Hamilton holds off Verstappen in entertaining Qatar Grand Prix


To be clear, when we suggested yesterday that the results of the stewards investigation into whether Max Verstappen breached double-wave yellow flags at the end of Q3 would be announced during the national anthem we were only half joking.

Indeed, such is the way the sport is developing, a cross between a soap opera and WWF, nothing would surprise us anymore.

The fact that the final grid positions of the three drivers - one of them in contention for the title - isn't known less than two hours before the start is either down to incompetency or for dramatic purposes.

Of course, the sport's powers that be are torn, for on the one hand there is the scenario whereby Max is demoted five or ten places and therefore has to 'do a Lewis', while on the other hand there is the prospect of a first corner clash involving the Dutchmen and his nemesis.

One has to wonder, what would Turk do?

Assuming Max is banished to the nether reasons of the Qatar grid, the first corner, indeed the first lap, should still provide plenty of drama, especially as a number of drivers have made it clear that following the failure to take action over last week's incident on Lap 48, they will adapt their driving styles accordingly.

Based on the evidence thus far, this race is Hamilton's to lose, the Mercedes having been strong all weekend. His pole-winning lap was the seven-time champion at his best, the best possible way to hit back following the frustration of Interlagos. Also in the Briton's favour is that this is a circuit where overtaking is difficult, unlike last week at Interlagos where Draftkings like Hamilton excelled.

Valtteri Bottas is up there and ready to lend his full support, or at least he was, the stewards handing him a 3-place grid drop for a yellow flag infringement.

The fact that the Finn was the last of the three drivers summoned by the stewards but the first to have his penalty announced should in no way be seen as milking the drama.

Indeed, 95 minutes before the start the stewards announce that Verstappen drops 5-places.

On a circuit where overtaking is difficult, this is a massive blow to Verstappen and Red Bull whilst a significant boost for Hamilton, Mercedes, TV viewing figures and social media activity. Ker-ching!

Consequently, the expected midfield mayhem takes on a new dimension, what with the addition of Verstappen to the pack.

Meanwhile, Pierre Gasly joins Hamilton on the front row, with Fernando Alonso and Lando Norris just behind. Bottas starts from sixth, behind Sainz and just ahead of Verstappen, who has Tsunoda, Ocon and Vettel in close attendance.

Already frustrated by the Mercedes pace, the grid penalty is likely to cause red mist in Verstappen's helmet, so there is every chance of fireworks. However, other than that there is the ongoing battle between McLaren and Ferrari, not to mention Alpine and AlphaTauri who must both fancy their chances of a decent points haul with their lead drivers at the front of the grid.

Other than overenthusiasm at the start and over the course of the race that follows, the drivers will have to pay attention to the track limits.

While the rules have appeared to change with every session, the fact is that aside from having times deleted, running wide has caused damage to a number of cars, with Nikita Mazepin and Charles Leclerc requiring new chassis, not forgetting the wing damage to Gasly's car that brought about the Q3 yellow flags issue in the first place.

Then again there is the question of tyres and how they'll stand up to one of the toughest tests on the calendar.

The optimal strategy should be a two-stopper. The best tactic on paper would involve one stint on the mediums followed by a stint hards and a final stint on the mediums again.

Close to that is another two-stopper, but this time with one stint on softs followed by two stints on the mediums.

All three compounds could also be used in alternative two-stopper (maybe starting on the medium and running the hard in the middle before moving to the soft for the final part of the race) but this is likely to be slower. As always, all these stints could be run in any order.

With Losail being a brand new venue, there hasn't been an ample bank of data gained in free practice - with two of the sessions not held in representative conditions anyway.

As a result, the teams certainly haven't yet seen the full picture, and there could still be some surprises, particularly if track temperatures are lower. A one-stopper is still not advised though because tyre wear appears to be quite high.

The Mercedes pair, Verstappen and Sainz were the only drivers who got through Q2 on the mediums.

This has been a thrilling season thus far, and with three races to go it's anybody's idea how it will develop.

