The title looks increasingly like it will go down to the wire.
The Mercedes – certainly in Hamilton’s hands – proved to be a class above at Losail on what will likely be its only appearance on the Formula 1 calendar.
Qatar took up the spot left vacant by the cancelled Australian Grand Prix and the Gulf State has since secured a 10-year deal for a race most likely at a different venue from 2023.
That is perhaps for the best as, whilst the track appeared fun to drive, it was not particularly conducive to good racing, with the drivers entirely reliant upon DRS for any overtakes.
We were given a mixed-up grid to spice things up somewhat, though, after five- and three-place penalties for Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas respectively, the pair having failed to slow for yellow flags during their final Q3 run on Saturday as they passed the three-wheeled Pierre Gasly.
The two out-of-place men had polar opposite starts. Bottas, having struggled to heat his medium tyres on the out lap, got away poorly from the dirty side of the grid, whilst Verstappen was up to fourth by the end of the first corner.
It only took him another four laps to move up to second and it suddenly looked as though we might be in store for another epic duel at the front.
But Hamilton’s pace was simply too strong. He extended his advantage out to eight seconds and held it around there, with his team matching every strategy move Red Bull threw at them.
The seven-time world champion’s lead never looked in doubt, but there was some entertainment further back as the main protagonists’ wingmen fought through the field – Bottas had fallen back to 11th after his awful getaway, which is where Sergio Pérez had lined up on the grid after failing to progress through Q2.
The Mexican made lighter work of the midfielders, moving up to fourth by lap 16 but was brought in surprisingly early and had to do the hard work all over again.
Bottas eventually made his way all the way up to third but Mercedes tried to stretch his medium tyres too far and they cried ‘no more’ on lap 32, a front-left puncture dropping him way down the order and showering Alonso with a floor-level firework display of sparks.
Pérez had made his way back up through the pack once again – this time to third – but even more surprisingly was brought in on lap 40 despite being on the hard tyres.
For a third time, he fought his way past a series of drivers. Alonso asked for his teammate Esteban Ocon to ‘defend like a lion’ and repay the Spaniard for his crucial defence from Hamilton in Hungary where the younger Alpine driver secured an unlikely victory.
Ocon did his best but was somewhat helpless as Pérez stormed past on fresher tyres in a faster car.
Another obstacle was removed when Norris was cruelly denied a well-deserved top-five finish by another puncture, leaving no cars between Alonso and the Red Bull.
Ironically, it would be further punctures that would save the double world champion, however, as the front-left tyres on both Williams cars also gave up. George Russell successfully brought his car back to the pits but Nicholas Latifi had an entire lap to do and eventually gave up, parking his car near a marshall post and bringing out a Virtual Safety Car.
That gave Alonso the breathing space he needed – both in terms of the gap to Pérez and the life expectancy of his tyres – and he came home to secure his first podium in a very long time.
2674 days to be precise. That is slightly less time than the record held by Alexander Wurz, but Alonso did claim the record in terms of the number of races, having contested 105 grands prix since his last trip to the rostrum at the 2014 Hungarian Grand Prix.
To put that in context, the last time Alonso stood on the podium, Hamilton was a one-time world champion, Sebastian Vettel was still at Red Bull and Verstappen had never stepped into a Formula 1 car.
Out front, Hamilton sailed to a comfortable victory, despite being helpless as Verstappen claimed the single point for fastest lap, but narrows the gap in the standings to eight points nonetheless.
Ocon came home fifth on an excellent day for Alpine which should secure them fifth in the Constructors’ Championship as Gasly fell from second on the grid to 11th at the chequered flag. It was also a strong day for Aston Martin with Lance Stroll finishing sixth and Vettel also in the points.
The Qatar Grand Prix in 60 Seconds
Answering the Burning Questions
Who will adjust the best to a brand new circuit? Hamilton, as he often does at a new circuit, and Alonso. The veterans showing that experience pays off.
Can McLaren do anything to bounce back as their fight with Ferrari looks to be getting away from them? It looked likely to be a yes until that late puncture. Third may now be out of reach for McLaren and Norris is only just clinging onto fifth in the drivers’ standings.
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