Three intense wheel-to-wheel races with dogged defending and aggressive overtaking have made the Formula One season a thrilling battle so far, with veteran Lewis Hamilton chasing a record eighth title and Max Verstappen going all out to stop him.
Hamilton's victory at Sunday's Portuguese Grand Prix was his second of the season and 97th of his glittering career. It also ensured all the races this year have seen Hamilton and Verstappen finish in the top two positions, with Verstappen winning one after going so close to winning the season's opener in Bahrain.
“When you know that you can go to the absolute limit, you can trust each other to just race super-hard,” Verstappen said. “I always have full trust in Lewis, that we will give each other enough space.”
Hamilton made typically clinical overtakes to bounce back and win in Portugal, extending his championship lead over Verstappen to eight points in his bid to surpass seven-time champion Michael Schumacher and stand alone among F1 greats.
It has been exactly the kind of close racing fans have been craving after seven years of Mercedes drivers' and constructors' titles.
“It is down to respect, and I think we are both very, very hard but fair,” Hamilton said. “I think that’s what makes great racing and great racing drivers, and I think we will continue to keep it clean and keep it on the edge.”
At one point Hamilton slipped to third place on Sunday, but the Mercedes driver slickly moved ahead on Lap 20 of 66 to finish ahead of Red Bull's Verstappen and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas in third.
“That was such a tough race, physically and mentally, keeping everything together,” Hamilton said. “Right on my limit. Great race.”
The British driver started from second on the grid behind Bottas, who took a bonus point for the fastest lap. Verstappen thought he set the fastest time — on his final lap — but it was deleted because he went wide of track limits.
“Really? OK. That’s a bit odd," Verstappen said when he was told about the decision during the post-race track interviews.
Hamilton and Verstappen now head into next Sunday's Spanish GP.
In Portugal, Bottas took pole to deny Hamilton a record-extending 100th, making him the third different pole-sitter so far after Verstappen and Hamilton. He made a clean start to hold off Hamilton and Verstappen but dropped off.
“It was a tricky day today, just didn’t have the pace,” Bottas said.
The safety car came out on Lap 2 for debris on the track as veteran Kimi Raikkonen lost his front wing and went off into gravel after clipping the left rear tire of his Alfa Romeo teammate Antonio Giovinazzi.
“It was my mistake,” Raikkonen said. “I’m just glad I didn’t ruin his tire.”
When the race resumed on Lap 7, Bottas surprised Hamilton with a fast restart, while Verstappen got in Hamilton’s slipstream to move past him into second.
Verstappen couldn’t overtake Bottas despite being in the DRS zone, which Hamilton exploited to zoom past Verstappen on the outside to reclaim second four laps later. Hamilton then set about chasing Bottas, overtaking him with another fine move on the outside to stamp his authority on the race.
“I didn’t quite get as good a start as Valtteri and then lost out at the restart, which was not good. I had to try and reposition myself,” Hamilton said. “I think Max made a mistake at some point and that was perfect. With Valtteri I had to make the move early before the tires were destroyed, and I just managed to get him.”
Verstappen was stuck behind Bottas, which allowed Hamilton to move ahead by nearly four seconds approaching the halfway point.
The undulating 4.7-kilometer (2.9-mile) track in Portugal’s Algarve region is one of the most pleasing on the eye, but drivers have complained of lack of grip since new tarmac was laid before last year’s race.
This seemed to make it harder for Verstappen to attack.
“This was an odd weekend in terms of grip," Verstappen said. "We were not on top of it here, but we’ll see what we can do in Barcelona.”
Verstappen pitted before the two Mercedes drivers, on Lap 36 followed by Bottas on the next and Hamilton on Lap 38.
Bottas came out just ahead of a flying Verstappen, who passed him easily to move behind Hamilton and Red Bull’s Sergio Perez in the race lead — although the veteran Mexican was on old tires.
Perez narrowly avoided an accident when backmarker Nikita Mazepin clumsily cut across him with the Red Bull finally changing his tires soon after. Fourth-place Perez's fastest lap was beaten by Bottas.
McLaren’s Lando Norris was fifth ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
Bottas moved up to fourth in the overall standings, five points behind Norris, who trails Verstappen by 24 points.
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