The British driver’s success at the Algarve circuit was possible thanks to the work Mercedes has had to do to get on top of its early balance issues, plus a different rear wing choice to teammate Valtteri Bottas.
The battle between Mercedes and Red Bull at the front is the closest we have seen in a number of years, as the former recovers from the losses associated with the new tyres and regulations.
Meanwhile, Red Bull has been catapulted into the fray having fixed some of the chassis and aerodynamic issues that plagued it last season, with Honda also fast-tracking its new power unit into 2021.
Red Bull has also continued to turn the screw with yet another fairly large update package on the car in Portugal.
Mercedes, ever since its troubled pre-season test, has worked diligently to iron out its weaknesses and haul itself back towards Red Bull, doing so with only a handful of aerodynamic updates.
The race at Portimao required attention to setup, with the tricky low grip track surface allied to uncertainty over how best to manage the tyres. This put the emphasis firmly on teams to come up with a well-handling car.
Mercedes looked strong from the off, but there was a differentiating factor between the two cars – and Hamilton ended up going down a different route on his downforce levels compared to teammate Bottas.
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
Mercedes has two different rear wing set-ups available to its drivers, which get a run out at free practice sessions to establish which one offers them the performance level each driver is after at that specific track.
The changes might not seem drastic from the outside, but they do offer up subtle differences that allow them to run different downforce levels, whilst offsetting this against the drag penalty and the DRS effect.
The main visual difference between the two arrangements is the single or double pillar arrangement (seen above in the illustration of last year’s W11), with both offering different structural and aerodynamic characteristics that are often dictated by the circuit configuration and characteristics.
It is unclear if Mercedes actively opted to split its drivers, given the threat posed by Verstappen, or whether it was a conscious set-up decision by each.
But Hamilton’s set-up on the rear wing arrangement, with two pillars, had significantly less wing than the rear wing installed on Bottas’ car, which would potentially give the Brit a straightline speed boost but make life a little more difficult in the corners.
Photo by: Mercedes W11 rear wing comparison
This seemed to play out between the pair during qualifying, where Hamilton lost out to his team-mate, who had a more stable rear end when it counted most toward the end of the lap.
In playing the long game and thinking of the race, it appears that Hamilton’s set-up allowed him to not only strike against his rivals when necessary but also keep his tyres in a more stable operating window during the race.
Bottas’ set-up allowed the Finn to get the tyres into the temperature window more easily for qualifying, but during the race, this can be detrimental to the performance and longevity of the tyre as the bulk temperature of the tyre goes up.
This has an impact on the tread platform, which begins to slide more as a consequence.
Meanwhile, Hamilton, whose car was trimmed out a little more, was driving slightly different lines as a result of his car’s configuration, which led to him managing the tyres differently.
This was perhaps the reason why his pace didn’t seem as good as Bottas and Verstappen in the opening laps, as they had more downforce on their cars to fire the temperature into the tyres. But they would suffer from the fallout of that later in the first stint.
With the use of DRS, Hamilton could also give the tyres a bit of a breather down the straights.
Although he suffered the pain of being behind in the opening stages, it may have actually helped him manage his tyres and strategy in that opening phase of the race as a consequence.
Hamilton’s long game in set-up choice, and his willingness to be patient in working his way to the front, ultimately proved decisive in giving him the tools he needed to come out on top again.
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