Hamilton, Verstappen set for tight fight again at Portuguese Grand Prix

How will a qualifying sprint race work to determine the grid? (1:10)

Nate Saunders is pleased with F1's "proactive" decision to have a qualifying sprint race in three of the 2021 events. (1:10)

We could happily get used to this. For the third race weekend this season, it looks like a close battle is brewing between Mercedes and Red Bull.

A familiar theme developed from Friday practice, with very little to pick between the top two teams on both single-lap pace and long runs.

If anything, Mercedes may just hold the edge over a single lap and Red Bull over a race distance, but so much will depend on how each driver is able to manage the interaction between their tyres and Portimao's smooth track surface.

Pirelli has brought its three hardest tyre compounds to Portugal, and as a result, building and retaining tyre temperature is a key factor in performance.

It was the same story at this circuit last year, when a newly-laid track surface had drivers scrambling for grip while their tyres came up to temperature.

A year's weathering has given Portimao's surface a bit more bite, but setting a quick lap time still requires perfect tyre preparation.

"It's very similar [to last year]," Max Verstappen said after getting out of his Red Bull on Friday afternoon. "Of course the tyres have changed and of course we've lost a bit of grip from the car [due to regulation changes] compared to last year, but it's very tricky out there and it's a shame.

"It's all about tyre prep, tyre temperature, and it shouldn't be like that.

"But, of course, it's the same for everyone."

Lewis Hamilton ended up with the fastest lap of the day, a 1:19.837, and unusually it came on his third lap out of the pits rather than his second -- highlighting how difficult it is to achieve the right tyre temperature on a single outlap.

He ended up 0.143s faster than Verstappen and 0.344s faster than Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

A comparison between the laps of Hamilton and Verstappen shows Red Bull gaining in high-speed corners, such as Turn 1 where Verstappen carried nearly 10km/h more apex speed, while Hamilton recovered time in the slow-speed corners, such as Turn 3 and Turn 5 where he had a 5km/h advantage.

Both teams will look to refine their setups to address their relative weaknesses ahead of qualifying, while ensuring they retain or extend their strengths.

Once again, the midfield drivers were in touch with the top two teams during Friday practice, but based on what we've seen at the first two races, that gap will likely extend in qualifying.

Long-run pace

Red Bull and Mercedes took different approaches to their long runs at the end of Friday's second practice session, with Mercedes splitting its drivers' time between the soft and medium tyres while Red Bull focused solely on the medium.

From the small quantity of laps we saw, it appears as though the medium compound was a better race tyre than the soft, so expect to see the top drivers attempt to make it through the second session of qualifying on the medium tyre in order to start the race on that compound.

Bottas had the best long-run pace on the medium tyres, with an average lap time of 1:23.062 over six laps.

Hamilton's average lap time on the medium compound was a relatively disappointing 1:23.802 over eight laps, while Verstappen completed a healthy ten laps on the medium with an average of 1:23.116.

"I think in terms of pace it wasn't a bad start," Bottas said. "It's good to see we're there or thereabouts although, again, it's going to be close, no doubt.

"I got a quite similar feeling to last year. It's still a quite slippery tarmac and especially the rear of the car is pretty loose in some places, so it wasn't the easiest of days.

"It's not easy to get clean laps, and for me, personally, the softer we went with the compounds, the trickier the car became.

"So I think the medium tyre is the best working tyre so far, but there's still work to do."

Both Mercedes cars picked up aerodynamic damage during their long runs, but it was clear Hamilton was the less happy of the two.

"It's difficult to say whether or not it's the car or it's the wind or the track, but it's definitely been a real challenge today to keep the car on track," the world champion said.

"We came here last year and the tyres were too hard, and we've come here again and the same tyre, so it's pretty much... in fact they're harder this year, so it feels like we've come with too hard a compound in my opinion."

Verstappen's solid pace, more or less matching Bottas despite completing more laps on the medium compound, hints at his potential in the race and just how close the battle could be between Mercedes and Red Bull.

"I think it's going to be a close run; it looks like we're close [with Red Bull]," Hamilton added.

"I don't know how Max's [fastest] lap was but mine wasn't perfect. We've definitely got some time to come from the car and some improvements to make, but I'm sure they have too.

"But it's close, as it has been the last couple of races, so it's exciting."

Red Bull's Sergio Perez is also keen to join the battle after a scrappy run on low fuel saw him set his fastest time, a 1:20.516, on his fifth lap out of the pits and end up tenth fastest overall.

However, his long run on medium tyres looked more competitive, placing him in between Verstappen and Hamilton with an average lap time of 1:23.455 over eight laps on the mediums.

"I think we have pretty good pace so definitely we should be in the mix tomorrow to fight for pole," Perez said after the session.

Has Alpine made progress?

The presence of both Alpine drivers in the top six on Friday came as a surprise after the struggles of the French team at the first two races.

Alpine, the renamed Renault team from last year, appears to have slipped backwards relative to its rivals this year, which the team's managing director, Marcin Budkowski, puts down to issues in the wind tunnel over the winter that prevented it making the most of its development time.

"Unfortunately it's not completely a surprise because we had a few issues over the winter that we knew would affect our performance and of course we went to the Bahrain test and our fears were true," he said. "So we knew we were on the back foot going into testing and then going into the first races.

"We are working hard on trying to improve the car. We brought some developments to Imola, we have done some more testing this morning, so we are making small steps in terms of improving the performance of the car.

"But the gap to the guys we'd like to fight with, the McLarens and the Ferraris, is a bit too much at the moment, so we are still working to close it, but it will be tricky to do that in the next few races."

A sign of progress came on Friday afternoon as two-time world champion Fernando Alonso finished the day fifth fastest, 0.023s off Ferrari's Carlos Sainz in fourth place, and just 0.383s off Hamilton in first place.

But, if anything, Alpine's appearance in the top six shows just how close the midfield is this season and how important it was to get the tyres hooked up for a quick lap of Portimao on Friday.

"It was good, I think we were happy with the car today," Alonso said. "Obviously it's only Friday but we were comfortable from lap one and we didn't touch the set-up much because everything felt reasonably OK.

"We tried to do some laps just for me to get used to the track and to know a little bit more about the tyres.

"The asphalt seems a little bit different compared to last year, so we had to review a little bit of the data we had from the tyres. Generally a happy Friday but still more to come tomorrow."

Just 0.361 separated Sainz in fourth place and the AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly in 11th, with almost every driver in between telling a story of a wind-affected lap or tyre temperature issues.

Looking to the long runs for a more reliable form guide, it appears as though Ferrari and McLaren are closely matched at the front of the midfield with Alpine just behind.

Nevertheless, that would still represent progress for Alpine, which looked like the fifth-fastest team, slotting in ahead of AlphaTauri, Aston Martin, Williams, Alfa Romeo and a distant Haas team.