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25 Oct 2020

Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale explains how the Portuguese Grand Prix unfolded

Ambient 20.7° Track 26.1° Humidity 64.4% Wind 3.5 m/s


Howling gusty winds and a grey sky hovered menacingly over the paddock as the teams and drivers made their last minute ablutions and the time ticked inexorably away to the moment when the die would be cast and the lights go out. Pirelli seemed to think that a Medium-Hard one stop was the best way to go and that the two stopper would be the poorest of choices, barring, of course a change of weather and/or a Safety Car, or indeed a well timed Virtual Safety Car.

Turn 1 looked to be a likely cause of said events and it looked to be a fairly vicious advantage on the odd side of the grid. Which might indeed give Verstappen the advantage he would be looking for on the Soft tyre, if he could get it up to temperature before the start, which was not a given in the current weather.

On the way to the grid there were more than a few reports of graining, highlighting just exactly how much of a role tyre management was about to play in the race. And, happily enough, on the formation lap there was, well, not some rain but a fine mist perhaps, enough to make the surface greasy and increase the likelihood of fun at the start...


Lights Out!!!! Great Start by Verstappen as he nails Bottas on the outside and as Valterri fought back he took Max wide in Turn 2 with a nasty snap of oversteer on the challenging surface as he retook the spot. As Verstappen regained the circuit having been slowed was contact between him and Perez as the Racing Point swung round him and then turned in, collecting the understeering Red Bull and sending Sergio spinning off the circuit as drops of rain began to fall. Bottas continued his blazing start as Hamilton looked to be suffering and Valterri was easily by, up the inside and the woes continued for Lewis as Sainz rocketed by him as well to chase Bottas down for the lead. Through the hairpin the McLaren rocked up the inside and, wait for it, took the lead from Mercedes. Apparently in the damp, the Soft tyre was worth rather a lot...

Verstappen had been relegated to P5 thanks to his contact with Perez but it was worse news for Racing Point as they brought Sergio in for some new Mediums and he was relegated to the back of the pack, albeit in clean air. By lap 6 with the Mediums beginning to come into their own, Bottas easily retook the lead from Sainz into Turn 1 on lap 6 with Hamilton queued up to have a go and well within DRS on the McLaren.

Looking back through the field it was, with the exception of Albon that the Soft tyre was a big winner at the start, with Albon down 5 spots somehow (even side of the grid perhaps?) and running P11 and just outside the points, a corrective clearly needed by the end of the race for his long term prospects...2 laps on and both Hamilton and Verstappen were by Sainz who was maintaining for the moment a 2 second lead over the Ferrari of Leclerc who was chasing and had just nicked P5 from Norris. Indeed, he was looking faster than Sainz ahead.

At the front, Bottas maintained a 2 second gap to Hamilton and at least on lap 9, they were running virtually identical on pace with Verstappen about half a second off and beginning to complain about his tyres and by lap 12 nearly 5 seconds off the "battle" for the lead, which honestly was very much about tyre management until the pit window for the Medium got a bit closer. Into lap 13 Ocon took P10 away from Albon, as Raikkonen had pitted on the same lap thus promoting those behind him. Kimi was out on the Mediums and 14 seconds back of Latifi as Perez had finally caught the tail of the dragon. Leclerc had also gotten the better of Sainz and it was now Gasly, rare in making the Softs work well into the double digit laps, just outside DRS on Sainz ahead.

Ricciardo was in at the end of lap 14 for a set of Mediums and so compact was the field that he emerged P19 11 seconds back of Latifi in P18. but just ahead of Raikkonen who had nearly caught up to the Williams. Not the least bit encouraging for the wannabe one stoppers was the fact that Magnussen, who had started on the Hards, was making absolutely no headway...

Hamilton, meanwhile had begun to close the gap to his teammate and as lap 18 rolled into the books he was suddenly 0.3 seconds a lap faster and nearly inside DRS on Bottas. Gasly, however, was already well inside DRS on Sainz and chasing him down rather efficiently. Lance Stroll had a go at Norris into Turn 1, going wide and turning in, not all that dissimilar to his incident with Verstappen in FP2. Stroll plummeted to P10 and Norris also complained of damage, but attention was turned to the front as Hamilton was all over Bottas and it was job done at the start of lap 20.

