2021 Portuguese Grand Prix race report: Hamilton wins game of fine margins against Verstappen


Max Verstappen fell foul of track limits again and made a crucial error in his fight with race winner Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, 2021 Portugueuse Grand Prix

Hamilton's decisive pass on Verstappen set him on the path to victory in Portugal

Lars Baron/Getty Images

Fine margins could well prove decisive in this year’s championship battle, and Max Verstappen will rue being on the wrong side of them as he leaves Portugal.

On Saturday, it was an unexpected snap of oversteer that forced him wide at Turn 4 that was to blame, causing his first lap to be deleted in Q3 and losing him a time that would have proven good enough for pole.

Then in the race, two moments at Turn 14 stood out, each costing him against the two Mercedes drivers in different ways.

Unlike Imola, there was no perfect start from Verstappen as he remained third off the line, with Valtteri Bottas retaining the lead from pole as Lewis Hamilton slotted in behind. But then Kimi Räikkönen clumsily ran into the back of team-mate Antonio Giovinazzi on the pit straight at the end of the opening lap, leaving debris all over the track and leading to a Safety Car.

Bottas nailed the restart, catching Hamilton unawares as Verstappen reacted well, getting the jump on the championship leader into Turn 1 to snatch second. The top three pulled away rapidly while Sergio Perez got stuck behind Lando Norris in fourth, and it appeared that Bottas was under threat from Verstappen until the first small error.

Losing time through Turn 14 at the end of lap 10, Verstappen was unable to hold off Hamilton into Turn 1 and slipped back to third. It would prove a crucial moment because the most successful driver in F1 history was not going to offer up any more opportunities in return.

Nine laps later it was a case of déjà vu as Hamilton closed in on his team-mate and swept into the lead on lap 20, although unlike last season it was a much later and higher-risk move around the outside as the pair tipped it into Turn 1.

“I am telling you that was such a tough race,” Hamilton said. “Physically and mentally, just keeping everything together. It was very windy out there, very easy to put a foot wrong.

Valtteri Bottas, Lewis Hamilton, 2021 Portuguese GP

Bottas couldn’t hold his team-mate back for long after clearing Verstappen

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

“I didn’t get quite as good a start as Valtteri and then lost out on the restart which was not good. I was not happy about that, naturally. I really had to position myself the best that I could. I think Max made a mistake at some point through the lap, which was like perfect, I knew that was going to be the lap that I could be as close as I could be to him in the last sector.

“With Valtteri, I had to make the move early on before the tyres were destroyed. I managed to just get him into Turn 1, just right on the limit.”

But Hamilton didn’t disappear. In a sign of how hard all three were pushing, Verstappen closed up on Bottas and all three ran within three seconds until the pit stops.

By now Perez was back up to fourth having seen Norris struggling to make his soft tyres last, jumping the McLaren at the end of the pit straight but being some 10 seconds adrift of the leaders. That necessitated a long first stint for the Mexican, with Verstappen first to pit of the top four after some of the midfield runners showed how powerful the undercut could be.

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Verstappen’s stop was a quick one and although Bottas emerged ahead a lap later, the Red Bull swept by into Turn 5 thanks to his warmer tyres to take second place.

Hamilton came in a lap later to cover both and emerged comfortably ahead, but at this point it was Perez in the lead as he stayed out.

“It was pretty clear that our race was pretty safe from behind and we had nothing to lose at that point,” the Mexican said. “That’s why we tried something different, in case of a Safety Car, fastest laps at the end, but once you give that margin to the cars ahead it is hard to recover.”

Perez was in no man’s land, while Norris had Charles Leclerc covered in the fight for fifth. Those positions were somewhat processional, with Esteban Ocon providing the action as he climbed to seventh ahead of his team-mate Fernando Alonso, as Sainz faded to finish outside the top ten after the decision to run the second stint on medium tyres – rather than hards – failed to pay off.

That late slide allowed Pierre Gasly to salvage a point in tenth, having been overtaken by Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo in the closing stages, with the Australian putting in a very solid recovery after his Q1 exit.

Ahead of them, it still looked like a three-car race for the win, although one that Hamilton had control of. The gap remained around three seconds but Verstappen had to worry more about Bottas behind than mounting an attack for the lead until the Finn – after a direct message of encouragement from Toto Wolff – suffered an exhaust sensor issue that dropped him five seconds adrift.

Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, 2021 Portuguese GP

The title race between Verstappen and Hamilton may well be settled by the finest of margins

Mario Renzi - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

“When you start from pole position there’s only one target for the race and that is to win the race and that didn’t happen today, so I’m disappointed,” Bottas said. “I don’t really know why in the first stint I didn’t have the pace, it felt like everything, in terms of race start and re-start was good from our side but I could see quite quickly in the race that we just didn’t have the pace like Lewis and Max had and I don’t really have an explanation.

“It was better on the hard tyre, at some points I was catching Max and then I had an issue with one sensor, I started to lose power and lost about five seconds to Max and that was it.”

“The whole track limit debate is just frustrating. It’s been brutal for us across the first three events”

The pressure was off Verstappen from behind but he couldn’t close on Hamilton, so when Bottas stopped for soft tyres to chase the fastest lap, Red Bull followed suit. Verstappen looked to have snatched the extra point as he pipped Bottas’ effort by 0.016sec, only to see his final lap deleted for once again exceeding track limits, and once again Turn 14 was the source of frustration.

“The margins are so tight that track limits have been quite expensive for us this weekend,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. “Obviously we need to be perfect but there were strengths and weaknesses to the cars. Let’s not forget that Lewis dropped the ball in a pretty big way at Imola a couple of weeks ago and got away with it quite lightly…

“It’s inevitable when you’re pushing at the limit like these guys are it’s all about those fine margins. The whole track limit debate is just frustrating. It’s been brutal for us across the first three events – the win in Bahrain, the pole position yesterday and then the fastest lap, so it’s been pretty expensive for us.”

Hamilton might have dropped the ball in Imola, but he wasn’t going to do the same again and the championship leader acknowledges just what it is currently taking to come out on top in the fight at the front.

“I think none of us are under any illusions as to just how hard it is out there for us, how close the battle is, and how we are all giving absolutely everything in our day-to-day lives in order to be best prepared and deliver on the weekends,” Hamilton said. “The pressure is immense between us all and I think there’s a huge amount of strength between the three of us and with the other drivers here.

“Of course it’s always great when you have a race like today where you are able to follow and overtake and capitalise on the small margins and gaps that you have. At the same time, look at the restart – Max has been pulling absolutely everything out of the Red Bull and giving us a great run for our money. I think it’s going to be like this for the rest of the season, which I think can be incredibly exciting.”

It definitely can be, but so too can a championship hinge on what feels like relatively insignificant moments early in the year. Today’s will be small ones Verstappen hopes don’t prove costly.