The British driver’s success on the Algarve circuit was made possible by the work Mercedes had to do to overcome his early balance issues, as well as a different rear wing choice for teammate Valtteri Bottas.
The battle between Mercedes and Red Bull up front is the closest we’ve seen in a number of years, as the former recovers from losses from new tires and regulations.
Meanwhile, Red Bull has been catapulted into the fray after fixing some of the chassis and aerodynamics issues that plagued it last season, with Honda also stepping up its new power unit through 2021.
Red Bull has also continued to turn the screw with another sizable update package on the car in Portugal.
MORE: Red Bull’s ‘subtle’ improvements that kept it in the Portugal F1 mix
Mercedes, since their tough preseason test, have worked diligently to iron out their weaknesses and pull themselves back to Red Bull, doing so with just a handful of aero updates.
The race in Portimao demanded special attention to setup, with the delicate low-grip track surface combined with the uncertainty of how best to handle the tires. This put a strong emphasis on the teams to deliver a well-handling car.
Mercedes looked solid from the start, but there was a differentiator between the two cars – and Hamilton ended up taking a different downforce path compared to teammate Bottas.
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
Mercedes has two different rear wing configurations available to its drivers, who are exhausted during free practice sessions to determine which one gives them the level of performance every driver looks for on that specific track.
The changes may not look drastic from the outside, but they do offer subtle differences that allow them to perform different levels of downforce, all the while making up for that through the drag penalty and DRS effect.
The main visual difference between the two layouts is the one- or two-pillar layout (seen above in last year’s W11 illustration), with the two offering different structural and aerodynamic characteristics often dictated by configuration and the characteristics of the circuit.
It’s unclear whether Mercedes actively chose to split its drivers, given the threat posed by Verstappen, or whether this was a conscious configuration decision by everyone.
But Hamilton’s setup on the rear wing layout, with two pillars, had much less wing than the rear wing installed on Bottas’ car, which would potentially give the Brit straight-line speed acceleration. but would make life a little more difficult in the corners.
Photo by: Mercedes W11 rear wing comparison
It seemed to play between the two in qualifying, where Hamilton lost to his teammate, who had a more stable rear when it mattered most towards the end of the lap.
Playing the long game and thinking about the race, it looks like Hamilton’s setup not only allowed him to hit rivals when needed, but also kept his tires in a more stable operating window during the race.
Bottas’ setup made it easier for the Finn to get the tires into the temperature window for qualifying, but during the race this can be detrimental to the performance and longevity of the tire as the temperature of the tire mass increases. .
This impacts the tread platform, which begins to slip more as a result.
Meanwhile, Hamilton, whose car was trimmed a bit more, drove slightly different lines due to his car’s setup, which caused him to handle tires differently.
Perhaps that was the reason why his pace didn’t look as good as Bottas and Verstappen in the early laps, as they had more downforce on their cars to heat the tires up. But they would suffer later in the first stint.
With the use of the DRS, Hamilton could also give the tires some breathing room on the straights.
Although he suffered from being late in the early stages, it may have actually helped him manage his tires and strategy in this opening phase of the race accordingly.
Hamilton’s long game in picking up the setup and his willingness to be patient in pushing his way forward ultimately proved decisive in giving him the tools he needed to win again.