It’s very difficult to know what to expect competitively at Algarve after an unusual Friday that was disrupted by Pirelli development tyre testing at the start of FP2 and then a red flag for Pierre Gasly’s fire.
The normal basic assumptions are probably accurate: Mercedes has an advantage, Red Bull’s a comfortable second-best, and it’s very close behind. But exactly how things develop over Saturday and even on Sunday are still a mystery.
Qualifying this afternoon should be super important. This is not a track that looks like it’s going to produce much overtaking. There’s no obvious spot for it, and while that doesn’t mean passing will be impossible it’s going to be very difficult.
There might be a good reason why F1’s not using the version of the track that has a much bigger braking zone for Turn 1, which can be a tight right-left chicane instead of the very high-speed flick right that’s in action this weekend.
We saw Max Verstappen and Lance Stroll fall foul of that in Friday practice. Though the drag from the flat-out final corner to Turn 1 is long, cars will either need to blast past using DRS or contact seems inevitable. Obviously, Verstappen shouldn’t be launching a move down the inside of such a corner in practice. So that specific incident isn’t the circuit’s fault!
As expected, the drivers are loving the Algarve layout. It rises and falls so much, with some blind crests that make it difficult to spot the apex but also to get the power down as the rear of the car goes light. Grip and traction are made even worse by the circuit’s recent resurfacing which has left it extremely green and there’s not a huge amount of confidence this will improve much over one weekend.
That should make qualifying and even the race quite entertaining as drivers will be working with limits that are constantly changing. I’d expect to see a few errors today and tomorrow but especially in qualifying and drivers take themselves and their cars to the maximum.
One challenge that has been reduced is a change in track limits rules on Saturday morning means we should see far fewer lap times being deleted for drivers running slightly wide at Turn 1 and Turn 4. On Friday it was being policed by the white line on the track edge – drivers had to keep one wheel within it. Now the exit kerb becomes the track limit, so drivers can run a bit wider as long as one wheel’s kept on the kerb.
Personally I’d have preferred the white line. If there’s a wall on the exit of that corner there wouldn’t have been 125 offences on Friday. Drivers will push the limits and try to get away with as much as they can. So instead of pulling them in, the rulemakers are letting them get away with more.