F1’s stop/start beginning to the season will feel like a distant memory after the next two race weekends with Portugal and Spain going back-to-back.
The scene of Lewis Hamilton’s record-breaking 92nd F1 win last season, Portimao hosts round three of an intriguing 2021 season.
Mercedes were comfortable victors on the last visit to Portugal but Red Bull has stepped up as a title contender and it’ll be Max Verstappen looking to make it two-in-a-row on Sunday after his victory at Imola.
Team boss Toto Wolff believes that Red Bull has let his team off the hook after the opening two rounds, saying that to be leading both championships is a “get out of jail free card” considering the team’s relative performances. Will Verstappen and co punish them this weekend with a one-two?
There are plenty of question marks still hanging around from the winter break too. How will the team-mates of the title protagonists get on? Can world champions Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel finally show their quality after tough starts to the season? Will there be any shocks in the midfield as Ferrari and McLaren look set to go head-to-head for the best of the rest honours?
Here are a few things to keep an eye on throughout the 2021 Portuguese Grand Prix weekend.
It’s admittedly a small sample size but the new Mercedes looks like its solved the issues the team used to have with overcooking its tyres. Unfortunately for the Brackley and Brixworth bunch, it has swung the other way and the W12 does not fire the tyres up as well as its closest rival in Red Bull.
The issue was evident at Imola, as both Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas only started setting decent lap times after a handful of laps lagging behind those around them, as Verstappen flew into a comfortable 5sec lead and Bottas slummed around in the bottom half of the top 10.
Once Hamilton had fired up his tyres, he ate into the Red Bull lead but it took the first stint and worn ‘slicktermediates’ to do so. In dry conditions, that isn’t a luxury the Mercedes driver will have against his title rival and could settle the race if the Dutch driver can escape up the road from the start.
Weather conditions in Portimao for this weekend are luckily a lot warmer for the world champions, so there might not be the same issues facing them this time around.
It might even tip the scales into Mercedes advantage. A warmer track surface could lessen the warm-up required and put the W12 right in the window to set the pace from the off. While over a single lap it is likely Red Bull still has the measure of its competition, a Hamilton-led Merc charge on Sunday is not out of the question whatsoever.
Watch this space.
Double dose of DRS
The Turn Five braking zone could turn into an overtaking point with the new DRS zone
JORGE GUERRERO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
While the main straight has a shorter DRS zone than last year, there is an additional zone down the hill leading to Turn Five. The DRS zone on the start/finish line has been reduced by 165m which might make overtaking into the sweeping first right-hander a little more complicated than last year when passes were a bit too easy.
The secondary zone is a nice addition though and could open up the possibility to another overtaking zone into a tricky braking zone into Five. The fiddly final sector of Portimao might be too tight for switchbacks and positional swaps but there should be plenty to keep an eye on for the first half of the lap.
Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez showed just how close things can get fighting for position last year. The pair were inseparable for the entire first half of the lap, trading position back and forth in and out of corners. The extra DRS zone should hopefully promote more of the same this year.
Carlos Sainz & Yuki Tsunoda
Arguably the two stand-outs of the two races of 2021 have been Carlos Sainz and Yuki Tsunoda. The latter has started his F1 life with some gusto, pushing with an old school win or bin style that has granted him a decent amount of fanfare.
But Tsunoda hasn’t yet earned a result as strong as the AlphaTauri car looks truly capable of, though there’s more to come from both car and driver and that’s an exciting prospect.
Tsunoda himself has said he will approach the Portuguese GP weekend with a slightly different mentality to the previous two races, aiming to put together a clean weekend from start to finish rather than attack from the off.