We can put up with the politics, heck F1 has always had its politics, however it's the manipulation we don't want, and there is an increasing feeling that rather than let the 'players' develop the plot themselves, the stakeholders, with the aid of the media - where have we heard that one before - are seeking to push things along for the benefit of the show.

All we hope for today, and in the races that follow, is for good racing and results decided on track not in the stewards room or law courts.

The pitlane opens and one by one the drivers head out.

On the grid there is confusion as Ferrari and Mercedes both appear to think they start from the first slot after the FIA made a mistake with the provisional grid positions document it released.

Air temperature is 26.7 degrees C, while the track temperature is 31.7 degrees.

The sun is beginning to set, with the temperatures falling accordingly.

Other than the Mercedes pair, Verstappen, and Sainz, Perez, Stroll, Leclerc, Ricciardo and Mazepin start on mediums, the rest are on softs.

With Gasly and Alonso on softs, Hamilton will have his work cut out at the start and on the long run to Turn 1.

A number of drivers hold back, among them Sainz, keen to get off the dirty side of the track as soon as possible.

The grid forms.

They're away. Great starts from Hamilton, Alonso, Gasly and Verstappen. Into Turn 1, Hamilton leads Gasly and Alonso while Verstappen, Norris and Sainz are three abreast with the Dutchman on the inside.

Norris begins to pull ahead but Verstappen had the advantage and despite running a little wide is alongside the McLaren in Turn 2 but ahead by Turn 3.

Meanwhile, also in Turn 3, Alonso is on the inside of Gasly and takes second from the Frenchman.

However, in the midst of all that Bottas has a dreadful getaway and has lost a number of positions by the first corner, as has Vettel who ran wide.

At the end of Lap 1, it's Hamilton, Alonso, Gasly, Verstappen, Norris, Ocon, Sainz, Tsunoda, Perez and Stroll. Bottas is down to eleventh.

In Turn 1 at the start of Lap 2, Perez nails Stroll for 9th.

Verstappen is all over Gasly who is hard on the heels of Alonso. Hamilton already has a 2.6s lead over the Alpine.

On Lap 2, Hamilton posts a new fastest lap (30.198), while Verstappen complains he doesn't have pace - no doubt a reference to the mobile chicane(s) ahead of him.

Check out our Sunday gallery from Qatar, here.

At the end of Lap 3, Gasly runs wide and on the straight that follows Verstappen seizes the opportunity to grab third. In the process the Dutchman posts a new fastest lap (30.080).

Next time around Verstappen sweeps past Alonso on the pit straight, the Dutchman now 4.2s down on his nemesis.

Perez is currently 8th, having nailed Tsunoda, while Bottas is down in 11th.

"We need to at least maintain this gap," Hamilton is warned.

"How is my front-left," asks Gasly after his excursion.

Phew! Leclerc gets up close and personal as he attempts to pass Raikkonen on the pit straight.

Perez is reeling in Sainz, the Mexican nailing the Spaniard on the main straight only to overcook it in Turn 1 and run wide, thus handing the position back.

"He moved at the last minute," claims Perez.

Verstappen is told to be careful in Turn 1, his team fearing endplate damage.

Next time around Perez once again passes Sainz on the run to Turn 1 but this time holds it all together.

"Come on Valtteri, get this car," Toto Wolff urges Bottas who is chasing Stroll.

The Canadian makes a mistake in Turn 15, which allows Bottas to close in. Stroll subsequently passes Tsunoda with Bottas following through.

"Loss to Hamilton in 2, 4 and 5, you are pushing more in 12, 13, 14," Verstappen is told.

Tsunoda pits at the end of lap 9, the Japanese switching to mediums.

"Great work," Bottas is told after passing Stroll for 9th. Next up is Sainz.

"Everything is OK," replies Verstappen when asked for a front wing update.

Raikkonen pits at the end of lap 10.

Out front, Hamilton maintains a 5.6s lead, with Alonso 16.4s further down the road.

Norris makes a great move on Gasly for 4th, while Bottas is all over Sainz.

Fortune favours the brave is clearly the key at a track where they told us overtaking would be difficult.

Gasly sweeps by Gasly on the pit straight for 5th, however the Mexican is 30s down on the race leader.

