Daniel Ricciardo will hope he turned a corner on Sunday when a strong showing at the Portuguese Grand Prix partially erased his qualifying nightmare in Portimao.
Nonetheless, time is swiftly running out for the Australian to find a foot hold in his intra-team battle with McLaren teammate Lando Norris, who is opening up a sizeable gap in the drivers’ championship.
Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton claimed his second win of the season — but he’s far from the only thorn in Max Verstappen’s side in 2021.
These are the five things we learnt from the Portuguese Grand Prix.
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RICCIARDO’S WOES AREN’T AS BAD AS THEY SEEM…
Three races into his McLaren switch and concerns for Ricciardo are rapidly growing.
The concerns are understandable.
Ricciardo, widely regarded as one of the most talented drivers in the field, has 21 points less than his junior teammate Lando Norris. And that’s to say nothing of Ricciardo’s shock failure in qualifying for the Portuguese Grand Prix, where he failed to make it out of Q1.
But when you sift through the disappointments of the early rounds, there are positive signs for Ricciardo moving forward.
For starters, he was strong on race day in Portugal where he leapt from P16 on the grid to finish a respectable ninth. Combined with his pace during Friday practice, when he was faster than Norris, and Ricciardo doesn’t appear to be lagging that far behind.
Speaking after Sunday’s race, Ricciardo — still noticeably shaken by his qualifying aberration — suggested he was slowly finding his feet at McLaren.
“As a driver, you know inside you when you’re driving with confidence and if it’s kind of flowing,” Ricciardo said. “And Friday (practice) did feel like that. Definitely more so than previous.
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“I think today there were moments of speed and moments of not quite there but I think I took a lot from this week’s race.”
McLaren F1 boss Andreas Seidl said after qualifying in Portugal that the issue for Ricciardo may be that low-grip circuits are exaggerating his teething issues at McLaren.
Ricciardo still isn’t at home in the car and low-grip conditions, such as those seen at Portimao, and at Imola when it was wet, have a way of exposing driver apprehension, Seidl explained.
“I think in the end it’s minor things that probably get exaggerated in low-grip conditions, like we have them here and like we also had in Imola with the drying track,” Seidl said per motorsport.com.
“We have seen in the (Friday) practice session, that (the Q1 exit) is definitely not the gap he’s having to Lando at the moment. He was just trying to put the lap together and it’s not easy to get the laps in here with the traffic, with the wind and everything with the low-grip conditions.
“We simply need to stay calm, analyse, work through it, and I’m sure it will come.”
… BUT THE EXCUSES WILL SOON RUN OUT
That said, excuses for Ricciardo can only be made for so long.
The F1 circus now heads to Spain, but that will be followed by the Monaco and Azerbaijan Grands Prix; both at low-grip street circuits that could further expose Ricciardo’s trepidation in a McLaren.
He will therefore need to make big progress this weekend in Spain in order to feel more comfortable in the car, and give himself a better chance at performing in the trickier track conditions that will follow.
If he struggles again, then it stands to reason that he may remain well below his best well into June, and sink further behind Norris in the drivers’ championship.
Drivers shouldn’t be harshly judged during an acclimatisation period — but that period can’t last for an entire season.
Ricciardo simply has to start outdriving Norris soon, otherwise his stocks will plummet.
He’s in for arguably the fight of his career given Norris’ confidence is already soaring.
“Confidence is definitely at an all-time high not just on track but in the paddock, working in the team,” Norris told Sky Sports.
TRACK LIMIT DEBACLE WON’T GO AWAY
Two races after dominating the headlines in Bahrain, and a day after doing the same during Saturday qualifying, the contentious issue of breaching track limits was back in sharp focus on race day in Portimao.
And it was the same man at the centre of the debate with Verstappen once again on the wrong end.
In Bahrain, Verstappen believed he had taken the race lead from Hamilton but was forced to give the position back due to breaching track limits.
The decision likely wouldn’t have raised many eyebrows if it wasn’t for race-winner Hamilton being found to have breached track limits at Turn 4 29 times in the race without punishment.
In qualifying for the Portuguese GP, Verstappen had what would have been a pole lap deleted after he was found to have drifted outside of track limits again.
Then on Sunday, Verstappen thought he had claimed fastest lap of the race — worth one potentially vital championship point — until it was rubbed out for the same violation.
“Oh really? That’s a good one,” Verstappen said in response.
“That is a bit odd, because they were not checking track limits at Turn 14, but whatever.”
Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko said after the race that something has to change to ensure there’s an automatic disadvantage to going off the track, rather than a punishment later handed down by race stewards.
“Now we’ve lost the victory, fastest lap, and pole position,” Marko said on Sky Sports Germany after the race. “All good things come in threes. I hope that’s the end of it.
“Something has to change. Either you make a boundary with kerbs or you make gravel or something. If you go out, there’s an automatic penalty
“Norris overtook (Sergio) Perez, went over with all four wheels, and there were no consequences. So it’s not consistent, and that’s not racing when you juggle the rules like that.”
HAMILTON SENDS MAD MAX A RUDE AWAKENING
Track limits debate aside, Hamilton sent a strong message in the third act of his 2021 battle with Verstappen.
The Mercedes ace delivered a near-faultless drive in the third race of a season being billed as what will be the closest championship battle ever between Hamilton and Verstappen.
They certainly weren’t close in Portugal where Hamilton regained second-place from Verstappen before sweeping past teammate Valtteri Bottas and opening up a big lead.
Hamilton’s margin of victory over the Dutchman was a whopping 29.148 seconds.
“What a phenomenal race by Lewis,” said Nico Rosberg, Hamilton’s former teammate.
“I’m a bit amused because Max Verstappen is starting to understand better and better how good Lewis Hamilton is.
“He needs to do everything perfect to beat him in the championship and at the moment it’s two-one to Lewis.”
‘ANGRY’ ALONSO SENDS TIMELY F1 REMINDER
Fernando Alonso’s long-awaited return to F1 failed to garner much excitement in the first two rounds as he retired in Bahrain and finished tenth at Imola.
But there were signs that the Alonso of old was alive and well on Sunday when he said he drove with “anger” to go from P13 on the grid to eighth.
The result was his best in F1 since the 2018 Singapore Grand Prix.
Former world champion Rosberg said on Sky Sports that he “could see the gladiator Alonso that we all remember from the back of the day”.
Alonso agreed, saying that the Portuguese Grand Prix was the first real chance he had to flex his muscles since returning to F1.
“I think in Bahrain I was more careful on everything to complete the first Grand Prix,” the Apline driver said. “Imola I was completely… I was so uncomfortable with the car in the wet conditions.
“So I think this was really the first race where I was really extracting the maximum out of the car. And I was upset after yesterday’s qualifying, so today that anger was probably on track as well.”
Portugal also marked a big step forward for Alpine, which had struggled in the opening two rounds.
Neither Alonso or his teammate Esteban Ocon finished higher than ninth in the first two races, but they finished eighth and seventh respectively in Portugal.