After a disastrous Emilia Romagna Grand Prix two weeks ago, Valtteri Bottas bounced back at the first opportunity to take pole position for Saturday’s Portuguese Grand Prix.
But it was an unusual qualifying session, with the battle for pole position dictated by tiny margins and a tiny mistake by one of 2021’s title contenders.
Bottas beats Hamilton and Verstappen
Such was the unusual nature of qualifying for the Portuguese Grand Prix that Valtteri Bottas took pole position with the third fastest lap of the day.
Teammate Lewis Hamilton set a time 0.380s faster during the second session of qualifying before the times were reset for Q3 and Max Verstappen set a time 0.139s faster in Q3 only for it to be deleted for exceeding track limits at Turn 4.
But credit where it’s due, when the pressure was on and pole position was on the line, Bottas hooked up a lap that kept his car between the white lines and beat teammate Hamilton by 0.007s.
It was Bottas first pole position since last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix and couldn’t be better timed for the Finn, who dropped 28 points to Hamilton in the opening two rounds of this season.
A lot of those lost points came as a result of his poor showing two weeks ago at Imola, where he qualified eighth on the grid and crashed out of the race while running ninth and fighting with the Williams of George Russell.
“It has definitively put a smile on my face, because in the first two races of the season the qualifying from my side hasn’t really been, at least in the Q3 session, hasn’t been the strongest point,” Bottas said.
“Getting everything out of the tyres, getting the tyres to work well, it has been a bit of a weakness, but now it felt like things are starting to go in the right direction, and I’ve been feeling strong all weekend.
“So I knew it was possible and it definitively makes me really happy to put it together in Q3 and be on pole.”
The frustration of Hamilton and Verstappen was clear to see, given that pole position was within both drivers’ grasp.
Hamilton set the fastest time of the day — a 1:17.968 — using the medium compound tyre in Q2, but when he tried to replicate that effort at the end of Q3 a number of factors combined to leave him 0.7s off his best time from Q2 and 0.007s off his teammate.
“On that Q2 lap it felt solid and I thought we were in the right window but it’s temperatures, there are gusts of wind so you can be unlucky and get tailwinds that perhaps you wouldn’t normally get on particular corners,” Hamilton said.
“So it’s a combination of things and then just generally it was not particularly the tidiest — not great laps from myself really so I only had that one clean lap in Q2.”
Verstappen appeared to be the fastest driver on the soft compound tyres in Q3, which would have netted him first place on the grid had his car not stepped out sideways while cresting Turn 4.
Frustratingly for Red Bull, the mistake saw Verstappen run wide at the corner and have his lap time — a 1:18.209, good enough for pole position — deleted.
It was all the more galling as the mistake only cost him time rather than gaining him an advantage.
Verstappen’s second attempt, which secured him third on the grid, was in comparable to his deleted time through the first two sectors, but he lost nearly 0.5s in the wake of Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin in the final sector of the lap.
“I didn’t enjoy one single lap this weekend, just because of the state of the track,” Verstappen said. “The layout is amazing but the grip we are experiencing, I don’t think it’s nice.
“I know it’s the same for everyone, but for me personally, it’s not enjoyable to drive.
“I had my little moment in Turn 4 on the first run in Q3. At the end it showed that was the fastest lap, but… it just showed that it was a really difficult session to get any kind of grip in it because that corner is flat and suddenly, out-of-the-blue the car just snapped on me and I ran a bit wide.
“I thought I could do that lap again, so I go out and I was within a tenth of the lap and in the last sector I lost all my lap time. Yeah, messy – but it is what it is.”
The good news is that Sunday’s race looks set to be as competitive as Saturday’s qualifying and, like qualifying, the victorious driver will likely be the one who performs at his best when it matters most.
— Laurence Edmondson
Ricciardo still searching for his mojo
We know how good Daniel Ricciardo is but he’s not been able to showcase that so far for McLaren.
He is clearly struggling to get to grips with his new car and admitted it was a tough moment to be asked to move over for teammate Lando Norris at Imola two weeks ago – he obliged, and Norris got a podium.
Ricciardo’s pace on Friday suggested he might have turned a corner, and he said after practice he felt like more things had clicked into place, but he found himself eliminated from qualifying in Q1 on Saturday afternoon.
There was barely anything in it, with Ricciardo 0.042s off 15th position, but he was a full second slower than Norris in Q1.
Ricciardo was clearly upset with himself when speaking to the media after the session.
“Big, big disappointment,” Ricciardo said. “I’m still in a little bit of shock actually just how the session went. To be out in Q1, it’s really like your worst nightmare as a driver.”
“There was certainly a bit of time on the table in the last sector. It was messy.
“First sector as well was… the first lap on the soft wasn’t really assisted by a little bit of traffic. Just disappointing.
“Q1’s quite sad, it goes quite quick so to be here, it feels like it comes out of nowhere. Yesterday was positive. Wouldn’t have bet on this today.
“Just gotta figure it out and get some sleep and wake up tomorrow ready to do better.”
He added: “16th is grim. It’s not a result I feel good about at all.”
Ricciardo said his cause was not helped by traffic on his flying laps, although he was at a loss to explain why he could not find the pace he required. Norris went on to qualify seventh, showing the potential of the car.
McLaren team boss Andreas Seidl said the session looked worse than it really was for Ricciardo and gave the Australian, a seven-time race winner in F1, a vote of confidence about turning things around soon.
“I think in the end it’s minor things which probably get exaggerated in low-grip conditions, like we had here and like we also had in Imola with the drying track,” Seidl said.
“It’s important to stay calm, to analyse. I think he made a good step forward when we look at the practice sessions here yesterday and today.
“Unfortunately then in qualifying it did not work out. Just needs more laps, more time. I have no doubt it will come.”
Ricciardo will start from the back end of the field, but is hardly lacking in confidence on the brakes and that is always helpful in making up positions quickly during a grand prix.
That said, advancing through the order at the tight and twisty Portimao circuit might not be as straightforward as he would like.
Ricciardo certainly seems to be on the back foot at this stage of the season, but given some of the performances he’s delivered since 2014 it is difficult to see this as much more than a blip from a driver in a new team.
— Nate Saunders
Vettel back in Q3
Ahead of Saturday’s qualifying session, Sebastian Vettel had not featured in a Q3 session for 15 straight race weekends.
The vast majority of those qualifying sessions were in a relatively slow Ferrari, but when he arrived at Aston Martin this year and continued to struggle, the list of excuses to defend the four-time world champion was running out.
Fortunately, in Portugal things started to click and, on a day when teammate Lance Stroll was knocked out in Q1, Vettel qualified tenth.
“I was not entirely happy with the final lap, I think the conditions changed a bit,” he said. “Maybe the lap on the used [tyres] didn’t help keep the rhythm up but overall it was for sure better and it starts to work a little bit better.
“In qualifying you should not think about your laps, you should just execute. It felt a bit more like that but I think there’s still more from my side that I need to improve.
“In the end you don’t get many laps in qualifying trim, with the engine turned up, with new tyres, light on fuel, so it’s only like a handful of laps every weekend. But definitely [it] seemed to help me understand what the car needs, where I need to put the car to be faster.”
Vettel outqualified his teammate despite Aston Martin’s single set of upgrades being used on Stroll’s car due to his higher position in the drivers’ standings.
“Obviously he felt a lot more comfortable straight away with the car compared to me, so it was logical [he got the updates],” he said. “In the end we have a big split between the cars in terms of qualifying position, just the other way around compared to the last races.
“Ideally, we have them closer together to also work a bit more together in the race. We still have to want to improve. We’re still learning about the car.
“Let’s see, obviously it’s going to be a long season, but these couple of races now are very crucial to get on top of it, we’re still changing a lot of things one session to another to just explore the limits.”
— Laurence Edmondson
Alpine improves but Alonso misses out
After a slow start to the season at the opening two races, Alpine joined the battle at the front of the midfield in Portugal with Esteban Ocon qualifying sixth behind Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari and ahead of Norris’ McLaren.
Yet teammate Alonso — a two-time world champion — could only manage 13th on the grid.
In FP3, Alonso set a time that would have been fast enough to secure third on the grid had he replicated it in qualifying.
The lap was deleted due to a transgression of track limits at Turn 1, but he didn’t gain much time by running wide and a slightly toned down approach would likely have yielded a similar result.
So what happened to Alonso’s pace between final practice and qualifying?
“If we knew that it would be very easy!” Alonso said on Saturday evening.
“We need to study a little bit more, the cars are still in parc ferme, so we need to find if there is any aero performance to find there, any tyre preparation we did differently between free practice and qualifying.
“But I really don’t care about the qualifying position, the race is tomorrow.
“If we could be happy on Saturdays and not happy on Sundays, I would prefer to take the points tomorrow.”
— Laurence Edmondson