Valtteri Bottas will hold the lap record at Portimao for the foreseeable future thanks to the 1:16.466 he set in Q2 for the Portuguese Grand Prix, but there’s no doubt that he’d trade it for pole position given the chance.
Bottas had been fastest in all three practice sessions, Q1 and Q2, but when it mattered in the final session of qualifying he was 0.288s slower than his new lap record set in Q2 and, crucially, 0.102s slower than teammate Lewis Hamilton.
As a result, he will line up second on the grid on a weekend where it looked like he held the edge over Hamilton around the 4.2km lap.
So what happened?
There’s a popular theory that Hamilton always hides his ultimate pace until the last session of qualifying so that Bottas can’t learn from his data. But while it’s true that he uses the practice sessions to build up to his ultimate lap in Q3, the veteran of 97 pole positions says he does not drive off the pace on purpose.
“Look I don’t have anything to hide, or anything to hold back, I’ve never personally felt that’s worked,” Hamilton said. “I remember when I was younger in lower categories some people tried it, I remember in Formula 3 and it never ended well, it’s never been part of my philosophy.
“It’s like building a wall, you build one brick then the next, the next, the next, continuing to improve throughout and there’s a lot of work in the background to fine tune, finding the perfect setting for the brake bias, the diff, how you get the setting for each corner, it doesn’t come easy.
“So I’ve been pushing all weekend, generally think I’ve been driving well all weekend, happy with my performances through practice but he’s always been at the top. I really had to continue to dig and believe I could eventually get there.
“Honestly coming across the line and getting the pole was a great feeling naturally because I really had to work my socks off for it.
But there is still a sense that this one got away from Bottas.
It was an unusual session in that all the fastest times were set on the medium compound tyre, which was expected to be 0.7s slower than the softs. The soft compound wasn’t degrading dramatically, but it seems the extra stability offered by the medium allowed the drivers to push harder through the high-speed corners and direction changes that make up a lap of Portimao.
The two Mercedes drivers differed in their approach to the final run, with Hamilton leaving the pits earlier and with more fuel on board in order to have two shots at pole, while Bottas opted for less fuel and a single shot at the lap. In theory, Bottas’ approach would combine fresher tyres and a lower fuel for ultimate pace, but given the way the medium held up on its second flying lap, it was clear Hamilton made the right choice with the benefit of hindsight.
“The first decision was, obviously, with which tyre we go but based on what I felt in Q2, and I felt the medium was actually a tiny bit better than the soft tyre over the whole timed lap and that’s why I went for the medum,” Bottas explained.
“After that, it was about doing one or two timed laps. Obviously the benefit of going for just one lap is that you fuel it just for one, if you go for two laps you have to fuel for two and that’s obviously, more weight.
“Based on what I felt in Q2, I had a good feeling with the tyres on the single lap, I went for it again in Q3.
“Unfortunately, it was the wrong decision, but maybe the track temperature dropped slightly and I just couldn’t get the tyres to feel quite the same as they felt in Q2. And at the end of that lap I was just wishing I could have had one more lap, as I would then have the feel for it.
“Wrong call from my side, it’s annoying, for sure, but Lewis did a good job at the end.”
Hamilton beating Bottas when it matters has been a trend in their time together at Mercedes. Look back over the course of the 2020 season and a tenth here and a bit more luck there could have kept Bottas in contention for the title.
Yet days like Saturday — both from Hamilton’s side and his own — are the reason why he consistently falls short.
“It is annoying, it’s very annoying – that’s the word,” Bottas added. “But being at the top in the practice sessions it doesn’t matter and I always try to reset from each session and just focus on the coming one.
“Especially after FP3 you always need to reset, obviously take all the learnings you can from all the practices and do things even better.
“But knowing that you have the pace it’s annoying, that’s how it is but I quickly have to forget that because it’s only qualifying, and the race is tomorrow.
“And I know I’ll have the speed.”