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Your weekly Max Verstappen update: he's on the podium again after Portimão
That's 3 races and a trio of podiums in 2021 for Red Bull Racing Honda's Max Verstappen, who finished behind Lewis Hamilton at the Portuguese Grand Prix.
Up and downs, ebbs and flows, peaks and troughs – the rollercoaster ride of the 2021 Formula One championship had its latest chapter at the undulating Algarve International Circuit in Portimão at Sunday's Portuguese Grand Prix and it was Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes who struck back against Red Bull Racing Honda and Max Verstappen after their win at Imola a fortnight earlier.
Verstappen's victory at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix came after Hamilton had edged him for the win in the Bahrain season-opener. While the world champion's eventual victory margin of 29 seconds in Portugal suggested Mercedes had left Red Bull Racing firmly in its rear-view mirror in Portimão, the gap only came about because Verstappen, under no pressure from behind in the closing stages, pitted for fresh tyres in an attempt to secure an extra point for setting the fastest lap of the race. He did that on the final lap, before it was deleted for a track limits infringement at the penultimate corner.
When the dust settled, it was Hamilton leading Verstappen by eight points in the Drivers' Championship chase, one where the same two drivers have finished in the top two spots in the opening trio of Grands Prix.
Hamilton didn't have it all his own way in Portugal. Edged by 0.007s in qualifying by Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, he dropped to third place behind Verstappen after the Red Bull driver aced the restart on Lap 7, which came after Alfa Romeo driver Kimi Räikkönen had crashed out on the second lap. However, a wobble by Verstappen on Lap 11 gave Hamilton the chance he needed to pounce and once he nailed team-mate Bottas into Turn 1 on Lap 20 with an opportunistic move, it was game over.
Verstappen was able to vault past Bottas with a brilliant move into Turn 5 on Lap 36, after the Finn had taken his first pitstop, and if the sight of a Hamilton-Verstappen-Bottas podium looked familiar, it should. Remarkably, that trio shared a podium for a record-breaking 15th time on Sunday – 10 of which have come since the start of the 2020 season.
Here's what else went on up and down the Portimão rollercoaster on Sunday.
Max takes the positives
Verstappen was a frustrated third on the grid in qualifying, loving the configuration of the track, but less enamoured with the way he felt he could drive the slippery layout, which was made even more treacherous with gusting winds at the circuit's highest points.
"The layout is amazing, but the grip we're experiencing, I don't think it's nice," he said. "I know it's the same for everyone, but for me, personally, it's not enjoyable to drive. I didn't enjoy one single lap, just because of the state of the track."
Fast-forward 24 hours and a second-place finish to Hamilton, one step higher on the podium than he'd managed when F1 visited the circuit for the first time last October, was a good day of making the most of the chances he had.
"The race was pretty decent and I had a good restart. I tried to put the pressure on Valtteri, but I think in the end we just lacked a little bit of pace overall, so Lewis got by again," summed up Verstappen. "Around here we were lacking a bit of pace compared to them, but still, second... I think in general this was an odd weekend in terms of grip and we weren't on top of it."
Red Bull Racing Honda team principal Christian Horner was keen to accentuate the positives at a track where he felt Mercedes had his team's measure: "To come out of here in second place, we'll take that. Race three, we're eight points behind in the Drivers' Championship. It's nothing. It's going to be a marathon rather than a sprint."
Pérez takes the long way around
Started fourth, finished fourth: on paper, Portimão seemed like a straightforward race for Sergio Pérez, but his best finish in three Red Bull Racing starts was anything but. A circumspect start had him on the back foot and as the front-running trio cleared off, the team elected to use the Mexican's renowned ability to eke extra laps out of his tyres to good effect, extending his first stint of the race well after Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas had pitted, meaning he led from Laps 38 to 51.
It wasn't all plain sailing for Pérez upfront – a near coming-together with Haas rookie Nikita Mazepin earned the Russian backmarker a five-second penalty for failing to move aside while he was being lapped – and while a late stop was designed to bring him in to play to earn the fastest lap point on fresher rubber, that point eventually went to Bottas after Verstappen's own last-gasp effort earned the ire of the stewards.
"It was a bit messy," Pérez admitted after the race. "Everything started off the line, there wasn't a lot of grip and I went straight into wheelspin and I lost a position to Carlos [Sainz]. I recovered the position after the restart, then I lost it to Lando [Norris]. I thought Lando was off the track limits and I didn't fight the position hard enough, thinking he was going to have to give me back the place. I probably misjudged that one.
"It took me a couple of laps to get past Lando and that created the gap to the leaders and I was basically off the race by then. There are some positives in that I've now driven the car in clear air for all the race, I've seen the way I have to adapt to this car and look after the tyres – that's all positive."
Gasly's salvage mission
Rookie team-mate Yuki Tsunoda had a tougher time. The Japanese driver started 14th, fell to 16th after the frantic first lap and didn't spend a single lap inside the points-paying positions thereafter to come home 15th.
Norris fifth, Raikkonen red faced
Third place in the Drivers' Championship? Not Bottas or Pérez but Lando Norris, who backed up his superb Imola podium last time out with a fighting fifth as best of the rest in Portimão, taking his points tally to 37 after three races.
It was a good day overall for McLaren, with new signing Daniel Ricciardo recovering from a 16th-place finish in qualifying he described as "grim" to bounce back to ninth, using a marathon opening stint to vault up the order on a day where only one of the 20 cars failed to finish.
Elsewhere, Kimi Räikkönen committed racing's cardinal sin, crashing out by clattering into team-mate Antonio Giovinazzi on the start-finish straight on the first flying lap of the race. "Unfortunately it was my mistake, I got it wrong and drove into Antonio," he admitted. "The front wing got stuck under the car and I could only go straight in the gravel."
Spain's acid test
Site of pre-season testing for years, the drivers know the punishing high-speed corners of the upcoming Circuit de Catalunya intimately, although this year's visit to Barcelona comes with a twist after pre-season testing took place in Bahrain.
From the relative unknown of Portimão comes the one circuit every driver and team knows like the back of their hands on May 9 for the Spanish Grand Prix.