Nico Rosberg believes Max Verstappen is “starting to understand better and better how good Lewis Hamilton is” after losing out to the Mercedes driver at the Portuguese GP.
Hamilton turned third place behind Verstappen and early race leader Valtteri Bottas on the lap-seven restart into a commanding first place after overtaking both his two chief rivals.
Hamilton, who started second, was passed by Verstappen after the early Safety Car, but capitalised on a small error by his Red Bull rival at the end of lap 10 to regain the position at the start of the following lap.
He then caught and passed Bottas with an around-the-outside move into the first turn on lap 20, an overtake that set him up to pull away towards a 97th career victory.
“What a phenomenal race by Lewis,” said Sky Sports F1 pundit Rosberg, Hamilton’s former team-mate and arch-title rival.
“I’m a bit amused because Max Verstappen is starting to understand better and better how good Lewis Hamilton is.
“He needs to do everything perfect to beat him in the championship and at the moment it’s two-one to Lewis.”
How Hamilton turned it around vs his rivals in Portimao
Hamilton reveals his own mistakes in ‘awesome’ race
Underlining how even small slips are being punished in what is developing into a gripping fight for supremacy between F1’s two top teams, Hamilton said two errors from him contributed losing out to Verstappen at the restart.
“What a race! It was awesome,” Hamilton told Sky Sports F1.
“The start I was obviously putting pressure on Valtteri, very difficult to pass, but I thought I was going to get him.
“Then we got the Safety Car and I did everything to keep the temperatures right in the tyres but the restart, I literally took my eyes off Valtteri for one second to see where Max was and Valtteri had gone.
“So that was a mistake.
“Then following that, one other mistake was that I was in the tow of Valtteri and I just should have just stayed there. But instead I moved over and gave Max the tow and he came flying past me.
“So that made my day a little bit harder but that much more enjoyable to be fighting these guys. There was a moment I fell back from them but gradually got closer and just waited for the right moment. It came when Max made a mistake and then I just had to make sure every chance you took.”
Red Bull will still ‘go away with a lot of confidence’
Red Bull boss Christian Horner said they will “definitely take” splitting the Mercedes on the podium after starting behind them on the second row.
And although unable to follow up Verstappen’s brilliant victory at Imola a fortnight ago with another success here, Sky F1’s Paul Di Resta agrees that the challengers will be far from downhearted.
“I think of any of the tracks until the summer break this was the one that was going to suit Mercedes,” said Di Resta of Portimao. “The conditions suit them, it’s cool, and I would have predicted them to have a bigger advantage.
“So I think Red Bull will go away from here with a lot of confidence. When it starts to warm up and they get on tracks where it starts to rely a bit more on the mechanical grip of the car they will come alive.”
After Mercedes pitted third-placed Bottas late on for an attempt on the fastest lap bonus point on fresher tyres, Red Bull did likewise with Verstappen – and the Dutchman took it on the final tour, only to soon have the effort deleted for a track limits infringement at Turn 14.
But Horner played down his star driver’s minor slips after a similar track limits deletion in qualifying.
“Track limits are a bone of contention aren’t they, and the consistency of their application,” Horner told Sky F1.
“This championship will come down to all the marginals. It’s still at an early stage. We saw Lewis make a howler of a mistake last weekend (at Imola) that he got away with the red flag and so on, these things happen.
“But I think Max is driving the wheels off the car and it’s super, super tight between them.”