Lewis Hamilton one step from immortality

A report by Rebecca Clancy for the Times of London.

The word that best described Valtteri Bottas’s qualifying session was “annoying”. The Finn had been fastest all weekend, in every session, except for when it had mattered as he allowed Lewis Hamilton, his Mercedes team-mate, to snatch pole position for the Portugal Grand Prix with his final lap.

In an unusual qualifying session that had been delayed by 30 minutes to fix a rogue drain cover, the pair had opted to run the slower medium tyre to set their fastest times. Cars were struggling for grip on the newly resurfaced track in Portimao and the pair decided that as they had found it hard to warm up the soft tyres to give them the grip they needed, the medium tyre was the safer option.

The team gave them the option of how many laps they each wanted. Bottas opted for one, Hamilton chose three and that was the difference. The two traded places at the top as they went faster and faster, but crucially, with enough fuel on board for an extra flying lap, Hamilton took the opportunity to snatch pole.

“Knowing that you have the pace, it’s annoying, but that’s how it is,” Bottas said. “Quickly, I have to forget that. It’s only qualifying and the race is tomorrow, and I know I will have the speed.”

It is a blow for the Finn, who trails Hamilton in the championship by 69 points with only six races remaining. He had been quickest in every practice over the weekend in the south of Portugal. For the first two qualifying sessions it was again Bottas topping the timesheet.

What more can he do to beat Hamilton, who claimed his sixth pole position of the season and 97th of his career and is now on course to win his seventh world championship? The pole also continues Mercedes’ run of claiming the front spot at every race this season.

Hamilton, who is perfectly poised to win his 92nd race to claim the all-time record, said he had had to “drive the nuts” off his car to pull out the lap and insisted he had not held anything back during the earlier sessions when he had been slower than his team-mate.

“I can’t tell you how hard that was today,” the six-times world champion said. “I don’t hold anything back. I don’t personally feel that it works. I remember trying it in Formula 3 and it never ends well. It’s never part of my philosophy.

“It just doesn’t come easy, so I’ve been pushing all weekend. I think I’ve been driving well all weekend, but he [Bottas] has always been at the top so I really had to continue to dig and believe I could get there.”

All is not lost for Bottas, however. The track, which is nicknamed the “rollercoaster” for its undulating characteristic, was resurfaced a month ago and all the drivers complained about a lack of grip. Tyres will play a part here, with many of the teams struggling to get them to work. Formula One has never raced in the Algarve before.

At present, there is a chance of rain and strong winds for the race, which could add more uncertainty into the mix.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen will start third and on a different tyre, which could give him an advantage off the line over the two Mercedes cars in front, who are on the slower tyre. Alongside him will be the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc, who benefited from his team bringing more aerodynamic upgrades this weekend.

Sebastian Vettel, his team-mate, however, could not get the car to work and will start 15th. His run of dismal Saturdays continued as he failed to get into the final top-ten shootout for the eighth consecutive race. Afterwards, the four-times world champion described his team-mate as being in a “different class”.

“It’s not just beating, it’s like a different class,” he said. “I try everything I can. I think the laps I hit, and I’m satisfied with them, are still too slow. At the moment there is nothing more I can do than to get what I have inside me.”

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