A Mercedes on pole and an all-Mercedes front row of the grid, a Mercedes setting the fastest lap and a Mercedes on the top step of the podium – you’d be forgiven for thinking the 2021 Portuguese Grand Prix was any other race in any other recent year of Mercedes domination.
Indeed so familiar was the result that the podium comprising winner Lewis Hamilton, runner-up Max Verstappen and third place-getter Valtteri Bottas officially became the most common rostrum combination in all Formula 1 history.
But to write off the result in Portugal as a mere continuation of Mercedes’ seven years of success would be deeply misleading.
Mercedes did not start the season with the fastest car – in fact rule changes during the off season cost it a great deal of speed relative to Red Bull Racing, and heading into the season-opening race in Bahrain the Austrian team undeniably held the upper hand.
But that was never likely to be the ultimate performance picture, and race by race Mercedes has better understood its weaknesses. Its win in round one was lucky, but by Portugal, with an upgrade package equipped, the W11 clearly took a step forward to at least match the RB16 in pure pace, and Hamilton wielded it to victorious effect.
The result is an eight-point lead for the Briton in the drivers stakes and an 18-point advantage for Mercedes on the championship table.
It’s a strong return for the leaders, but on the reverse Red Bull Racing is counting its losses.
Verstappen had a decisive pace advantage over Hamilton in the Bahrain Grand Prix, dominating qualifying and leading off the line. But when an aggressive Mercedes strategy forced him to overtake Hamilton for the lead, the Dutchman’s sole overtake was disbarred for having been executed off the track, and he was forced to hand back the position and settle for second.
He transgressed track limits again in Portimão, where in qualifying he blitzed the field in the pole shootout only to have his best time deleted for running wide in the high winds whipping through turn four. He was relegated to third, from where he couldn’t make an impact off the line and finished second.
And then at the end of the race, when Hamilton’s victory was assured, Red Bull Racing brought the Dutchman in for fresh tyres to salvage the bonus point for fastest lap, but again Verstappen ran off the track and had his time annulled, handing the score to Bottas.
“It’s been brutal for us across the first three events,” Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner lamented. “The win in Bahrain, the pole position [Saturday] and now the fastest lap. So it’s been pretty expensive for us.”
Costly indeed – had Verstappen overtaken cleanly in Bahrain and taken and converted pole to victory in Portugal, he’d be looking at as much as a 21-point championship lead rather than his current eight-point deficit.
This isn’t to harangue Verstappen for these mistakes, each a matter of centimetres in the heat of battle or the adrenaline of a flying lap, and with as many as 20 rounds still to come, time is on his side to strike back. And Hamilton has made mistakes too, notably by throwing away a shot at victory in Imola with a clumsy crash.
But the risk is that at the end of a closely fought campaign he and Red Bull Racing will look back on these early rounds, when Mercedes was there to be beaten, and regret not being able to capitalise.
Mercedes was never going to stay down for long. Red Bull Racing just has to hope it hasn’t missed its chance.