Portuguese Grand Prix provides much-needed dose of unpredictability to spice up familiar championship battle

Jack de Menezes
·4 min read
The Algarve International Circuit will pose an unfamiliar challenge to the entire F1 grid this weekend (Reuters)
The Algarve International Circuit will pose an unfamiliar challenge to the entire F1 grid this weekend (Reuters)

Formula One has a lot to thank the Algarve for.

Not least because of temperatures back above 20 degrees Celsius after the cold and wet weekend in the Nurburgring. But there is much more to this weekend’s returning Portuguese Grand Prix than a bit of sunshine as F1 heads into the unknown - again.

The Eifel Grand Prix brought a welcome degree of uncertainty to a world championship that needs all it can get to liven things up, and lack of predictability at a track where F1 had not graced in seven years very nearly delivered the unexpected as Valtteri Bottas finally got his elbows out and took the fight to Lewis Hamilton. As it was, fate intervened, and Bottas’s loss through a battery failure was Hamilton’s gain; a race win that brought 25 championship points that extended his lead in the standings to a formidable 69. Victory this weekend will increase that gap to three clear wins with just five races remaining, which is code for Hamilton being home and dry, barring any calamities in the season run-in.

It’s a predictable scenario that F1 fans have grown used to since Nico Rosberg left the sport. Hamilton has wrapped up the title with two races to spare for each of the last three seasons, and he is currently on course to do the same in 2020. The excitement of the early season uncertainty has drained away to leave the predictable, and though Hamilton stands on the brink of record-breaking history - with victory on Sunday set to see him pass Michael Schumacher’s tally of 91 Grand Prix wins - the issue of watching something all too familiar generates a fair deal of disappointment.

That’s why Formula One has a lot to thank the Algarve for.

Portimao poses the exact opposite of that this weekend. Only one driver on the grid has lapped the undulating track, dubbed ‘The Rollercoaster’, in an F1 test, while none of them have experienced it at full pelt as they will on Sunday afternoon. The Algarve International Circuit will test both car and driver to the limit, with heavy braking zones and long grip-sapping corners complemented by a bumpy surface and hidden crest, all the ingredients required to cause drivers a moment or two.

It will help to separate the brave from the brilliant, especially in the cars of 2020 that, Mercedes aside, have not been the easiest to drive.

Only a handful of drivers have any experience of Portimao at all from their lower-class championships. Williams’s George Russell is the only one of those that has done so in an F1 car, having tested a Mercedes there three years ago as part of his role on their junior driver programme. The 22-year-old also raced there three times in 2015 in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship, and remembers how it left an impression on him from the moment he arrived.

“When I first went there, I was a little bit blown away by how just impressive the whole layout of the place was. That was before I even drove a lap,” said Russell.

“There’s a lot of corners that go over crests on exit. So I think you’ll be struggling for traction in a lot of places, and it’s very bumpy, which it will be difficult to set the cars up.

George Russell has previous F1 experience at PortimaoGetty
George Russell has previous F1 experience at PortimaoGetty

“I think we will see a bit of an upset in the order because it’s a new track, nobody’s got experience there, it’s a very challenging track to set the car up with the bumps, the nature of the corners, with the downforce level as well because you do have a big long straight, followed by a lot of medium speed corners, so it’ll all be a challenge.”

It’s exactly what F1 needs to keep things interesting as Hamilton races away towards motorsport immortality. With Imola up next and Turkey’s Istanbul Park after that, Portimao represent the middle of an unpredictable quartet of races that has fans relishing race weekends as if the entire championship was on the line.

The championship of course is not on the line, but allow us the excitement of a race where the form book goes right out the window as every driver and every team starts from scratch.

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