But Verstappen splitting the Mercs and putting a Red Bull on the Barcelona front row for the first time since 2012 means that, unless Max makes a tardy getaway from the slippery side of the grid, Lewis is unlikely to have a rear gunner tomorrow.
Referencing the historic strength of both Mercedes and Hamilton at Barcelona (Lewis’s sixth pole is one behind Schumacher’s circuit record seven), Verstappen was happy with his 0.03sec deficit and happy to be back on a circuit which had ‘proper’ grip. Another titanic scrap is in prospect.
Bottas may or may not be a part of it. His race pace has looked a little suspect thus far this year but there was nothing wrong with his single-lap pace in Barcelona. He broke the timing beam a tenth behind Verstappen and was left grimacing.
“That was close…” he said. “It was gusty and the first Q3 runs were quicker. I had a snap going into Turn 10 which cost me a tenth, and that was the difference.”
You can’t think of too many sportsmen with the talent of Charles Leclerc who are quite as self-depracating! Talking about Portimão, he said: “In the race I finally managed to drive properly. In qualifying, in conditions like that (windy and highly unpredictable) I shouldn’t push the car to the maximum straight from FP1. I did that, struggled, and never had any good confidence or references. In such conditions, I need to change my approach.”
Well, there was a bit of wind in Spain, and even if it wasn’t quite Portugal-spec, Leclerc wasn’t exactly circumspect. He was quicker than home hero Carlos Sainz in every practice and qualifying session bar Q2 and starts fourth for the third time in four 2021 races.
The gap to the ultimate Mercedes/Red Bull pace on a circuit that is often a good seasonal barometer of car performance given its technical nature and variety of low/medium/high-speed corners, was a fairly substantial three-quarters of a second but Maranello will be happy to once again be at the front of the super-tight midfield battle.
Leclerc was just over a tenth in front of his 6th-placed team-mate. Splitting them for Alpine, was a stand-out performance from Esteban Ocon, who outqualified Fernando Alonso for the third consecutive race. More impressive than that was the margin – 0.56sec as Alonso got the second blue car through to Q3 by the narrowest of margins – a hundredth quicker than Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin and two hundredths clear of Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri!