Why Red Bull missed out on victory in Portugal
The battle between 2021's Championship protagonists looked set to be fierce ahead of the Portuguese Grand Prix; what gave Mercedes such an advantage?
Early advantage for the Silver Arrows
In the opening practice sessions of the Portuguese Grand Prix weekend, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas took an early lead for Mercedes, with the former topping the charts in FP2 and the latter in FP1. Even though the gaps between Mercedes and Red Bull were minuscule, the general consensus was that Mercedes put forth a more commanding performance and were overall more composed.
Photo credit: Red Bull
From FP3 onwards, the fight was on between the teams. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen commanded the field in the final practice session, finishing 0.2s ahead of his arch Mercedes rival, and approached the fight in qualifying head-on. Both teams sparred relentlessly throughout all three qualifying sessions, but it was Mercedes who triumphed. Pole position would have almost certainly been granted to Verstappen, who had momentarily posted a blistering benchmark, but had his time deleted due to exceeding track limits - a controversial topic with Red Bull.
A close shave for Mercedes & a missed chance for Red Bull
During the race itself, the fight between Mercedes and Red Bull looked to be even more dramatic. Pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas led the pack into Turn 1, followed by teammate Lewis Hamilton in second and Verstappen in third. The time was quickly approaching for the activation of DRS (drag reduction system), which would have aided Verstappen even further, but fate would not have it.
Photo credit: Mercedes
On Lap 2 of the Grand Prix, Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen heavily damaged the front wing of his C41 on the rear of teammate Antonio Giovinazzi’s car, necessitating the yellow flags and safety car. During this caution period, Verstappen was raring to get back to green flag racing, confident that he could pass Hamilton ahead of him.
And indeed, when the safety car did eventually return to the pits on Lap 7, it was advantage Red Bull as Verstappen swooped round the outside of Hamilton into Turn 1. Unfortunately however, this was an advantage that Red Bull would not maintain. As if operated by a light switch, the pace from Verstappen’s RB16 started to dramatically tail off, allowing the reigning Champion to seek his vengeance into Turn 1 on Lap 10.
Radio communications between Verstappen and his race engineer revealed a handful of minor concerns with the car, including a gearbox issue (preventing the optimum use of third gear) and a lack of power on the straights. In spite of these issues though, he did well to stay on the back of Hamilton for the remainder of the Grand Prix, eventually finishing in second place.
“I think overall we just lacked a little bit of pace compared to them in the race,” said Verstappen in a post-race interview with Formula 1’s senior writer Lawrence Baretto. “We knew last year already, we were not particularly strong here. I think this weekend has been a little bit better, but still not good enough.
“I tried everything I could, [and] I had a good restart. I got past Lewis but then clearly I could not attack Valtteri and clearly Lewis, once he passed me, you could see he had more pace. I just tried to stay close but ultimately I think that second was the best result we could get today.
“I’m looking ahead to Barcelona, the track we all know, normal grip conditions which I think is way better. Hopefully our car will perform better in that condition.”
Christian Horner, too, was pleased with the second and fourth place finishes from Verstappen and Sergio Perez, having admitted after the race, “we knew this would be a track that favours Mercedes”.
Martin Brundle's take
After Verstappen’s fastest lap had been stripped from him for exceeding track limits once again, and with it the accompanying bonus World Championship point, Former F1 driver and Sky Sports commentator Martin Brundle shared his thoughts on Red Bull's frustrated claim against the FIA.
Photo credit: Red Bull
“I don’t agree with Red Bull about track limit inconsistency, and their claim that they have now been robbed of a victory, pole position and a fastest lap additional point this season.
“It was clear that Turns 1, 4, 5 and 15 would be monitored for track limits from the outset. Then at 9am on Saturday morning a version 3 of the supplementary regs was issued and Turn 14 was comprehensively mentioned in bright pink additional text.
“The kerbs have been fundamentally lowered over the decades such that in places they are no higher than a coat of paint. This was to stop cars being launched into the air such as Rubens Barrichello in Imola 1994, and also to help stop motorcycle racers being badly injured.
"A racer's job thereafter is to is to minimise the distance of every lap and to maximise the angle of every corner. The FIA's job is to stop them."
Brundle also observed that only Verstappen was wrapped on the knuckles for his infringement, thereby proving that there were no inconsistencies with track limits monitoring, and removing the grounds from which Red Bull based their claim.
“Only one driver was penalised in the race for transgressing the track limits at Turn 14 and it cost Verstappen and Red Bull a championship point, because he gained an advantage out there and didn’t control his car fully within the confines of the track.”
A hard pill to swallow but a long road ahead
With Martin Brundle’s summary digested, it becomes easier to understand that the additional blow to an already winded Red Bull was both fair and necessary; disappointing though it may have been, many races and many chances lie ahead for Red Bull to regain their Championship momentum.