Gasly pits at the end of lap 13, the Frenchman rejoining in 17th on mediums.

Vettel, who went off at the start of the race, passes Russell for 13th.

"You're doing a good job," Bottas is told, "you're fighting for third place."

Lap 15 sees a new fastest lap from Hamilton (27.779), who is told that Verstappen is struggling with rear end.

As Hamilton is told that "overtaking is easier than predicted", Perez proves the point by passing Norris for 4th.

Next up for the Mexican is Alonso, whilst Bottas passes Ocon for sixth.

Verstappen pits at the end of lap 17, the Dutchman switching to the hards. As he rejoins still in 2nd, all eyes are on Mercedes to see how the world champions will react.

"My tyres are good," don't stop me too early man," urges Hamilton.

However, next time around, Mercedes reacts, bringing Hamilton in for the white-banded rubber. The Briton prefers a longer opening stint, but clearly Mercedes felt the need to respond to the undercut.

"Definitely way too early," complains Hamilton.

Perez pits at the end of lap 19, but it's a slow-ish stop, the Mexican rejoining in 12th on hards.

Alonso, Norris, Ocon, Vettel and Schumacher have all completed 19 laps on the softs.

"Valtteri, we think Verstappen is on a two stop, so there are still opportunities," Bottas is told. The Finn is currently fifth, hard on the heels of Norris.

Perez attempts to go around the outside of Vettel in Turn 1, but despite his old softs the German holds him off.

Lap 22 sees a new fastest lap from Hamilton (27.145) as Verstappen and Alonso posts PBs.

Simultaneously, Bottas passes Norris and Perez nails Vettel.

Schumacher pits at the end of lap 22, rejoining just ahead of the race leader.

Alonso pits at the end of lap 23, as does Stroll, rejoining in 8th and 12th respectively.

Lap 24 sees Verstappen post a new fastest lap (27.079) as he remains 7.5s down on his title rival.

As Ocon pits, Perez passes Ricciardo on the pit straight for 8th.

A 26.996 sees Hamilton claim the fastest lap.

Norris pits at the end of lap 25, the Briton rejoining in 11th, 3.4s behind Gasly.

A massive lock-up for Leclerc in Turn 1, Allows Alonso through, and while Perez also seeks to take advantage the Monegasque holds him off. Shortly after however, courtesy of his fresh hards, the Mexican is through.

Sainz and Leclerc both pit at the end of lap 27. The Spaniard rejoins in 10th and his teammate in 13th.

A great scrap between Alonso and Perez, but despite his best efforts the two-time world champion is unable to resist the charging Bull.

Hamilton posts a 26.840, but on his next lap Verstappen goes quickest in the first sector. Separated by 6.8sd these two are setting a blistering pace. Indeed, the Dutchman posts a 26.587.

His cause is aided by the fact that Hamilton is now negotiating the back-markers.

Raikkonen makes his second stop at the end of lap 31. The Finn rejoining in 19th.

"Verstappen was a 26.6 with a DRS from traffic," Hamilton is told.

Asked about his tyres and the balance, Alonso replies: "All fine".

Bottas has a puncture and goes off at Turn 7. He rejoins the track shedding gravel everywhere, and speaks from the underside of his car. He makes his way back to the pits, where he takes on a new front wing and tyres, rejoining in 14th.

This, of course, will cause teams to question their tyre strategy in terms of whether a one-stopper is safe.

As Tsunoda pits, at the end of lap 35, Hamilton leads Verstappen by 7.4s with Perez 50s behind the Dutchman. Alonso is fourth, ahead of Gasly, Norris, Ocon, Stroll, Sainz and Leclerc.

Gasly pits, rejoining in 10th on mediums.

"A bit more vibrations," reports Verstappen as Hamilton goes quickest in S2.

Check out our Sunday gallery from Qatar, here.

A great move around the outside in Turn 1 sees Tsunoda pass Latifi for 15th.

Verstappen pits at the end of lap 41, rejoining still in second on fresh mediums. Next time around his teammate stops also.

"Box, box," Hamilton is told, the Briton duly obliging, also switching to fresh mediums.

"Esteban, we must maintain management in Turn 12, it is not an option."