Both Norris and Stroll were in for a wing change after that incident, and it was, not surprisingly, under investigation. Perez had worked his way up to P11 and Ocon was now taking full advantage of the Stroll/Norris contretemps and methodically eating into Sainz' 6 second lead. Bottas had fallen off the proverbial cliff and was trailing Hamilton by 3 seconds and at the end of lap 23 Verstappen was in, and out just ahead of Ocon with some new Medium tyres to play with. Stroll got a 5 second dinger for causing a collision and now it was a waiting game as the phantom rains were now on the way.

Kvyat was in at the end of lap 25 as Hamilton now pronounced himself quite satisfied with the tyres and the race continued to be settled save for Perez, who had quietly wandered up to P8. Sainz was in at the end of the lap 27 and out behind both Raikkonen and Ricciardo and given his fairly early stop it looked like a 2 stopper for both drivers. Vettel was next in for a set of Hards, and Gasly followed suit the following lap. He managed to sneak out just ahead of Ricciardo and on what was going to be, barring rain, a one stop looked to be very well suited to another decent finish.

The cold tyres were not his friend, though, and Ricciardo was easily by him as the Alpha Tauri was struggling to get it's tyres up to temperature. Perez had worked his way all the way up to Ocon and was looking to have an easy DRS pass in another lap or so. At his point, lap 32, it looked like both Mercedes, Ocon and Russell (running P7 no less) were looking to run a one stop with the rest of the current top 10, save Verstappen who was going to be on a knife edge to get to the end, likely to be 2 stopping.

Big fight between Sainz and Raikkonen that was ended into the start of lap 34, with Carlos taking the last points paying place. Perez, who had been playing the long game, finally got round the outside of Ocon after a lovely back and forth from Turn 1 all the way down to the Turn 5 hairpin on the following lap. Leclerc was in for a set of Hard tyres and the dilemma now for Russell and Ocon was whether to extend far enough and hope to get the Softs home, with Gasly having run nearly 30 laps on them or bail for the Hards and try to limit the damage. Stroll, who had in the meantime picked up an extra 5 second spot for track limits, was in for a set of Softs and all the way to the back. Russell was in and out on the Hard tyre all the way back to P15 as Bottas picked up a warning for track limits,

After a lap or so, it was clear that the only hope for the one stoppers was going to be the Soft tyre to the end and it was just the Mercedes and Ocon still waiting, clearly, for the window to get the Softs to the end. End of lap 40, Hamilton was in, and though he protested the tyres were still good, he was told he'd cleared the entire field so, ya know, why not....

Onto the Hards then, for no chances and Bottas in the following lap for the same after he asked for the Softs, and now it was looking like at least some of the early stoppers might be able to get to the end, specifically Ricciardo, whose teammate had now taken a set of Mediums from the start through lap 41. Grosjean got nailed for a 5 second penalty for track limits and the strategy battle between Ocon and the rest of the midfield was just looking ever more fascinating as he continued to run competitive times on increasingly older tyres. Ricciardo then locked it up massively, which not only threw him back into Gasly's clutches, but might also have tipped him into a two stop if the damage was bad enough.

Lap 45 and the rain dance was being done by Lewis, but he was told that it would be nought but drops as Gasly rocked by Ricciardo into Turn 1. Perez was in at the end of the lap for his second stop and it was explained that Bottas earlier call for Softs was ignored because that's the way Mercedes works... Perez was back out on a set of Softs just ahead of Gasly, which promoted Ocon to P5 until his inevitable pit stop was made. Albon was in for a second stop, at the end of lap 47 and he was out P12 with a set of Softs and a load of overtaking to do.

At the front, Bottas and Hamilton were trading fast laps, with the difference now down to thousandths between the two, with Hamilton currently in the lead as lap 51 got underway. Stroll retired at the end of lap 54 and it was Ocon, finally in as well, out on a set of Softs and out P8, ahead of Ricciardo and off on his adventure. It was a slow stop for Renault, though and now it was 3.5 seconds to Sainz, and 7 seconds to Gasly.

