Lewis Hamilton made victory look easy in Qatar, blowing away title rival Max Verstappen and reducing his championship deficit to just eight points.
Formula 1’s first visit to the Losail International Circuit had been expected to favour Red Bull Racing, but it was Mercedes that proved much more comfortable. A track that was faster and cooler than anticipated played right into Hamilton’s hands, and with the Briton already in such strong form, the result was practically decided when he took a dominant pole position and led off the line.
Mercedes wasn’t the only team at one with the circuit. Alpine, having been on the wane in its battle for fifth with AlphaTauri, was enlivened by the desert motorcycle circuit, and Fernando Alonso capitalised to take a beautifully judged third place ahead of Esteban Ocon in fifth for the French squad’s best result of the season behind its chaotic Hungarian Grand Prix victory.
Losail is the first of two new circuits — technically three if you include the revised Abu Dhabi layout — for Formula 1 to close out the season, and the sport’s first visit to what is traditionally a motorcycle track certainly generated an unexpected result.
The high-speed, high-downforce nature of the layout was expected to suit Red Bull Racing, particularly so assuming the desert temperatures would keep the track warm, which would put further strain on the rear tyres. In the battle between Red Bull Racing and Mercedes, those all sound like strengths for the former and weaknesses for the latter.
But the circuit was so fast and flowing and lacking in key traction zones that it turned out to be front limited, meaning it was the front tyres, and particularly the front left, that struggled most. The RB16B, a car that philosophically cannot handle understeer, didn’t respond well to the challenge, and coupled with relatively mild track temperatures, the balance of performance swung dramatically towards Mercedes.
Once the teams felt their way around the circuit in first practice, Mercedes took the baton and ran with it. Hamilton was able to dominate qualifying and control the race, with Verstappen unable to get a look in.
The high-energy layout also altered expectations for strategy. Despite Pirelli bringing the hardest three compounds in its range, physical tyre wear — again, especially on the front left — was high, and a one-stop strategy was thought unlikely to work based on Friday data.
But cars improve substantially between Friday and Sunday, particularly at a new circuit, and unsurprisingly most teams attempted the one-stop strategy, albeit to varying success. And as Pirelli’s forecast suggested might happen, some drivers even experienced tyre failures as they pushed to the wear limit, though some punctures were picked up relatively early in the tyre’s life, suggesting debris or kerb damage.
THE RACE-WINNING MOVE
Having got off the line cleanly — aided by Verstappen dropped from second to seventh on the grid with a penalty — Hamilton had the pace to run his own race. By the time Verstappen rose to second, the gap was already almost four seconds, and Hamilton needed only to maintain a healthy gap, all the while looking after his tyres by keeping off the kerbs, to win himself the race.
Red Bull Racing could tell from early on that it didn’t have the pace to beat Hamilton, and rather than risk a one-stop strategy just to see what happened, Verstappen settle for second with two conventional pit stops on laps 17 and 41. Hamilton covered one lap later in each window — he briefly suggested at the first stop that he be left out, but with nothing to gain from running longer and everything to lose by misjudging the tyres, ensuring he kept Verstappen behind was the prudent course of action.
The only front in the conflict left to win was for fastest lap, and the rivals traded rapid times in the final stint until Verstappen sealed the deal with the increasingly customary penultimate-lap pit stop for soft tyres, though the Dutchman’s previous best a few laps earlier would have been enough to take the bonus point.
ALONSO GETS ALPINE PODIUM WITH ONE STOP
Nowhere was the knife-edge split between one and two stops more evident than in the battle for third, which came down to the final laps between the one-stopping Fernando Alonso and the two-stopping Sergio Perez.
The Spaniard had started the race with a one-stop in mind, having used the medium tyre in Q2 to ensure he could bypass the softs in the race, and he set himself up beautifully for success when he shot past Pierre Gasly for second place on the opening lap, ensuring for himself clear air through the first stint. He also put up no fight against the rising Verstappen, knowing anything taken out of his tyres in a futile defence would be rubber unavailable to him when he really needed it.
His race was also made a little easier by AlphaTauri’s lack of pace in a dramatic reversal of recent form. Gasly had to stop early, on lap 13, because he’d elected to use the soft as his starting tyre in Q2, and his day was then written off completely at his second pit stop, after which he dropped behind the slower one-stopping Vettel. Unable to break through, his race ended outside the points.
