“A Grand Portimão Cop-Out”

Of the drivers competing at this weekend’s Portuguese Grand Prix, Lance Stroll, Antonio Giovinazzi, Charles Leclerc, George Russell and Alex Albon all raced there in F3 in early September 2015.

Yet despite the nods to it in various record books and websites, none of the above group managed to race on the Grand Prix layout that weekend in what proved an embarrassing solution to a solvable problem.

Nothing quite raises eyebrows like a mid-week announcement following the first day of a Formula 3 test session, mainly because there generally shouldn’t be one at all.

Indeed, the idea of any news at all emerging from testing is a novel one. Those reports are primarily reserved for the unusual or severe or in the case of Formula One, the need to rummage 500 words together from the pit of nothing.

This was slightly different. In 2015, a round of the European F3 Championship had to rescheduled and a new date was offered to the Algarve Circuit in Portimão.

A wonderful flowing track on the southern tip of Portugal, Portimão is something of a modern wonder – a 21st Century circuit layout that is interesting, challenging and often delivers some wonderful action.

As the track was a late addition to the calendar, the field was gifted an extra two test days in the week leading up to the event to enable drivers to gain further mileage prior to the beginning of the meeting.

However, the circuit provided a challenge that the assembled drivers failed to meet – the field could not keep to the track limits, particularly in the short chute that extends between the double right-handers from the exit of turn one at Primeira and the nameless turn two.

By not even coming close to properly using or respecting the track, the drivers achieved some extra speed into the flick that is turn three (Lagos).

So, rather than drive home the serious nature of managing track limits, the Clerk of the Course decided to utilise an alternative layout for just F3 that weekend. Instead of longer run into turn one, the first turn was introduced a couple of hundred metres earlier, leading to a double chicane in the form of a quick right-left-right, before drivers came to turn three.

Alas, the pro-am GT field from the (then) Blancpain Sprint Series managed the original layout perfectly well, so they decided to keep using it. However, that required the first corner to be altered between every session, as corner boards were moved and later moved back, plastic bollards were placed to remind the F3 competitors of an upcoming corner, before marshals settled at their new post {note 1}.

One wonders if it made any difference in the end. Following the 2nd race of the weekend, Prema Powerteam’s Jake Dennis informed me that following the layout change, track limits were then not going to be monitored on the exit of the new T1/2/3 Primeira chicane, thereby rendering the process an utterly pointless exercise.

The allowance offered some of the same additional pace that the original track cutting allowed, giving drivers an easier exit from Lagos toward the Torre Vip hairpin, before the switchback on the curved back straight.

Apart from the fact that F3 was/is a learning category, the changing of the layout to accommodate the competitors was an absolute cop-out and the only low during an eventful weekend. This was a solvable problem, but changing the layout to accommodate troubled young drivers set a very poor precedent.

{note 1}

It reached a special ridiculousness during the final race of the weekend when, following a botched overtaking move on Alessio Lorandi, Sam MacLeod decided upon an adventurous detour.

Going side-by-side into the new turn one, MacLeod – on the outside of corner entry – banged wheels with MacLeod, then decided to take the original turn one, but got that wrong and ran into several plastic bollards, dislodging a front wing suspension column in the process. Despite this, MacLeod kept his foot down through the original layout, overtook Lorandi on the now-disused section of circuit and decided to keep the position.

The moment prompted some criticism from me while on commentary duties, noting that MacLeod had got the corner utterly wrong, but had not even attempted to correct the error. It was a criticism that got me benched from commentating for the next race.

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