The Portuguese Grand Prix, returning to the calendar after a 24-year absence, is revelling in its day in the sun. This Covid-enforced one-off race has been set on a magnificent stage; the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, nestling in the hills north of Portimão, presents a singular challenge, a test of finesse and old-school judgment that has been embraced by the drivers.
Portugal has hosted many a classic race: Niki Lauda’s title win in 1984, perhaps Ayrton Senna’s greatest performance in the wet in 1985, and Jacques Villeneuve passing Michael Schumacher the last time F1 was here in 1996 among them, but all were at Estoril. When finance dictated where F1 visited, Portimão, as the circuit is colloquially known, was never in the running but when coronavirus left the calendar in tatters and simply racing became imperative, Portugal in October made a lot of sense.
From fears that there may be no racing at all to hosting 17 races, F1 has done remarkably well in putting together a season and with a unique calendar. Three venues at least will almost certainly not feature again. F1 at Mugello was glorious; the sport’s return next week to Imola is long overdue; while Portimão, which has not hosted F1 before, should be savoured.
The circuit, unlike so many of the modern, identikit autodromes, is built into the undulating contours of the hills. It sweeps and swoops across 2.89 miles. Williams’s George Russell described it as “one of the most exciting circuits of the new generation of tracks built in the past 15 or 20 years”. It combines fast and slow sectors, blind corners and tricky downhill braking zones. Gravel run-offs wait to trap the unwary, punishing mistakes on a rollercoaster, where keeping it on the rails will be paramount.
The challenge for the drivers is coming up to speed in this pleasingly uncharted territory and they are relishing it. Not least Lewis Hamilton, leading the championship by 69 points from his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas. The world champion has often expressed his pleasure in testing himself on new circuits and having equalled Schumacher’s 91 race-win record at the last round in Germany, will be confident he can go one better and claim the top spot.
Indeed it transpires Hamilton, like F1’s calendar, has also benefitted from the new realities forced on the sport by the pandemic.
“This year has been different; hardly any travelling, which has been quite pleasant,” he said in Portimão. “Not being pulled left, right and centre so I have been at home longer than I have ever been in my entire life this year and it’s nice.
“My approach is to try and keep myself centred. So that’s a positive from this year, being able to have time off from things I don’t particularly want to do anyway. We all have demands in our lives from our jobs. There are commitments to things that I don’t always necessarily want to do but it is part of the machine we are involved in, but this year a lot of those things have disappeared and enabled us to do what is at my core, which is motor racing, that is what I have always loved doing.”
His enjoyment has shone through in the form he has displayed, with seven wins from 11 races,. He has been clinical in adapting to each new challenge, not least in qualifying, where he has topped the timesheets eight times. With overtaking likely to be tricky on Sunday , putting together a perfect lap on Saturday afternoon will be crucial.
He is in every position to do so. Mercedes, who will seal the constructors’ championship if they outscore Red Bull by 40 points, proved to be quick out of the box. Bottas and Hamilton were on top in first practice. In the afternoon, Bottas was again quickest in a session interrupted by red flags, which prevented a proper run at qualifying simulations. The Red Bull of Max Verstappen was six-tenths back in second and Hamilton in seventh.