Alonso was left to his own devices, preserving his rubber until near his sole pit window and unleashing as he approached his stop on lap 23 to find himself in some clear space, and by lap 26 he was effectively back in the midfield lead, from where he could manage his pace and massage his rubber to the finish.
He was aided slightly by a two-lap virtual safety car on laps 55–56 — it would have been slightly unnerving given it was related to tyre failures on other cars — but it was the hard work he did setting up the race in his first stint and early in his second that got him to the flag.
PEREZ MISSES HIS CHANCE
Sergio Perez was Alonso’s main pursuer to the end of the race but fell less than three seconds short at the flag while running a two-stop strategy, the Red Bull Racing pit wall switching away from a one-stop race after seeing several drivers suffer what appeared to be wear-related failures through the grand prix.
But really Perez’s race was set up to be compromised, and not just because he started in 11th after a poor qualifying performance, having struggled with tyre preparation in Q2. Red Bull Racing’s decision to pit him early, on lap 19, to undercut him past the long-running Fernando Alonso fundamentally locked him into a two-stop strategy — a 38 laps was always going to be too much to ask of the hard tyre.
The team realised the inevitable on lap 41, when the Mexican was brought in for another set of mediums to complete the race. It dropped him to seventh, and in four laps he was able to rise to fourth past a gaggle of one-stoppers to give himself a 14-second gap to close in eight laps.
He was more than a second a lap quicker, but his charge was delayed by the lap 55–56 virtual safety car. He finished just 2.8s short of the podium, a margin easily accounted for in the chopping and changing of strategy through the race.
MERCEDES GIVE BOTTAS TOO MUCH TO DO
Valtteri Bottas’s race was a roller-coaster. He was due to start third but dropped to sixth on the grid with a penalty, and shocking start, seemingly for keeping the revs too low for the launch, dumped him to 11th at the end of the first lap.
A wake-up call from Toto Wolff over team radio primed him for some overtaking — Perez, who had started 11th, climbed to fourth with the aid of only one driver pitting out of his way — and by lap 23 he had risen to third.
In fact on lap 31 third was just about as good as his. He had a pit stop worth of time over the midfield and had only the two-stopping Perez in his pit window. A switch from medium to hard then would have given him an easily achievable 26 laps on the hard to make it to the flag.
But Mercedes waited too long to stop him. Maybe tempted by his Perez-matching times, they left him out until lap 33, when his front-left failed in the first tyre collapse of the evening. He plummeted down to 14th as he skated back to pit lane and rejoined the race with a damaged car, which the team retired shortly afterwards to preserve parts.
It was an unnecessarily long stint — second only to Mick Schumacher’s 34-lap stint on mediums, albeit to close the race and therefore on lighter tanks — that risked failure in spite of Pirelli’s warnings.
Mercedes now leads Red Bull Racing by just five points in the constructors standings.
To talk about why Mercedes was so strong in F1’s first visit to Qatar I’m joined by ESPN’s Nate Saunders.
Brand new track for F1. What did you think?
New circuit curve balls without data. Bottas’s set-up on Friday helped Hamilton for qualifying and the race. Mercedes teamwork.
This ended up being a Mercedes track rather than a Red Bull track — it ended up being more front limited than rear limited. But do you get the impression that even then the team was surprised by its advantage?
Ongoing accusations from Christian Horner in the background. Didn’t protest this week. Mercedes still faster. Why pay attention?
Stewarding. Brazil issue sorted after an overnight wait, likewise after qualifying. Why so long? Penalties fair?
FIGHT FOR VICTORY
Pirelli predicted two stops, more than half attempted just one stop. Intervention or fair risk?
Hamilton and Verstappen were the highest placed two-stoppers, but by virtue of them being so far ahead of everyone else that it made no real difference either way. Stopping twice in fact allowed the gap to open. Point for fastest lap as a result to Verstappen. Fair?
The battle for third was genuinely interesting for the variety of strategies at play. Alonso won by judging it best.
First, Gasly. He was in the fight at the start but AlphaTauri didn’t have the pace, and the strategy cooked him anyway, dropping him behind Vettel. Elected to start on softs — was this the principal mistake?
Next, Perez. Flip flopped between strategies, stopped too early for a one-stop and then had to chase. Red Bull paying enough attention?
Bottas probably still should have finished third despite his shocker of a start. Mercedes waited to long to stop him — 33 laps in the race, 36 on that set in total. He was clear to everyone bar Perez. Too greedy? Asking too much?