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It wasn’t a classic by any stretch, but the Portuguese Grand Prix was confirmation of two things we’ve suspected for a while: Mercedes and Red Bull are incredibly closely matched, and the Hamilton-Verstappen battle has the potential to be a box office rivalry.
The margin of Hamilton’s 29-second victory is misleading, masking the fact he had to pass both Verstappen and Bottas to win the race and glossing over the fight for fastest lap that dropped Verstappen and Bottas back after making late pit stops for fresh tyres.
Hamilton’s championship lead over Verstappen is just eight points after three races. It’s fair to assume we will see plenty more battles between the two of them this season.
Hamilton-Verstappen’s mutual respect on show
We’re being spoiled this year by some of the on-track action.
While the second half of the race was fairly dull, it was the third time in three races we’ve seen Hamilton and Verstappen go wheel to wheel on track and the third time it’s passed by without incident.
At the Bahrain Grand Prix they battled for the win. There was contact at the first corner at Imola but nothing malicious — Verstappen snatched the lead from Hamilton with an aggressive, but fair, move which forced the world champion across the kerbs. Exactly the kind of move you need to pull on a driver of Hamilton’s ability.
We got to see two overtakes — one from either driver on the other — at Portimao. Verstappen caught Hamilton napping at the Safety Car restart and passed into Turn 1.
Explaining what happened, Hamilton said: “I was focusing naturally on Valtteri and literally just for a split-second I looked in my mirror just to see where Max was, and in that split-second, that’s when Valtteri went, so I lost out to Valtteri. So that wasn’t great.”
Hamilton laughed and added: “Then I was in Valtteri’s tow and he was about to pull out, so I pulled out, and gave Max Valtteri’s tow, and I was like ‘you idiot’ to myself!”
Hamilton wasn’t annoyed at himself for too long, capitalising on a Verstappen mistake on the sequence of corners leading to the long straight and reclaiming the position around the outside a few laps later.
Verstappen said the mistake came from trying to put pressure on Bottas out in front.
“I tried to attack Valtteri but all the time I could not get close enough in those last two corners and the run into the straight,” Verstappen said. “By pushing, I had a little wobble, but I didn’t really lose out a lot from that but Lewis was already super close behind and he got me into Turn 1”.
While Hamilton joined a few other drivers in voicing concerns about Verstappen’s aggressive style a few years ago, it’s clear there is mutual respect developing between them in the heat of this championship fight. Both drivers took the opportunity to compliment the other’s race craft in the post-race press conference.
Asked about what it was like to battle Hamilton so often, Verstappen said: “Yeah, it’s been really cool. Especially when you race a driver, when you know you can go to the absolute limit and you can trust each other to race super hard, I think that’s always really nice.
“You can see in the three races we’ve had we haven’t really… well, it’s been really close to each other, but predictable. With Lewis I’ve never had something like ‘oh, we’re gonna crash’ or something, I always have full trust in Lewis that we always give each other enough space.”
Hamilton answered second and echoed what Verstappen had said.
“I second that. I think it is naturally just down to respect and I think both very, very hard but fair.
“I think that’s what makes great racing and great racing drivers. We’ll continue to keep it clean and on the edge, but I don’t think either of us plan to get any closer than we have been.”
Bottas can’t capitalise on pole
The Valtteri Bottas Fan Club must be fairly thin on members these days. Bottas’ ‘new year, new me’ declarations at the beginning of each season have become something of an internet meme and its performances like this one which make it so difficult to believe he will ever be more than the guy with the best seat in the house for the Hamilton-Verstappen title fight.
To his credit, Bottas claimed pole position on Saturday, which was the perfect way to respond to his dismal performance at Imola, where his collision with George Russell was a helpful distraction from the fact he was fighting with a Williams.
He had a strong start but defended meekly from Hamilton on lap 20 and then had an awful couple of corners after his pit-stop, slipping and sliding on cold tyres and giving Verstappen an opportunity to take second position. Verstappen duly obliged.
“Disappointing,” was Bottas’ assessment of his afternoon. “When you start from pole position there’s only one target for the race and that is to win the race and that didn’t happen today, so I’m disappointed.
“I don’t really know why in the first stint I didn’t have the pace, it felt like everything, in terms of race start and re-start was good from our side but I could see quite quickly in the race that we just didn’t have the pace, like Lewis and Max had and I don’t really have an explanation.”
It seems significant that, for the second time in a row, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was on the Mercedes radio urging Bottas to push towards the end of the race. We rarely hear Wolff unless he’s congratulating a driver on a win or a championship.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that frustration is starting to creep in with Mercedes management.
When asked if it was unusual to hear Wolff on the radio, Bottas said: “No, it’s not.
“There’s been many times that he opens the radio and says something. It’s all support and shows there’s the support and passion behind and it never hurts.
“Obviously, I’m always giving it everything I have on track, but it’s good.”
As a measure of how bad Bottas’ start has been, the Finn is fourth in the championship behind McLaren’s Lando Norris (which is also a fair reflection on how good Norris has been so far). Bottas is 38 points behind Hamilton already.
Mazepin still isn’t improving
Haas rookie Nikita Mazepin is having an awful start to his Formula One career. He joined amid controversy but asked F1 fans and media to judge him by his on-track performances.
His performances keep getting worse.
Mazepin finished last, nearly a whole minute behind Nicholas Latifi, but also nearly collided with Sergio Perez when the Mexican driver was in the lead of the race. Mazepin appeared to lack any awareness of the situation he was in and almost turned into Perez at Turn 3. Perez locked up and a collision was averted.
Perez’s response over radio was “F—ing idiot”, although the Mexican driver revealed Mazepin had apologised after the race.
“It was very close, I thought that he saw me. He apologised after the race,” Perez said. “He basically didn’t see me. I thought he did.”
Mazepin said: “It’s pretty simple, totally my mistake on that. I was converted to a Plan C in the middle of the race — I was the only one to do a two-stop — and to be honest I expected to go out on my own.
“I didn’t really get a warning from the team, but no excuses on this. It is just my fault. I apologised to Checo already.”
It earned Mazepin a five-second penalty — fairly meaningless given how far behind the next nearest car he was — and one penalty point on his superlicence.
Making matters worse for Mazepin was Haas teammate Mick Schumacher’s performance.
Schumacher got past Latifi in the closing laps in the first spot of wheel-to-wheel racing we’ve seen from the young German driver. While it looks like Schumacher is making progress and learning from his mistakes, the same cannot be said for Mazepin.
It might be easy to dismiss the driving of a backmarker at this stage, but what is most concerning is how infrequently Mazepin drives near other cars, and yet he still seems to get himself into situations like this.
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