Lewis Hamilton’s touch behind the wheel has been amply demonstrated this season. Yet for his lap to take pole on the thrilling challenge of the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, his judgment – the experience and intuitive feel garnered over 14 seasons in Formula One – could not have been given greater reign. The drive was an object lesson in flawless execution but that he could pull it off depended on the crucial decisions the world champion made in the tense seconds before he pulled out of his garage on the final, make or break runs.
Hamilton beat his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas into second place as Portimão hosted its first F1 meeting. As debuts go, the Algarve had a thriller, a sequence of blow and counter-blow until Hamilton, who had taken the vital decision to try to be the last man standing, was triumphant at the last.
Yet for some tense minutes before the session began there were concerns that F1’s competitive bow here might not take place at all. A drain cover that came loose in practice had to be made safe and it delayed the off by 30 minutes while marshals then had to assess every cover on the track before giving qualifying the green light.
On the first hot runs in Q3 Bottas led the Mercedes pair out and set the initial pace with a 1min 16.986sec, an advantage over Hamilton of four-hundredths of a second, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who was ultimately third, still in touch, a tenth back on the leaders.
Their times however were down on earlier runs as the wind picked up in the hills of the Algarve and with the drivers still struggling for grip on the newly resurfaced track Mercedes offered both their men options for their final runs – what rubber to run and whether to make two or three laps.
The latter was crucial – two laps carried less weight in fuel but three offered the possibility of the rubber working marginally better on the final run.
Both Hamilton and Bottas switched from the soft to the medium tyre but Bottas chose a two-lap run and Hamilton the three.
Hamilton had an extra lap to work his rubber, putting in two quick runs after his out lap. It proved inspired but it could not have been closer as the lead seesawed between them. Hamilton’s first flying circuit set the pace with a 1min 16.934sec only for Bottas to better it with a 1min 16.754sec. But the Finn then had to peel off into the pits as Hamilton circled one more time, banking on having the very best of what grip there was at the death. It worked and he delivered as he checked out with a 1min 16.652sec, a tenth clear of Bottas and two-tenths up on Verstappen.
The margins had been tiny and Hamilton had been pushed to the very limit by his teammate. Bottas had been quickest all weekend but was ultimately outfoxed by the world champion’s sensitivity to track conditions at the crucial moment. The tired, belittling commentary that ascribes Hamilton’s success to simply being in the best car surely now consigned to the dustbin of history by this definitive display of astute racecraft.
“It’s always a fight but this track, the smoothness of the track, the difficulty we had with the tyres, the battle that I am having with Valtteri is making it harder and harder,” he said. “The decision I took at the end was what really created the opportunity. The idea of having an extra lap, an extra chance, an extra stab at getting pole looked good to me so I chose to go to that extra lap and Valtteri chose just the one. He still did a great job, it was very, very tough. I had to dig very deep, luckily I got the last sector just about right but it was so close.”
Having equalled Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 grand prix wins at the last round at the Nürburgring, Hamilton’s exquisite judgement for pole – the 97th of his career, another record – puts him in the best possible position to surpass the German and stand unmatched at the top of the pile. He is also edging closer to matching Schumacher’s record of seven titles, leading Bottas by 69 points.
For Mercedes their dominance this season has put them within touching distance of the constructors’ championship. They could seal it here if they outscore Red Bull by 40 points. It is a slim chance but that they will close it out shortly seems inevitable. A seventh title in a row would eclipse the record, previously held by Ferrari of six consecutive championships they scored between 1999 and 2004.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was in fourth with Racing Point’s Sergio Pérez in fifth. Alexander Albon was in sixth for Red Bull. The McLaren’s of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris were in seventh and eighth. AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly was in ninth and Daniel Ricciardo in 10th for Renault.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel struggled to warm his tyres and was knocked out in 15th behind the Williams of George Russell, who was in 14th. Esteban Ocon was in 11th for Renault, with Lance Stroll in 12th for Racing Point and Daniil Kvyat in 13th for AlphaTauri.
Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi were in 16th and 17th, with Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen in 18th and 19th for Haas. Nicholas Latifi was in 20th for Williams.