Kvyat picked up a penalty for track limits, a busy day for the stewards, and Norris was on the radio saying the wind was up and making life quite difficult. Error from Gasly on lap 57 cost him his entire lead over Sainz and it was all looking a bit fun as the final laps hove into view. 0.7 seconds for Ocon on lap 57 and 2.5 seconds to get Sainz. But the situation was getting complicated as Vettel had caught up Ricciardo and was looking very much like he would get DRS the follwing lap. And indeed he did, but Ricciardo had the advantage of getting DRS from his teammate as Ocon was suffering from a cold front right brake disc... Not ideal but presumably fixable.

Lap 61 Vettel had a big lockup and the battle for P9 looked to be off for the moment as Hamilton, with a cramp, reset fast lap for the race... Start of lap 62 and Ocon looked to be up to speed on the Softs, but the bad news for him was that Sainz was able to match his pace, but the pair were catching Gasly. And Gasly was catching an ailing Perez, whose used Softs looked to be nearing their end of life, who now looked to be under threat.

Lap 64 and Gasly had his first go with Perez defending hard to maintain his position and around they went, with Gasly now all over the gearbox of of the Racing Point and into T1 round the outside the Alpha Tauri got the job done with Sainz queued up to do the same at the start of the last lap.

And it was a fait accompli, with Sainz by and now Ocon trying to close the gap before the checquers and have at least a go, but the balky pitstop had been the final nail in Renault's hopes and as the field crossed the line it was Hamilton, breaking Schumacher's record for all time wins, followed rather undramatically by Bottas and Verstappen. A stealthy Leclerc was next across the line, then the midfield pack of Gasly, Sainz, Perez and Ocon, with Ricciardo and a finally points collecting Vettel rounding out the top 10.

Smashing day for Mercedes, what with Hamilton taking his 92nd and record breaking win and Mercedes alone and untroubled at the front. A remarkable and likely to be long lived achievement and incredible result for a team that has just been back in the sport a decade full time, though they did buy a house with good bones so to speak. Sans record breaking it might well be Ferrari that was the talk of the town, though, as Leclerc ran a beautiful one stop and at least in these conditions, the Ferrari seemed to have found it's race pace hiding in the cushions whilst they actually managed to get Vettel into the points as well for the first time in forever...

Happy Days again at Alpha Tauri as Gasly seems to have really found his stride, and despite the total rebuild from the team after his flambe in FP2, P5 for Pierre is starting to become a bit of a thing and his exceptional stint on the Softs led the way for all the teams even as Kvyat's race fell slowly but inexorably apart. Likewise at McLaren, where Sainz leading at the start was just off the charts and his eventual finish in P6 a nice points haul as they have begun to get atop their development issues and regain some ground. Their happiness will have been somewhat measured as Stroll taking out Norris kept them from a much larger haul of points and a bit of breathing room in the incredibly tight battle for the best of the rest.

It was a bit more sanguine for Racing Point as Perez lost out several places in the closing laps, but given the first lap stop it was a remarkable recovery drive. Rather tempered by Stroll's less than stellar return after the rather umm dubious handling of his illness in which he crashed, he crashed and then retired.

Renault finishing both cars in the points would have been more meaningful had they been slightly further up the field but in particular Ocon going 53 laps on the Medium and were it not for a cooling brake and balky pitstop perhaps having a go at Perez at least, if not Sainz and Gasly seemed to put a smile on their faces, with Cyril on the radio personally to congratulate their young driver. And being the only midfield team to finish both drivers in the points (if you set aside Ferrari) on a circuit where they were clearly not at their best also goes a long way towards shoring up the old confidence, if not really doing them much good in their WDC chase.

And even though out of the points, excellent drives by both Raikkonen for the other Alfa going P11 and, hold onto your hats, Russell for Williams going P14 were, well, let's call them faint rays of sunshine as the teams wind things up and get ready to do it all again at Imola next week, but this time with just 2 days in the weekend which alone will make it a fascinating watch. And that's before we add an old school circuit, unpredictable and perhaps inappropriate weather and a total lack of familiarity with the track just for fun. No doubt the race gods are already plotting furiously...



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