stunning Sakhir display for Mercedes in 2020. Even his crash with Bottas at Imola couldn’t slow it down, with the overriding question being why Bottas was at risk of being passed by a Williams in the first place.

Russell turned in a stunning display in qualifying, taking 11th on the grid and falling just half a tenth shy of a Q3 berth. It gave the Briton hope of his first points for Williams in the race, citing the straight-line speed of the car as being a possible key to success.

But the peaky nature of the Williams FW43B - something the team has accepted - meant that when the wind picked up in the race, its aerodynamic sensitivity caused its pace to disappear. Russell slipped down the order, ultimately finishing only ahead of teammate Nicholas Latifi and the Haas cars. He later called it Williams’ most difficult race since 2019, which is saying something.

There is a real excitement that if the conditions are calm and perfect, then a breakthrough points finish could be within reach for Williams. Russell reckons the Hungaroring and Monza will be strong tracks for the car, but he’ll want to try and stake a claim for the top-10 before then.

Nikita Mazepin, Haas F1

Nikita Mazepin, Haas F1

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

8. Mazepin seemed massively out of his depth

Nikita Mazepin’s off-track behaviour did little to enamour him to the F1 paddock prior to his arrival for 2021, but the Russian vowed he would do his talking on-track and prove himself.

Three races in, we’re still waiting to see that. He qualified almost six-tenths of a second off fellow rookie teammate Mick Schumacher’s time in qualifying, and finished a minute down in the race. He was called a “dumbass” in qualifying by Latifi - the Canadian a long way down the list of the drivers you commonly hear venting fury on team radio - and incurred the wrath of Perez in the race after almost wiping him out, despite blue flags, with a five-second time penalty following.

Mazepin admitted after his spins in Bahrain that he needed to rein things in and understand he wasn’t driving a Mercedes, a car he’d tested privately to help prepare for F1. But the gap to the rest of the field so far has done little to show that he is yet ready to be part of the furniture in F1.

Barcelona may be better for Mazepin, given he’s raced on the track in both F2 and GP3. The learning curve is certainly steep in F1, yet after unforced errors in the first two races, Schumacher appears to have turned a corner and seemed to be racing in another category last weekend.

Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR21

Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR21

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

9. Weird Portimao is a great addition to the F1 calendar

The buzzwords for the past weekend were “undulating”, “rollercoaster”, “grip” and “asphalt”, perfectly reflecting the good and the bad of Portimao.

The layout itself quickly won a place in the heart of all the drivers last year, only for them to struggle with the low-grip tarmac. Cold conditions in late October seemed to be to blame, only for a repeat to occur in early May this time around.

Pirelli didn’t help matters by bringing its hardest selection of tyres to the race, a decision criticised by Hamilton. Verstappen said after FP2 that he “didn’t enjoy a single lap” at the track, struggling with the lack of grip and unpredictability of the asphalt.

It’s a shame that a fantastic track such as Portimao hasn’t been hit in total anger by these F1 cars, due to a mix of the asphalt and the tyres. The same was true in Turkey last year - but will hopefully be remedied come the confirmed return in June.

That said, the outlier nature of Portimao also makes it quite good fun. It allows for teams like Alpine to vault up the order, or for Williams to nearly make Q3. It punishes mistakes - see Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying, or Verstappen - and allows for plenty of overtakes.

Portimao may have twice appeared as a stand-in on the calendar, but having it as a permanent fixture would be really welcome in the future. F1 should embrace its weirdness.

Zak Brown, CEO, McLaren Racing

Zak Brown, CEO, McLaren Racing

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

10. F1’s budget cap sanctions remain a point for debate

The early political battles of F1 2021 have taken little time to emerge, with the Portimao weekend throwing up some contention over team alliances.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown issued a lengthy open letter on Thursday that covered a number of topics, but most pointedly called for F1 to move to a secret ballot voting system to stop bigger teams pressurising their smaller partners.

As the weekend wore on, it emerged that the F1 Commission meeting earlier in the week had included some debate over sanctions linked to the financial regulations. In the meeting, three teams - Ferrari, Red Bull and AlphaTauri - opposed sporting sanctions for breaches, according to Mercedes boss Wolff.

Ferrari chief Binotto denied that claim, saying he was not opposed to sporting sanctions - after all, they are already in the regulations - but that clarity was required over some of the details for penalising procedural breaches.

It is nevertheless an early battleground, and an important one against the context of the budget cap in its first year. The minutiae still need to be finalised to get everyone fully aligned, for although there may be broad agreement of the need for sporting penalties, the finer details are still up for debate.

Talks in the coming weeks will look to resolve the issue, but it indicates that not everyone is quite on the same page at the moment when it comes to how the new financial regulations are functioning.

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B, and the rest of the field at the start

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B, and the rest of the field at the start

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

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Series Formula 1
Event Portuguese GP
Author Luke Smith
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