Tyre temperatures as the decisive factor at Portimao - analysis

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While the Portimao track presented drivers and engineers with a big challenge with its undulating and unforgiving layout, the late autumn weather posed another challenge to master at the Portuguese Grand Prix.

Just as at the Nürburgring two weeks ago, tyre temperatures were clearly the decisive factor once again in terms of on-track performance. The unusually cool temperatures meant that drivers and engineers had to work out how to bring Pirelli’s tyres in the optimal temperature window and keep them in the critical and relatively narrow range to get the best out of them.

While the F1 calendar is usually defined in a way that races take place under climatic conditions that are well suited to cars and tyres, the coronavirus outbreak meant that the sport had to completely rearrange the usual, well-functioning schedule. As a result of the delayed start to the season, several European races take place in late autumn when the weather is usually cooler than wished and more unpredictable.

After some drivers, most prominently Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc fell victim to heavy graining at the previous Eifel Grand Prix, tyre remained the main topic during last weekend’s Portuguese Grand Prix. Although temperatures were significantly higher than in Germany, they were still low enough to make life difficult for drivers and teams.

Tyre durability turned out to be an interesting element of the race. While the initial stint indicated that drivers would need to commit themselves to a two-stop strategy, especially those who started the race on the soft compound, the latter part of the race saw both the hard and the medium compound cope very well with the demands of the challenging Portimao track.

Pierre Gasly completed the longest stint on the C3 soft compound with a total of 28 laps. The best lap on the compound was achieved by Red Bull’s Alexander Albon who set a time of 1m19.890.

On the mediums that turned out to be the best race tyre both in durability and grip level, Kimi Räikkönen covered the longest distance. The Finn spent 54 laps on the same set of Yellow medium rubber that was equivalent 82 per cent of the race distance. After starting on the softs, the Finn was forced relatively early into the pits due to some graining and degradation, but his second stint was an extremely constant spell, at least in terms of tyre performance. However, it was another driver to set the best lap on that compound with McLaren’s Lando Norris registering a 1m19.360.

The C1 hard compound was an interesting affair in yesterday’s cool conditions with drizzle raising further difficulties. The conditions meant that it was particularly difficult to warm the hard tyres up and keep them in the right temperature window. Williams racer Nicholas Latifi completed the longest stint on the C1 rubber with a 40-lap stint. The quickest lap was posted by race winner Lewis Hamilton who set the best lap time of the race with a 1m18.750 on the white-walled tyres.

Of the 19 drivers who finished the 17th Portuguese Grand Prix, 16 completed the race distance of 306km with a one-stop strategy which was predicted and recommended by Pirelli ahead of the race. Although Sergio Perez also pitted twice for new tyres, his first stop was a consequence of his first-lap clash with Max Verstappen.

The two-stop strategy turned out to be definitely the slower approach to the race which was mainly down to the cool, windy and slightly damp conditions. The circumstances meant that tyre wear was extremely low on the medium and the hard compound and it was rather difficult to warm up the new tyres after the pit stop which saw the drivers lose vital time on the fresh tyres on the opening laps. The three drivers who visited the pit on two occasions were Daniil Kvyat, Lando Norris and Alexander Albon, but neither of them scored any points at Portimao.

Reflecting on the 17th Portuguese Grand Prix, Pirelli’s Head of F1 and Car Racing Mario Isola was buoyed by the performance of the three compounds in the 66-lap race at Portimao.

“We’re very happy with the performance of all three compounds on a demanding circuit that the teams didn’t know well; also having had reduced running in free practice. Despite this, all three compounds showed both speed and durability, with a wide range of different strategies."

The race saw the medium compound establish itself as the best compound that had a good durability while it was also relatively easy to bring into the right temperature window.

„Conditions today were tricky with reasonably cool track temperatures and even a bit of rain, but that didn’t prevent us seeing some impressively long stints, particularly on the medium tyre – which was clearly the one to have, as it also set pole. Congratulations to Lewis Hamilton for his incredible record: we’re privileged to witness history being made,” he said.