Will championship contenders Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen go wheel-to-wheel for a third race in a row this weekend? Here’s the talking points for the Portuguese Grand Prix.
Hamilton vs Verstappen round three?
As Formula 1 heads to Autodromo do Algarve for round three of the world championship, Mercedes and Red Bull are uncertain which if either of them has the upper hand.
Victory at Imola brought Verstappen within one point of the championship lead. He’s never topped the standings before, but he almost certainly will do if he leads Hamilton home again on Sunday.
But his team principal Christian Horner is unwilling to make any prediction other than that it will remain close between the pair.
“We’ve now had a sample of two races, I always said it’d take four races or so to see a true reflection of the competitive positions of each of the teams,” said Horner after the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix.
“After two races we’re starting to see a pattern that the cars and drivers are very, very tight between Lewis and Max.”
With all teams needing to think sooner rather than later about their development programme for the new technical regulations coming for the 2022 F1 season, neither of the championship contenders can afford to keep plugging away at this year’s cars for long. But Horner acknowledges those “marginal gains” could prove decisive in this year’s title fight.
“I hope, obviously, selfishly, for us,” he said. “But also, I think Formula 1 are crying out for a great rivalry between these two drivers and the sport will benefit from that.”
Despite their victory in Bahrain, Mercedes were stung by Red Bull’s show of superior pace. At Imola they threatened to again defy the competitive order by snatching a win, and though they didn’t, trackside operations director Andrew Shovlin believes they put Red Bull “under more consistent pressure than we than we were able to in Bahrain.”
“It certainly feels like this is going to be an exciting championship,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like one where either of us are going to run away with it in terms of performance. And we are working hard to develop the car in the next few races and hopefully will bring some useful improvements.”
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The point-less trio
As the championship heads into its third race, three teams are yet to score any points, yet two of them have let clear chances go begging.
A slow pit stop and an errant visor tear-off cost Antonio Giovinazzi chances to score over the opening two races. His team mate Kimi Raikkonen would have finished in the top 10 last time out had he not collected a somewhat obscure penalty.
Williams can point to the collision between George Russell and Valtteri Bottas – which occured as they disputed ninth place – as part of the reason why they remain on zero. Haas, however, may have resigned themselves to the likelihood of ending they year in last place.
More grip, better racing?
Ahead of F1’s first visit to the Autodromo do Algarve for last year’s race, the Portuguese circuit was extensively resurfaced. The track was still fresh and lacking grip when the weekend began.
Although the state of the track’s surface was not nearly as challenging as what the drivers encountered at Istanbul Park, it wasn’t ideal. Race day was enlivened by an early shower, but if this weekend’s race is dry drivers will be hoping the track offers a little more grip, and with it better racing.
Alpine’s place in the order
Fernando Alonso has vowed to be more competitive this weekend, after finishing behind his team mate at the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix. Although both Alpine cars scored points at Imola, showing an improvement from their Bahrain performance, they still seemed adrift of much of the midfield, and were promoted by Raikkonen’s penalty.
AlphaTauri, Ferrari and McLaren showed much more competitive pace, with McLaren first among those. Alpine did say, however, that although they were bringing updates to Imola it would be as part of an iterative package that would continue into the Portuguese Grand Prix. If they have a substantial pace improvement this weekend – or equally, if they don’t – it could show more where they fit into the order.
Ilott’s practice outing
Callum Ilott, last year’s Formula 2 runner-up, should have made his F1 practice debut in last year’s Eifel Grand Prix. But his planned outing for Haas did not go ahead after poor weather prevented the sessions from taking place.
Since then he appeared in the young driver test in Abu Dhabi for Alfa Romeo. He will return to them this weekend for another shot at a practice session. It’ll stand him in good stead if he has to appear as a substitute for either driver, as he will share reserve duties with Robert Kubica.
Calendar changes and Sprint Qualifying
Tow major developments have been announced in the lead-up to the race. Yesterday a tweak to the 2021 F1 calendar was confirmed: The Canadian Grand Prix will not go ahead, and the series will go to Turkey instead.
Formula 1 has also confirmed a huge change for three weekends later in the season. New ‘Sprint Qualifying’ sessions will take place at three rounds and award championship points. F1 has trumpeted the fact it received the unanimous backing of teams, but what about the plan has got them so excited? Perhaps we’ll find out this weekend.
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