Lewis Hamilton tamed the Portimao roller coaster to start his bid to become Formula One’s most victorious driver from pole position in Sunday’s Portuguese Grand Prix.
After drawing level with Michael Schumacher’s all-time tally in Germany a fortnight ago, Hamilton stands on the brink of sporting history as he sets about converting his 97th pole into a famous 92nd win.
The evidence of practice, and much of an unpredictable qualifying session, pointed towards a Valtteri Bottas pole before Hamilton completed his final lap 0.102 seconds faster than his Mercedes team-mate. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen finished third ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
The sport is back in Portugal for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, and staging a grand prix at Portimao – 2.89 miles of raw, undulating asphalt nestled in the Algarve hillside – for the first time ever.
“I can’t tell you how hard that was,” said Hamilton in front of tens of thousands of spectators – a throwback to the pre-coronavirus era.
“Yes, we’ve got a great car, but you have to drive the nuts off it to pull out a lap.
“It’s a really hardcore circuit because there are places where you can’t see where you’re going and you’re looking at the sky for periods of time.
“When you are looking at the sky, there are no reference points as to where you should be braking so it really is one of the most challenging circuits I’ve been to.”
Portimao’s inaugural qualifying session was delayed by 30 minutes following repair work to a dislodged drain cover at the penultimate corner.
Officials laid down fresh tarmac in the hope of keeping the loose metal in place, and scoured the rest of the track for additional ill-fitting drains.
Race director Michael Masi observed the patch-up job at Turn 14 and was satisfied enough to give the green light for qualifying to begin.
Hamilton, 35, added: “I don’t think it is an issue. They have not had a grand prix here before and no car can replicate what a Formula One car can do.
“We didn’t put anyone in harm’s way. It was a surprise because I don’t think many drivers ran over that kerb so it is nothing major.”
In an unusual twist, Hamilton completed one more lap in Q3 than Bottas, and it was his final effort which saw him usurp his team-mate.
Explaining the strategy, Hamilton, who holds a 69-point lead over the Finnish driver with six of 17 rounds remaining, said: “The tyres are very hard this weekend, and getting them to work is very difficult.
“That’s why I wanted to have an extra run, just in case the first run wasn’t that great, and it worked perfectly.”
Away from Hamilton’s record-breaking bid, George Russell’s future has been the source of much speculation in Portugal after it emerged that he could be replaced by Sergio Perez at Williams next year.
Williams have recently been acquired by Dorilton, and the thought is that the new owners want drivers who bring cash to the British team, putting Russell’s 2021 seat in danger.
Here, the 22-year-old Mercedes junior delivered another fine one-lap performance to extend his undefeated qualifying streak over his team-mates – Robert Kubica in 2019 and Nicholas Latifi this season – to 33.
The Briton sealed his passage through to Q2, lapping a full second faster than his team-mate, before finishing 14th, one spot ahead of four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel.
The German, who will head to Aston Martin in 2021, starts Sunday’s race 13th in the championship, a staggering 213 points behind Hamilton in the championship.
On Saturday evening, the FIA said Vitaly Petrov has been stood down as a steward following the death of his father in Russia.
Former driver Petrov’s appointment for the race had raised eyebrows following controversial remarks he recently made about race and homosexuality.