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Pressure's building on Red Bull

29/04/21

The Dutchman trails by 1 point.

This was not how the start of the season was supposed to pan out for Red Bull, who had the fastest car in Formula 1® testing.

Superstar Max Verstappen has finished second and first over the opening two weeks, yet he still trails Lewis Hamilton by a point. Mercedes are also on top again in the constructors' championship, seven points clear even after Valtteri Bottas crashed out of the epic Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

"To come away leading both championships almost felt like a get out of jail free card, because our rivals didn't maximise the opportunity we gave them," Silver Arrows boss Toto Wolff said.

Verstappen is certainly in a title race, but seven-time champion Hamilton will be the favourite as long as he has the lead.

There is pressure on Red Bull to change that this week when the season continues with the Portuguese Grand Prix.

LAST TIME OUT

It would perhaps be easier to start with what did not happen at Imola, such was the drama.

Verstappen was the victor, while Hamilton came in second, but that does not even start to tell the full story, with incident right from the outset in the pouring rain.

The Mercedes driver started from pole but was trailing and damaged by Turn One, pushed wide by a rapid Verstappen dash.

Worse was to come for Hamilton as he careered off into a gravel trap midway through the race and attempted to get his sparking Silver Arrow back to the pit lane as Verstappen streaked clear.

But an unexpected intervention gave Hamilton a reprieve, with a crash – not the only one – between Bottas and George Russell prompting a suspension of the race.

That meant Verstappen had to restore his advantage after a nervy restart, while Hamilton resumed from ninth and weaved through the field to finish a distant second, retaining his season lead with a late fastest lap.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR AT PORTIMAO

Now that Hamilton has proven the worth of the W12 car – previously dismissed by Bottas as "undriveable" – Mercedes might expect a more straightforward weekend.

Hamilton won at the Algarve International Circuit last year, after all.

But the tricky circuit, dubbed 'the rollercoaster', could encourage another eventful outing, particularly with Verstappen keen to ensure he has not missed his chance to pull clear over the past two grands prix.

The battle below the top two teams is similarly intriguing, with McLaren's Lando Norris as high as third in the standings after following up a fourth place in the opener by taking third last time out. Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, meanwhile, is fourth in the standings.

Neither McLaren nor the Scuderia had the pace to stick with Hamilton when his crash gave them a rare opportunity to compete with the Mercedes superstar, but those two teams will be determined to prove they are the best of the rest.

Sebastian Vettel's challenge right now is simply to get a point on the board after coming 15th in back-to-back races.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

Reaching the Max – Having either won (twice) or secured pole position (twice) in each of the past three races, Verstappen is enjoying the best run of his career.

Hundred up for Ham – Hamilton's pole position at Imola was his 99th in F1®, meaning he could this week become the first driver to reach a century. This is the same circuit where the Briton passed Michael Schumacher's record for race wins last season.

Keep your friends close – While challenging Hamilton, Verstappen also finally has competition again from within his own garage. Sergio Perez qualified in second last time out, the first time Verstappen had been beaten in qualifying by a team-mate in 19 races.

Yet so far – Leclerc is fourth in the standings and all too often fourth on race day. The Ferrari man has gone 15 races without a podium but has finished fourth on four occasions during that span.

Fail to Finnish – Bottas will hope to avoid a career first following his retirement last time out. In his 158-race career, he has never failed to place at consecutive grands prix.

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

  1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 44
  2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 43
  3. Lando Norris (McLaren) – 27
  4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) – 20
  5. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 16

Constructors

  1. Mercedes – 60
  2. Red Bull – 53
  3. McLaren – 41
  4. Ferrari – 34
  5. Aston Martin – 7