In addition to being told of the 8.4s gap to Verstappen, Hamilton is told that the fastest lap will come at the end of the race. Thing is, will it be Verstappen or Bottas?

In the meantime it belongs to Perez, who posts a 25.747.

Woah! Raikkonen and Latifi almost come to grief as the Finn makes his move around the outside of Latifi in Turn 1.

"Tell Esteban to defend like a lion," says third-place Alonso, the Spaniard referring to his fifth placed teammate who will soon be under pressure from Perez.

Tsunoda goes around the outside of Russell in Turn 1, but without the dramatics of the earlier Raikkonen/Latifi moment.

"You've got this, you've got the podium," Perez is told as he passes Stroll for sixth.

"We must defend against Perez," Ocon is told, "we must, elbows out."

Meanwhile, Verstappen posts a new fastest lap (25.030).

Perez passes Ocon, on 21 lap old tyres, in Turn 1, going around the outside, and though the Frenchman fights back, the Alpine is no match for the Red Bull.

Applause in the Red Bull garage.

"Try to avoid high-speed kerbs," Alonso is warned.

Norris pits at the end of lap 49, as Bottas is told to retire his Mercedes.

Double-waved yellows as Russell has a puncture, which could be why McLaren opted to pit Norris again.

Bottas' retirement means that Verstappen can go for fastest lap at the end, the Dutchman having a 44s advantage over third-placed Alonso.

Oh dear, now Latifi has a front-left puncture - that's three of them so far.

Just moments earlier, the Canadian had assured his team that his tyres were fine.

Unable to get back to the pits, Latifi pars his Williams at Turn 10.

Ocon leads a train that comprises Stroll, Sainz and Leclerc as teammate Alonso is told to stay off the kerbs.

Perez is reeling in Alonso at a second a lap, but with just 3 laps remaining he doesn't have time to overcome the 7.5s gap.

Meanwhile, Lap 54 sees a new fastest lap from Verstappen (24.031) without even needing to pit for softs.

The VSC is deployed whilst Latifi's car is removed. Verstappen takes the opportunity to pit for softs.

"You need to beat Tsunoda," Ricciardo is told.

Still under the VSC, Hamilton begins the last lap, however the VSC is withdrawn in time for Verstappen to go for fastest lap.

Hamilton takes the flag, while Verstappen does indeed go quicker, posting a 23.196 to take an extra point.

Alonso is third, ahead of Perez, Ocon, Stroll, Sainz, Leclerc, Norris and Vettel.

Gasly is eleventh, ahead of Ricciardo, Tsunoda, Raikkonen, Giovinazzi, Schumacher, Russell and Mazepin.

"Unbelievable," grins Alonso, "seven years!

"Finally we got it," he continues, "honestly I thought to be leading after Lap 1, on the red tyre I wanted to have a go at Lewis.

"We tried one stop from the beginning but we didn't know the wear at a new venue for everybody.

"The car was superb and the team deserve it. I've waited so long for this, so I'm very happy."

"Our starting position was compromised," adds Verstappen, "but luckily we had a really good start.

"Of course, I know it's going to be difficult to the end but it keeps it nice, keeps it exciting," he continues, his championship lead now down to 8 points.

"This track was fun to drive. I feel good, but it's going to be a tight battle to the end."

"We needed those points today," admits Hamilton. "I can't wait to watch the race replay to find out what happened behind me.

"I'm really grateful for these points," he adds, "it's been a hell of a year.

"Back to back wins here, feels good, I feel fit, fitter than I've ever felt. Bring on the next two!"

The saddest thing about all this, is that when F1 returns to Qatar in 2023 it is likely to be on a street track.

This has been an entertaining weekend, given added spice not only by the theatrics from the stewards, but the issues with track limits and kerbs.

While the drivers title is currently separated by 8 points, just 5 separates Mercedes and Red Bull in the team standings.

Not a thriller but definitely entertaining.

Oh, and for anyone who didn't realise, David Beckham was here.

Check out our Sunday gallery from Qatar, here.

Article from Pitpass (http://www.pitpass.com):

Published: 21/11/2021
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