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Formula 1

Portuguese GP Preview: Verstappen vs Hamilton set for Round 3

This weekend's Portuguese Grand Prix looks set to be the latest instalment in the heavyweight bout that is Max Verstappen vs. Lewis Hamilton.

Article
To news overview © Mercedes

Two weeks on from the tense showdown at Imola, Formula 1 resumes action this weekend in Portugal. With Max Verstappen striking back from the disappointment of Bahrain to storm past Lewis Hamilton and claim the win in Italy, the Portuguese GP is set to deliver another unpredictable chapter in what is becoming Formula 1's heavyweight rivalry.

Portimao, like Imola, is another venue to benefit from Formula 1 needing suitable venues for Grand Prix racing. Making its debut as a race venue in 2020, the inaugural event and the first in Portugal since Estoril in 1996 provided a huge amount of excitement.

Damp conditions, mixed with a resurfaced track that yielded little grip, resulted in a chaotic start that rewarded drivers who started on the softer tyre compound. But, as was the way in 2020, the Mercedes drivers eventually made their way forward and dominated to the chequered flag.

Portimao is a reasonably fast, flowing circuit with some nice elevation change and a long final corner into a straight that is more than adequate for overtaking. It's picturesque and old-school, despite having only been built in 2008.

So what might unfold this weekend?

The battle at the front

Unlike the first two rounds, Pirelli are bringing their hardest compound tyres to Portugal. It's a circuit demanding on traction and tyre stress, with some heavy braking zones added into the mix.

As a result of the harder compounds, it's a track that will reward cars with good mechanical grip and downforce. In theory, this should favour Red Bull at this early point of the season as their RB16B appears to enjoy a slight advantage in terms of rear stability.

Mercedes aren't lagging quite as far behind as they are trying to make out in the media though, with Hamilton more than able to keep Verstappen honest at Imola despite the loss of a few tenths of a second per lap due to front wing damage in the first half of the race.

Once the track dried and Hamilton's car was fully repaired under the red flag, his ultimate pace was unrivalled, even by Verstappen, although it's difficult to gauge whether the Red Bull driver was truly pushing.

Verstappen's aggressive start showed that he means business this year, and has the tools, at least at this point of the season, to truly bring the battle to Hamilton. The pressure of that situation, unusually for Lewis, resulted in the reigning champion making an error. Don't expect that to happen too often, but do expect Hamilton to want to make a statement of his own in retaliation.

Last year, Sergio Perez and Verstappen made contact on the first lap. This isn't likely to happen now that the pair are teammates at Red Bull, but Sergio's Imola weekend proved that the Mexican driver has the pace to get in the mix.

Perez was able to qualify on the front row and, had the race remained dry, would likely have fared much better than he did in the tricky damp conditions in which he had to learn how his new car handled. Rain isn't forecast for this weekend, meaning Portugal could finally show what Perez is truly capable of.

With Valtteri Bottas failing to qualify well or race competitively at Imola, Hamilton was left to fend against the Red Bulls by himself. It could well be a similar story this weekend, with Bottas having to dig deep to find more pace if he wants to fight back against the Bulls.

It will also be interesting to find out just how much damage there was to Bottas' car in light of the Imola crash, with Mercedes yet to reveal the full extent of damage to his powertrain and gearbox. While it won't have an effect on this weekend, it could have implications later in the season if any crucial components are written off.

McLaren best of the rest?

McLaren's stellar start to 2021 continued at Imola, with Lando Norris scoring his second ever podium. While it probably wouldn't have happened without Perez' mistakes or Bottas' lack of speed, the relative pace of the MCL35M at Imola should give the Woking team huge optimism heading to Portimao.

The same characteristics that rewarded McLaren's dry pace at Imola should translate well to Portimao, with their excellent rear diffuser concept providing the stability required for confidence.

Norris was a force to be reckoned with at Imola, utilising his increasing knowledge and experience to come within three laps of holding off Hamilton for second place. Don't rule out the British driver from picking up the pieces if a Red Bull or Mercedes drops the ball.

Daniel Ricciardo is still working on increasing his comfort with his new car, and was bested by Esteban Ocon at Renault in Portugal last year. Form would thus suggest that it will be Norris, not Ricciardo, leading the charge for Woking, but you can never rule the Australian out from producting something magical.

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