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Featured Image by Klugschnacker on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

After a 2 week break, Formula One returns for the 3rd round of the season in Portugal. Ahead of the 2021 Portuguese Grand Prix, here’s a compilation of what to expect for today’s race.

For today’s race, Valtteri Bottas starts on pole, with Lewis Hamilton alongside him, making a front-row lockout for Mercedes. Behind the Mercedes duo sit the Red Bull pair of Max Verstappen in 3rd, with Sergio Perez in 4th.

Coming into Portimao, the top 3 in the Drivers’ Standings are: Lewis Hamilton (44 Points), Max Verstappen (43 Points) and Lando Norris (27 Points). The top 3 in the Constructors’ are Mercedes (60 Points), Red Bull (53 Points) and McLaren (41 Points).

The Circuit – Algarve International Circuit

The Algarve International Circuit, also known as the Portimao Circuit serves as the venue for this weekend’s race. The circuit is a permanent motorsports complex located in the town of Portimão. The track opened in 2008, and has hosted various categories ranging from Sports Cars, to Bikes.

The track features a number of flowing fast corners and elevation changes, alongside a fast final sector, which is reminiscent of Catalunya in its original form. A total of 32 configurations are available, with lengths ranging from 3.465km to 4.684km. Formula One will use the 4.684km variant of the circuit, without the Turn 1 Chicane.

For this year’s edition of the Portuguese Grand Prix, in addition to the DRS zone on the start/finish straight, an additional DRS zone has been added to the track, located between Turns 4 and 5. Lewis Hamilton holds the lap record, with a 1:18.750 set in last year’s race.

Things to Watch:

Track Limits

Coming into the weekend, track limits will be a topic of strong debate once more. FP1 & FP2 last year saw a combined total of 125 track limits violations. Due to the large number of violations, a decision was made by Saturday morning to allow drivers to run wide at Turns 1 and 4. As long as the cars remained in contact with the red and white kerb beyond the line at both corners, lap times would remain valid.

For the 2021 race weekend, this leeway given to drivers has been retained. But with reduced downforce on the 2021 cars, paired with the extensive run-off on various parts of the circuit, expect drivers to push track limits once more..

And push the limits, the drivers certainly have. A total of 65 laptimes were deleted on Friday for Track Limits Violations.

Overtaking

How much overtaking can we expect to see this weekend? For Formula One fans who desire to see some overtaking action, the outlook appears to be good. Portimao is a relatively wide circuit, with hard braking zones that could provide opportunities for drivers willing to take the risks.

Mercedes v Red Bull

Barring any exceptional circumstances, no other team apart from Mercedes & Red Bull appear likely to win at Portimao. As of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, both Mercedes & Red Bull have taken a win each. Between the two teams, Red Bull appear to have the stronger car as of Round 2. Despite this, Red Bull trail Mercedes in the standings by 7 points.

Imola certainly showed that Red Bull’s Bahrain form was no fluke. Red Bull has the tools, and the intent to battle it out with Mercedes. But the W12 is no slouch, and Red Bull need to ensure they have a clean weekend, if they want to win. In Bahrain, Verstappen needlessly threw away a win. In Imola, Perez’s mistakes cost Red Bull a chance to leapfrog Mercedes in the Constructors’.

If the Milton-Keynes squad wish to take a 5th constructors’ title, it is vital to have as many clean weekends as possible. Starting from now. Unfortunately, Red Bull are already starting the race on the backfoot.

As I said in the weekend preview earlier, the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix demonstrated why a front-row lockout can be advantageous to teams. For this weekend, Mercedes have secured a front-row lockout. Which leaves Mercedes with the ability to have both drivers covering for each other, increasing the difficulty of any overtake from a good start by either Verstappen or Perez.

Adding on to Red Bull’s problems this weekend, is also the apparent strength of the W12 on both Medium and Soft tyres. Mercedes scored a 1-2 in Q2 on mediums, with Hamilton comfortably securing P1 with a gap of almost 5 tenths over Bottas. Red Bull, meanwhile, languished down in 5th with Verstappen, and in 8th with Perez. All 4 cars will be starting on mediums, which could then put Red Bull at a further disadvantage, pace wise.

The Battle for Third in the Constructors

Behind Mercedes and Red Bull, Ferrari and Red Bull sit in the background, locked in a battle for third. With AlphaTauri sitting further behind the two teams. As of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, McLaren has 41 points, while Ferrari trails closely with 34 points. AlphaTauri lies further behind with 8 points.

Based on performances shown in testing, and at the rounds so far, all 3 teams look to be contenders for the “best of the rest”. McLaren’s strong form showed that the car had seemingly lost no pace despite the numerous changes necessitated by switching to Mercedes power. At Ferrari, the engine team appears to have successfully clawed back the power losses that led to the 2020 struggles at power tracks. On the chassis side, the SF21 also appears to a step forward compared to it’s predecessor, the ill-fated SF1000.

Further behind McLaren and Ferrari, AlphaTauri look to be contenders as well. In both Qualifying and the race, AlphaTauri has demonstrated strong pace. In Bahrain, Pierre Gasly took 5th on the grid, while Tsunoda set the second-fastest time on Softs in Q1. If not for contact with Daniel Ricciardo early on, Gasly could have finished 7th at the very least in the race. This is supported by Tsunoda’s performance, with the Japanese driver clawing his way up the order into 9th, from 13th on the grid.

At Imola, Pierre Gasly took 5th on the grid again, before finishing 7th at the flag. Gasly’s race pace and ultimately, finishing position was compromised by running on wets for the first part of the race. Tsunoda also put up a strong fight to finish 12th, despite a penalty, and starting last after crashing out in qualifying.

If this has shown anything, it is that AlphaTauri has the pace and equipment to fight for third. Alas, the team has suffered from the same issues plaguing sister team Red Bull. The inability to execute a perfect weekend. If AlphaTauri is to fight for third, the team needs to make up lost ground fast. And start to put out perfect weekends quickly.

For today’s race, the 3 teams start the race in this order:
P5 – Carlos Sainz Jr (Ferrari)
P7 – Lando Norris (McLaren)
P8 – Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)
P9 – Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri)
P14 – Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri)
P16 – Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren)

As usual, expect a tough scrap between all 3 teams in the race. But lookout for a 4th team looking to enter this 3 way battle, and to disrupt the usual pecking order…

Alpine

Could Alpine be the surprise package and break into the fight for 3rd in the constructors’? Following 2 disappointing rounds in Bahrain & Imola, Alpine currently sits 7th in the standings with 3 points. The team delivered an upgrade package in Imola, which had limited effect, though executive director Marcin Budwowski stated that effectiveness would vary from circuit to circuit.

Coming into the weekend, it was expected that Alpine would perform better at Portimao, given the car’s characteristics of stronger performances in low-speed corners. But it still came as a shock when Esteban Ocon put his Alpine on the 3rd row, next to the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz, and ahead of the McLaren of Lando Norris.

Naturally, the big question coming into the race would be: Will Ocon cross the line in 6th or higher? or Lower than 6th? And where will Fernando Alonso finish?

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